Loneliness is a gun
The loudest silence in your day
dying to meet you
The cassettes my dad collected with petrol tokens filled the bedroom I shared with my little brother. His stash were filled with The Pistols, Public Image Limited and the like – he still has the better taste. One of mine had Beethoven’s Eroica on one side and (most of) Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction on the other. The stupid thing about this was the laborious, battery-draining rewind required to avoid the Classical bilge I inexplicably refused to expunge from the A-side. Back then, even skipping a single track was an act of will, comprising short hops and checks, as to overshoot that hissing oasis between songs would mean yet more tap-dancing on the controls. As a result, we knew our music: every note and breath and, back then, who could have conceived that its position at the centre of life would be supplanted by daily cares and concerns?
In Mix Tapes, Swift writes that ‘There are whole mountain ranges, / highways in Croatia, / long broad sweeps of coast and sea, / that were listened through, years ago, // on mixed tapes that now lie boxed.’ His palette of mountains and highways is bold and elemental, speaking of communication, adventure and sublime shared experience. These vivacious moments now ‘lie boxed’, coffined, perhaps. ‘Music’s kiss lied. / It promised good eternal things, // not just experiences / that felt eternal as they passed’. ‘Eternal’ not only intimates immortality, but also a timeless goodness, as does the observation that these tapes were marked ‘religiously in green ink’. Which of us didn’t write on those ruled cardboard inserts with obsessive care? How we cursed when, sliding them back into their cases, the wet biro smeared. Some songs, perhaps, enjoy immortality but, in the moment, we can never differentiate between these and those doomed to the Lethe of oblivion. Up in our bedroom in 1988, we were listening to Push by Bros and The House of Love’s eponymous first album on Creation Records. I still regularly play one of these albums…
The big single on that House of Love album was Shine On but the track that’s stuck with me into my forties is Loneliness is a Gun: ‘The loudest silence in your day / dying to meet you’ and was immediately brought to mind by Swift’s ‘Why I Do Not Carry a Gun’: ‘It fits perfectly / into a mouth. // It contains bullets. // It is the colour / of dark leather. // It is the length / of a cock.’ The poem opens with a series of blunt statements and short lines – each a breach of the page’s serene white peace. Swift’s gun is disturbingly democratic, fitting into ‘a mouth’. The swallowed muzzle habitually conjures the fellatio of suicide but, in Swift’s hands, it’s also a sexual assault, its seductive power speaks to our darkness ‘Because it feels good / in the hand. // Because I would stroke / your cheek gently / with it, often’. Swift’s a courageous writer and there’s a no holds barred quality to much of The Ministry of Emergency Situations.
As well exploring the mixtapes of adolescence, Swift also dives beneath its mattress in Penthouse Revisited, one of the funniest, touchingly candid poems I have read in a long time, where: ‘these // women were my yearned for implausible lovers / (no more likely than Hitch’s heroine, Novak) / stuck under my bed, pressed like meaningful // leaves or petals in a book, but here between / mattress and cold box springs – I am nostalgic, / brought back, like at Tintern Abbey, to earlier // awkward vertigoes, on puberty’s bridge of sighs’. Enough said, perhaps.
In the dystopian Library Going, a nod to Larkin’s Church Going, Swift’s epigraph, ‘Libraries in the UK will be redundant by 2020’ is taken from a 2004 BBC news report and, looking at the mother and toddler group that my local library has become, it’s difficult to disagree with this unwelcome prognosis. Despite secularism’s tsunami, even Larkin conceded Anglicanism’s weatherbeaten stoicism: ