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Published by the Poetry Society of America, 2009


Introduction by C.K. Williams


First things first, and it is indeed always first: John Estes has a formidable sense of the music of poetry, a command of its resources so certain that he can play and display his verbal gifts with, when he wishes, a headlong dexterity. Like this, from “Symptomatic, Asymptotic”:

Comes up somewhere shy of pastoral, bucolic.
Not quite a green thought—
40%-chance turned
downpour—but greening,
a farmable (read firm,
read pharmaceutic) mutation:
sheep beget a shepherd,
beget the shepherdess beget
the sheepfold beget
begetting and bleating need
for the arable, the potable,
the strip mall, the big
box and a blockbuster ethos.
From the flood
of plastic entertainments,
a short leap to the purple pill.

His poems can also be funny, and sad, as aware of mortality and grief as only the best playful poets can be, and very intellectually serious. In “Cafe Rotavirus,” at first a lightly toned riff on the seductions of a toxic fast-food joint, the language abruptly shifts, moving into a profound meditation on the larger implications of such seemingly trivial concerns.

To believe in history,
now that fixed
stars are not so fixed,
might be to believe
each instant struggles—
fatally, hopefully—
to loose itself from
some unoriginate whole.

The poem continues in that vein, intellectually forthright, but subtle, with a deft fusing of the abstract and the concrete.

Many of the poems in Swerve are in the tradition of what might be called the domestic sublime, which usually for the most part consists of meticulously observed recountings of the mores and morals of individuals in intimate situations, particularly family relations, and their emotional and intellectual repercussions.The aesthetic opportunities of poems in this tradition, from Lowell and Plath to Olds, and reaching back to Coleridge and Wordsworth, pivot on such dramatic observations out into more resonant, philosophical and spiritual awarenesses; there is often a pressing urge for the poetic consciousness to suspend meaning and value between the particular and the general in just the way Estes does so well in “Cafe Rotavirus.”

In our time, this domestic aesthetic has generated much forceful, moving, often revelatory poetry. At the same time, there have also been perpetrated a large number of poems which, while attending to the subject matter of parents, marriage, childhood, childbearing and child rearing, adultery, divorce, and the death of loved ones, much of the time falter in their poetic impetus and inspiration.

This isn’t really surprising. In any period, the huge majority of poems are basically enactments of the most superficial aspects of the conventions of their moment. Successful poems are always extremely rare (and thereby always more precious)—for the most part, the mass of poetry of any age is a tired rehashing of themes, ideas, and sentiments, of tone and voice, and, most particularly debasing, of the intricate, urgent, singular music of viable poetry.

In many of its poems Swerve very self-consciously accepts this challenge. It moves through the range of domesticity, with the same kind of detail, of emotional richness the tradition- convention implies, while at the same time undercutting its traps of sentimentality and bathos with a keen sense of irony, and a music which delightfully refutes the tedious plaints and keenings of most contemporary poems.

The collection has a wide range of subjects beyond the domestic and it has many other virtues as well. Estes possesses a canny tool kit of other sorts of poetic intelligence, a keen sense of drama, a wide range of cultural associations, a sure handling of complex and often confusing emotion. Swerve is, purely and simply, an accomplished and exciting work of poetry.

— C.K. Williams