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|"Adam blamed Eve. Eve blamed the snake.
The snake didn't have a leg to stand on."
|“I see the circle of earth/gathered in a cotton dress” ends the stunning poem “First Fruits.” And
everywhere in this fine collection, Charles Swanson gathers in for his lucky readers the things of
this world he refuses to let go. Through poems as heartfelt as they are intelligent, the reader
enters with him a distant land—“something akin to Eden”—a land, Swanson reminds us again and
again, for which we continue to long. Swanson’s voice is as at home with the lyric as with the
narrative, as skillful with free verse as with form. Here is a poet who revisits the music and
wisdom of the Psalms with a contemporary eye and a masterful hand.
After the Garden is a triumphant first collection.
– Cathy Smith Bowers, author of A Book of Minutes
Charles Swanson’s daily life as nurturer of a family, a small farm, a Baptist congregation and a
high school classroom is refracted into poetry in After the Garden: Selected Responses to the
Psalms. Readers can appreciate these accessible, thought-provoking glances at life, whether or
not they triangulate them with the Psalms for additional layers of meaning. They will delight in
the sly yet wise juxtapositions of ice-covered trees with osteoporosis, chaos with infinite grace, or
the continent with contented space. Boyhood on a small farm provides the recurring center of
this poetry, though it ranges to encompass Flannery O’Connor, Johnny Appleseed, Olaudah
Equiano and even a stylist proposing a makeover of Jesus. The last line of the last poem,“we go
out to feed the present or the future,” sums up the nurturing spirit of this poetry
and the enticing prospect it affords the reader.
– George Brosi, editor of Appalachian Heritage
The comfort of home and farm, mother and grandmother, fills these poems. Among the lasting
images is a mother nurturing her son’s fantasy by allowing him to drive his toy cars on “porcelain
roads” around the eyes of the stove. Another is the loving ritual of a grandmother washing a
small boy’s dirty feet at day’s end. Yet, Charles Swanson does not shy from the pain of labor,
the anguish of loss, nor the ravage of time, as evidenced by the poignant description of a
grandfather’s last harvest of bronzed pumpkins with son and grandson as field hands. Earth
colors and life stabilizers anchor the collection, starting with the rich red of tomatoes – and God
– and ending with the welcome spring sign of creasy greens – and Mother.
– Grace Toney Edwards, co-editor of A Handbook to Appalachia
The poems in Charles Swanson’s After the Garden: Selected Responses to the Psalms take us back to
the true roots of poetry, to its source in prayer, music and the lives of ordinary people who struggle
to make sure that the ones who come after them are able to live lives of freedom, hope and faith. In
these beautifully-shaped poems about growing up and living in the Virginia Piedmont and Appalachia,
Swanson turns ordinary lives into extraordinary prayers. From the first poem to the last, the reader,
whether he is a lover of poetry or one who seldom turns to it, will find poems that move and inspire.
– John Guzlowski, author of Lightning and Ashes
“This old Bible,” Emerson wrote in his Journal (1842), “if you pitch it out the window with a fork, it
comes back bounce again,” as has happened in TV evangelism. In literature it remains largely missing
with, among others, these exceptions: Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert
Penn Warren, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Charles Swanson in After the Garden.
Here the old shadows in “God-Talk” are present and accounted for, still looming over the land, still
disturbing, always teaching.
– Robert J. Higgs, author of God in the Stadium: Sports and Religion in America
|Charles A. Swanson
grew up on a farm, and still lives with
his wife on what his family would call
a “postage stamp” farm at the foot of
Turkeycock Mountain in Pittsylvania
County, Virginia, not far from the
home of his paternal ancestors. He
has a love for the things of the earth,
and he believes in both a sustainable
agriculture and a sustainable faith.
His poems and short fiction have
appeared in journals and publications
throughout the Appalachian region.
Teacher of the Year at Gretna High
School in 2007-2008, he instructs
students in Creative Writing, dual
enrollment English and AP English,
and he pastors Melville Avenue
Baptist Church in Danville.
|Swanson has won the James Still Award for Poetry (2005),
among other honors, and has a chapbook of poems, Farm
Life and Legend, due for release by Finishing Line Press in
late 2009. His book After The Garden: Selected Responses
to the Psalms was published by MotesBooks in 2009.
an excerpt from AFTER THE GARDEN ...
"May he remember all your offerings ..."
Though this is a love story,
it is not promiscuous.
Quick exits from Cumberland
on Friday evenings
after father’s work day
said how much he loved
the southern home
six hours away,
the red clay fields,
the tobacco and sunshine
ripening the summer air,
breathing warmth toward winter.
All this in his look,
in his faraway eyes,
that would fix the highway
like some unthinkable thing
that had to be crossed,
black tar a blankness
for spelling memories
during the dark course
of the evening drive.
Starting early one autumn,
we arrived at the ridge when daylight hung
like scroll work on the old tobacco barn.
Bats were beginning to loop,
but white moths had sun
still in the silk they left on my fingers.
That was the first time I felt
the greeting: something beyond
hugs, kisses, warmth of words.
from Granddad to my mother
to see his cucumber patch
upslope from the barn.
Above the old tobacco beds
where young plants had been drawn
to set the now maturing fields.
She didn’t have a sack,
The car was empty
of bucket, poke, and bag,
nothing to gather cucumbers
but the old tin can smelling
of rust and emergency stops.
It represented haste,
not the destination.
It would not do.
So Mama took herself,
dressed as she was,
while Granddad guided her
past decaying logs
that once elevated cloth,
cloth mesh like milkweed fluff
over spring seedlings the size of ticks,
but now lay like logs of crocodiles
waiting in waist-high weeds,
late summer’s neglected jungle.
Not quite sure,
about the attraction
of a rocky hillside,
of weeds and waste,
I watched them.
Watched with shadows
Granddad stooped and handed
green sticks to Mama
who bunched her skirt,
gathered its pleats
in one schooled hand,
and filled the cloth with fruit.
They stumbled back to the car,
tripping in morning glory vines,
overgrown fescue, lespedeza,
Mama with her skirt, the circle of the earth,
gathered to make a poke.
Cucumbers tumbled free
when she released the hem.
We stacked them, plantbed logs
in the floorboard of the Ford.
Mama fussed about the marks
where the fresh-plucked stems
had bled against the cloth.
Washings never released
the stains of cucumbers,
nor miles the sight
of earth’s long jewels
brought to the car in a cotton dress,
nor years the smile
on Granddad’s face.
we drifted down the ridge side,
under fireflies and starfields
to the home house by the creek.
Night sang, frogs sang,
as we lugged love’s labor,
to the kitchen table.
Fields and houses, kitchen tables,
weeds grow beyond bounds,
she is older than he,
and he is gone.
But we talk
of her father-in-law, my grandfather.
Reared back beside her kitchen table,
I see his love of growing things,
I hear her honor his life,
I see why I grapple with weeds
through the sweat of summer,
I see the circle of the earth
gathered in a cotton dress.
-- Charles A. Swanson
from AFTER THE GARDEN : Selected Responses to the Psalms