“What is Love?” is a question that has perplexed and led to many a discussion, from the ancient Greek forums to songs by Haddaway. Answers to this question range from examinations on societal and cultural trends and traditions, emotionally abstract ponderance, and coldly logical statistical analysis. While there may be no one answer to this seemingly basic question, how an artist or individual interprets acts as a Rorschach test of themselves, giving one an idea of exactly what routes in life could lead to such a response.
A Little About Conversations By Bethel Swift
This same question is posited on the cover of Conversations with Good Men, the debut poetry chapbook by Bethel Swift. This collection “witnesses a feminist’s awakening and invites the reader on a three-act journey exploring the concept of ‘goodness’ while pondering themes of love and loneliness, heartbreak and hope.” The collection is divided into three acts, with two intermissions, a prologue, and an epilogue, and uses these to trace the relationships the narrator of Swift’s poems engages in over various periods of time.
Each section is carefully composed to follow these periods, from poems of a relationship’s start (Act I) to the dissolution (Act II) to the fallout (Act III). These include poems like Act I’s “First Kiss,” which has lines like “Your kiss opened like a bloom,” before transitioning to lines like “But it quickly grew / hungry/intense / a man’s man of a kiss,” showing how romantic imagery can turn a lot harsher.
Act II features poems like “Break-Up Bread,” which uses a loaf of banana bread to show the final blow to the relationship, followed by pieces like “Cyclone Courtship,” a meticulously constructed poem to show the self-sabotage and regret that followed. Act III brings it to a crushing end with the double whammy of “Truth Be Told” and “Lycanthrope,” the latter of which is presented in English and Spanish.
However, it’s in the intermissions that Swift’s collection comes to show the deeper range of its wade through the original question of “What is Love?” Conversations with Good Men isn’t just Swift tracing a failed relationship, but also how she uses poetry to explore other relationships with men in her life. The first intermission looks at her relationship with her father, the first real relationship with a man Swift and women like her may have. The second intermission goes more spiritual, with poetry addressing God. In these poems, the narrator asks for forgiveness for “becoming fat, feminist, forthright / & free.” “Yet I still dance/live & learn, laugh & love / asking permission only of me.” The contrast between the earthly father and the heavenly father provides an interesting contrast in what should be unconditional love, even though both of these figures seem to demand a lot more than they give.
Whether or not these poems are autobiographical or not, Bethel Swift’s poetry is often terse and effective. Her collection is a blend of very unlikely influences that defines the speaker of each poem. While some poems begin with quotes from the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the poems themselves reference a variety of literary and artistic figures, from Tupac Shakur to Madonna to Margaret Atwood. This helps shape the collection and make it clear that, even if this isn’t at all based on Swift’s life, the moments and stories told through these poems feel like very real situations and are told by very real people.
A Fantastic Debut By Bethel Swift
Conversations with Good Men is a fantastic debut that examines one woman’s relationship with many men in a way that may not fully answer the question of “What is Love?” but does provide a deep look into what Bethel Swift’s answer to the question is. While her answer may be full of regret, hesitation, and words unspoken, it provides a clear look into her process and her way of viewing these figures. These poems give the idea that Swift hasn’t finished her pondering of the question, but if she continues to explore it through poetry, she may find new answers and provide a personal insight that is both evocative and gut-punching.
Publisher: Swift & Sparrow Press
Page Count: 89 pages
Order link: Buy here
The article was first published in the Pilot Issue of Passionate Chic