Uncle Dog Becomes a Bodhisattva: On Robert Sward's Work
by Jack Foley
Now, I too will attempt tears.
They are like song.
They are like flight./indent>
— Robert Sward, "Chicago's Waldheim Cemetery"
All I am really hungry for is everything.
— Robert Sward, "Scarf Gobble Wallow Inventory"
ROBERT SWARD, SANTA CRUZ Poet Laureate 2016-2018, died on February 21, 2022. He was born on June 23, 1933. I wrote this essay, at his request, for a Selected Poems in 2019.
Reminiscences from Cornell University, over fifty years ago: I remember the eyes most of all: large, hazel-brown, luminous, kindly. And the manner: hesitant but pleasant. And the sense one had of a gentle, oddly elegant, madness. He was tall: one thought he must look like Robert Lowell. And there was insight: he would stammer, but there were always ideas, intelligence, something worth listening to. And the oddity of the poems:
I did not want to be old Mr.
Garbage man, but uncle dog
who rode sitting beside him.
Uncle dog had always looked
to me to be truck-strong
wise-eyed, a cur-like Ford
Of a dog. I did not want
to be Mr. Garbage man because
all he had was cans to do.
(from "Uncle Dog: The Poet At 9")
Dogs, garbage, doing are constant concerns. Even when he was nine, something in this ethnically Jewish man wished to be a rabbi, an interpreter of the Torah. But something else in him told him that he could never be anything but a clown, a dog, a garbage man—a little boy. But can't clowns, dogs, garbage men, even little boys be rabbis? Or if not rabbis (pace Allen Ginsberg!), poets?
Robert Sward's career began in the late 1950s. Today, he is a well-known poet, but he is not nearly as well-known as he should be. As "Uncle Dog" suggests, his poems are often comic, but they are never only comic—or for that matter only seriocomic. It is somewhat surprising to realize that Sward has a fair amount in common with W.B. Yeats, for whom the "trembling of the veil of the Temple" was a constant source of both mystery and inspiration. Robert Sward's poems are the result of a plunge into a never fully ironized, often hilarious sense of mysticism: they are the product of a restless, spiritually adventuresome sensibility masking itself as a stand-up comedian. Who but a mystic would write a passage like this, funny, but alive with the via negativa: "Not / able to sing, not able to dance / not able to fly":
The dodo is two feet high, and laughs.
A parrot, swan-sized, pig- scale-legged
bird. Neither parrot, nor pig—nor swan.
Its beak is the beak of a parrot,
a bare-cheeked, wholly beaked and speechless
parrot. A bird incapable of
anything—but laughter. And silence:
a silence that is laughter—and fact.
And a denial of fact (and bird).
It is a sort of turkey, only
not a turkey, not anything. —Not
able to sing, not able to dance
not able to fly.
Sward describes himself as "Born on the Jewish North Side of Chicago, bar mitzvahed, sailor, amnesiac, university professor (Cornell, Iowa, Connecticut College), newspaper editor, food reviewer, father of five children, husband to four [now five] wives.…"
Sward's mother died in 1948 at the age of forty-two; her last words were a request "to keep [Robert's] feet on the ground." The poet describes his podiatrist father as handsome—"a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn"—as well as "ambitious and hard-working," a "workaholic." By the time Sward wrote the poems collected in Rosicrucian in the Basement, the father has blossomed into a full-fledged eccentric, a visionary adrift in a world that doesn't comprehend him:
"There are two worlds," he says lighting incense, "the seen
and the unseen…
This is my treasure," he says.
Like Uncle Dog, Sward's father is a comic version of the poet—but the terms have changed a little. Sward's father quotes Rilke (albeit unknowingly):
"We of the here-and-now, pay our respects
to the invisible.
Your soul is a soul," he says, turning to me,
"but body is a soul, too. As the poet says,
'we are the bees of the golden hive of the invisible.'"
"What poet, Dad?"
"The poet! Goddammit, the poet," he yells.
(from Rosicrucian in the Basement)
It was only after Sward's mother's death that the father became interested in Rosicrucianism and the world of the "invisible." Sward points out that the year his father became "a strict and devout" Rosicrucian was also the year that he, Robert, flunked algebra. The father's later amorous adventures with "Lenore" give the son the wonderful poem, "Lenore and the Leopard Dog." "I've told you before, dear," says the father, "God rewards you for kissing."
