The Swing Girl

The Swing Girl

88 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / None
Paperback / 9780807138946 / September 2011 / $17.95
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New Reviews are in!

"In The Swing Girl, the provocative Katherine Soniat, Iowa Poetry Prize winner, fixes us in ancient Greece and in less obvious, equally solemn places fit for the imagination.

Her opening poem, "Thoughts at Paliani," is a haunting rumination from a convent on the island of Crete; "Hummingbird of Ur" traces a frail creature along its path: "Any which garden should be fine for a bird with less than/an ounce of meaning...."

The poet's combinations are striking and evocative. In "Self-Portrait with Amnesia," she has a Zen-like encounter with a woman who is depicted on an un- finished canvas:
Call her tabula tacit, say she's the primary silence.
Those who stare long enough find darkness expansive.

Soniat goes for the stark as well as the shadowy. "An Aerial Meander" swoops down from a snowy sky and looks in on an Old World townscape:
Enough softness here for a small village to bury its old in.
Body-wrap of quilts and sheets,
years of flesh packed up like the good bone china.

Yet the same poet is capable of the most sportive wordplay. In the staccato "Day Spool," a "windchime" yields "windtime," and "wood deck wood peck hood red ruby head" gives way to "noon-high sunsquash" andoh, you must read it for yourself. --From The Advocate, Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship, Professor of History at LSU and author of books on American political culture. His website is:

"In a 2007 interview with Andrew McFayden-Ketchum, Katherine Soniat states, "For me, poetry is the subtle work of the 'middle mind' that accesses the rational, the literal, and the subliminal at once." In Soniat's fifth poetry collection, The Swing Girl, that "middle mind" twines through territory wide-ranging and lyrical, delicate and violent.

Soniat's poems explore intersections--boundaries between animal and human, dream and consciousness, old and young, past and present, living and dead. In "An Aerial Meander," Soniat's detailed and traveling eye hovers over an elderly woman, relegated to her bed, near death:
Pillows surround her like re-embodied fowl.
She thinks of fleeing farther than the farthest farm,
her years of habitation trailing behind
as the shaking off of life begins.

In the same poem, flesh separates from bone as the woman's "[r]ib, hip, and pelvis roll through the sky" while the skin that remains is ". . . sucked in, / made small as a blood-red dot." What is left of this vital intersection between skeleton and skin is "small" yet vivid.

The dead or near dead surface again and again in The Swing Girl--"a river thaws with the dead. It swims with them"--and Soniat's poems are their elegies. In "Breathing This Long," the "breath of a cow. . .scented by meadows" is juxtaposed with the violence of men hung from trees and "the young" who "dream of stick coffins." In "Impoverishment," Soniat writes:
The book of fluke, wing, and flesh is finished.
Whale, cockatiel, and the world's long line
of hungry children gone,

Ghettoed, shot, zooed, they disappeared like a swarm
of cosmic frictions nobody wanted.

But the dead are strangely lovely, too. In "The Hill Station," "a buzzard skeleton / winks its Christmas-light heart. Red again, then dark." Like the buzzard's heart, the dead often show themselves to the living. Soniat's "Ghost Laundry" gives us spirits that "brush up against us," "absences that are constant and faithless. . . ." As a daughter addresses her dead mother in "Birthday Crossing," we learn that ". . . [l]ike water, the memorized body // goes on."

The wonder of a collection like The Swing Girl is that its poems consider broad expanses of time and geography, yet Soniat's honed and careful language grounds the reader in the specific. Soniat suggests her own artistic approach to this dreamlike gathering of poems in "Nightshade":
. . .She decided to give in, as a painter might,
and let shadows offer direction. She'd follow with a sponge,
dab gold at the edges.

Katherine Soniat's shadows do "offer direction," and by the end of this collection, we are with the poet, ". . .trampling the middle air."  -- Meighan L. Sharp for The Hollins Critic

"The Swing Girl is poised between serenity and sorrow. Katherine Soniat's themes are large, and her detail is exquisite. Her new book comes alive with wild, disciplined musicality. The arc has the intimacy and structure of a fugue; meaning modulates in the reader's mind, rather than hardening on the page. Soniat's lines are visceral:  'I began to feel as clear as water / but with that heaviness / too. // Wind on the mirror.' The Swing Girl doesn't rely on lyricism; it is a poetry of wide-ranging thought, deep feeling, and scrupulously assumed human responsibility which imagines its way beyond the scale of the individual--'beauty on its way to becoming mystery.' Soniat's collection is passionate, generous, self-questioning, and masterful."--D. Nurkse

"Many poets have written of the Mediterranean, but Katherine Soniat gives us poetry that so vividly calls up contemporary and ancient Greece, the hard light, the sea, the god-haunted groves and the graves, we feel as if we are there ourselves. Music propels this collection from section to section, poem to poem, music so beautiful that one wants only for it to keep playing. Poems in The Swing Girl possess an unsettling elusiveness though the language is stunningly exact, the focus clear and precise. The reader becomes immersed in foreshortened moments, things moving in and out of the periphery, odd alignments. We see the world anew--as Sir Thomas Browne puts it in this collection's epigraph, it is the human who must live 'in divided and distinguished worlds.'"--Kelly Cherry

"The poems in Katherine Soniat's new collection, The Swing Girl, weave emotion's 'spray going farther than thought' with the 'bedrock things' of the trod-upon world. These poems eddy and pool in unpredictable and often surprising ways, much as the mind moves in its twilight state between waking and sleep. The fluidity of their cadence and the luminosity of their imagery carry the reader to the wellspring of poetry itself, that deep delight of which Robert Penn Warren spoke, whose source is, in Soniat's words, 'beauty on its way to being mystery.'"--Kathryn Stripling Byer

In the title poem of The Swing Girl, a Greek burial relic with an image of a small child on her swing suggests the ability to move between present culture and the ghosts of history, between modern metaphor and the rhetoric of myth. Katherine Soniat celebrates this fluidity and the detached yet vulnerable perception that comes with it: "The territory that girl could cover, her eyes peering birdlike / across the grove. The air, a vector."

Soniat's new collection contemplates the present through the fragmented lens of history. She swings the reader out across time, to ancient Greece and China, and into the chaos of contemporary war in Serbia and Iraq. The ever-changing point of view disorients, so that ultimately even daylight seems uncertain: ". . . the sun, a far smear above, granular and moony." Loss provides the substance of history and myth, sounding the dark, minor key of elegy for lives and geographies cracking under pressure.
In Soniat's poems the precarious puzzle of this world shatters, only to begin again in startling new ways: "the story of the mountain always points somewhere else/ elusive as the tawny lion disappearing behind the next / high crag."
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