Like his father, Sward "lives in another world." But the young man is not so certain which world that is. When his father says, "As above, so below"—the famous formula attributed to Hermes Trismegistus—the son answers, "I'm not so sure." The word "below" is partly ironic since the podiatrist father is always talking about feet—"God has feet like anyone else. You know it and I know it"—and because the father carries out his rituals in the basement. Yet it is also a serious assertion about the relationship between the world of the senses and the "other" world. Sward's own impulses led him away from both Rosicrucianism and his family's Judaism to the East. In "Prayer for My Mother," one of his most moving and accomplished poems, Sward is accused of being a "Jew who got away," a "sinner." But he also celebrates one of his meditation teachers, Swami Muktananda, "the biggest party animal of them all":
Seven years I hung out with him,
even flew to India, meditated
in his cave
scorpions, malaria mosquitoes
so illumined they chanted back.
(from "The Biggest Party Animal of Them All")
Sward writes, "I…was nicknamed 'Banjo Eyes,' after the singer Eddie Cantor. Friends joked about my name: 'The Sward is mightier than the Sword.' And because I had a zany imagination, I had only to say, 'Hey, I have an idea,' and other eight-year-olds would collapse laughing. I was regarded as an oddball, an outsider. I had few friends."
Robert Sward learned early that the comic, the "zany," was a mask by which one could assert oneself—through which one would be listened to. In his poems, the mask remains, but it is at the service of an essentially visionary impulse: "the vision, the life that it requires." The word "dream" haunts his work. Sward remains simultaneously "not so sure" and utterly certain:
For two, maybe three, minutes
I saw two worlds interpenetrating
jewels into jewels,
silver suns, electric whiteness,
World 'A' and world 'B'
one vibrating blue pearl,
world like a skyful of blue suns
Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh!
(from "The Biggest Party Animal of Them All")
Neither in "this world" nor "the other," Chicago-born, a U.S. Navy veteran who served a stint in the combat zone in Korea (1952), Sward moved to Canada in 1969 to take up a position as Poet-in-Residence at the University of Victoria. While there he began to practice yoga, started a publishing company (Soft Press), met and for twelve years was married to a Canadian. Indeed, two of his children are Canadian citizens as is Sward himself—in truth, a citizen, at heart, of both countries. At once a Canadian and American poet, one with a foot in both worlds, Sward inhabits an enormous in-between. It will come as no surprise to readers to find that his poems get at the moment of truth by being deeply unsettled, by refusing to rest in any particular other than the cosmic ambiguity of the wholly visionary and the wholly sensual. Past, present and future—and their tenses—assail him equally:
As a teacher, I talk. That's present.
For thirty years as a teacher, I talked. That's past.
It may only be part time, but I will talk. That's future.
(from "Turning 60")
"During the late 1960s and early '70s," the poet writes, "American men arriving in Canada were assumed to be Vietnam War protestors, draft dodgers, or deserters…in 1969, I was a married, thirty-six-year-old, honorably discharged and decorated Korean War veteran. I was also the father of three children." Again, the oddball, the outsider.
Sward taught at the University of Victoria from 1969 to 1973 and worked in Toronto from 1979 to 1985, when he returned to the United States. In January 1986, Sward moved from the mountains overlooking Monterey Bay (California) to Santa Cruz, a seismically active community of forty-five thousand people located seventy-five miles south of San Francisco. Another milestone.
Sward's friend, poet Morton Marcus remarked that "the physical and psychical environment [took] him by the tongue to new spiritual heights, which…slowed his responses to a meditative stillness and (surprisingly) eased him back into such closed forms as sonnets and villanelles." In Santa Cruz, while earning a living as a freelance journalist, Sward served as food reviewer ("Mr. Taste Test") and, on one occasion, as the world's skinniest Santa Claus.
Sward's many marriages were by no means a source of pride: "I find each divorce hurts hurts hurts just as much, maybe more, than the one before.…I have come to agree with Robert Graves, who says the act of love is a metaphor of spiritual togetherness, and if you perform the act of love with someone who means little to you, you're giving away something that belongs to the person you do love or might love. The act of love belongs to two people in the way that secrets are shared.…Promiscuity seems forbidden to poets.…"
In June, 1987 Sward met painter and multi-media artist Gloria Alford, also originally from Chicago. Their marriage was deeply happy and, as Sward acknowledges over and over, a constant source of amazement to him. Born October 3, 1928, Gloria died on October 10, 2017. The cause of her death was Alzheimer's Disease, yet, as Robert always insisted, even with Alzheimer's, Gloria "was still Gloria." "What is Alzheimer's?" she asks:
Tell me, how does losing your memory cause death?
All I know is something's wrong with my 'remember.'
Robert's poem, "Love Has Made Grief Absurd," "in the voice of Gloria Alford," is a stunning turn in the poet's spiritual history. How do we remember the dead? Actions, photographs—then nothing? For a poet, perhaps the preeminent mode of remembrance is the voice—and if Robert could earlier become Uncle Dog or his father, here, in an extraordinary gesture, he incarnates Gloria. The poem is full of things she said, yet these things have been caught by Robert in the metamorphosis of his art: if it lives, she lives. I don't know anything quite like it. Ten years in the making, it goes beyond even Molly Bloom's great monologue at the end of Ulysses. This amazing "verse drama"—quotations from a person who has transformed herself into a sort of Gracie Allen of spiritual awareness—is a testimony to love, time, age, amusement, and, not least, to transcendental befuddlement. Sward's father may have been mad, but he never had Alzheimer's. His much-loved fifth wife had the disease but remained—his much-loved wife:
Gloria's no longer Gloria. Is that what you're thinking?
Fuck you. Even if I lose it all, lose my mind, lose everything,
end up with a brain made of Swiss cheese, I'm gonna go on.
I'm still… I'll still be who I am.
Who I was. Who I'll always be. I'll still be who I always was.
You heard the Rabbi. "The beyond the beyond dwells within."
Gloria's still Gloria…
Listen to me: the moment of death,
whatever else it is,
Is just another moment.
No, no. I haven't changed.
I'm an atheist. I'm still an atheist.
I may be dead, but I'm still an atheist.
Robert Sward's poetry has undergone many shifts—including, as Morton Marcus remarked, the shift to closed forms—but its fundamental impulse seems not to have changed since I first came upon it in the early '60s. Outwardly "zany" and fanciful, it is inwardly serious, troubled and questioning. He has written over twenty books of poetry as well as some fiction and non-fiction; in the late 1980s he entered the Internet, poems a-flying. He has produced CDs. He once described himself as "a heat-seeking cocky mocky poetry missile…a low-down, self-involved dirty dog. Woof woof." He has noted how many of his poems have "to do with love, divorce, multiple marriage, aging, loss, and the challenge of bringing up children in a highly unstable world." He identifies strongly with strange and sometimes hostile animals.
What is sought in all this work is liberation, illumination—it. The joy of his writing is the joy of the quest. "The only thing better than being employed," he says, "is being unemployed." He has recently turned eighty-six and is producing work as fine as what he was producing fifty years ago. He has not grown up exactly, but he has grown. "Pushing 90": "These days," he says, "I'm paying more attention to Ben Franklin, 'Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,' and less to Blake with his lines about 'the road of excess.'" From beyond the grave the poet's father counsels him, "Spend some time at the Invisible College."
There is wisdom in Robert Sward's poetry, but it is the kind of wisdom we call "crazy." Laughter is the mysterious pathway to spiritual awareness. The final message of this work is not to transcend intense contradiction (or "doubleness," as Sward would say) but to live deeply, even joyously, within it. Lives tumble into lives:
I hardly unpack
and get ready for this lifetime and it's time
To move on to the next…
(from "Mr. Amnesia")
UNCLE DOG AT LAST
for Robert Sward (1933-2022)
Parkinson's took you,
of the dark nation
we all, all tend.
I can hear your father
"so now you know,
now after all that
you see what's what,
you see what I've
been talking about,
and that other,
the Swami Muktananda,
we told you
there were two
you go from one
to the other
there you are
so you know,
you have finally
got your feet
in the air,
you figured it out,
no Alzheimer's anymore
painting, sculpting again,
everything in a blaze
unless of course I'm wrong,
talking to that Irisher poet,
Foley, is not the same
as talking to you, meyn zun.
he's not even
but I guess
he loved you
and knows you will see
all those dead poets
back to Homer
('Homer who?' sd
and be welcomed by them
and ushered into
a new world of love—
skinny, Jewish Santa Claus,
a beautiful son
a beautiful father.
suffer no more,
laugh in a world
is only kind
the only tune
on the ancient jukebox."
"Seven years I hung out with him,
even flew to India, meditated
in his cave
scorpions, malaria mosquitoes
so illumined they chanted back."
Uncle Dog at last.
—Jack Foley, March 7, 2022
Jack Foley is a poet, critic, and host of KPFA FM's "Cover to Cover" book show. His new book is is When Sleep Comes: Shillelagh Songs, poems, and the companion volumes, The Light of Evening, a brief autobiography, "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads", a biography of Foley's mind; and Jack Foley The True Litterateur, a tribute volume of Foley's poetry edited and illustrated by Shajil Anthru. Jack Foley is a Poetry Flash contributing editor. He lives in Oakland, California.
— posted April 2022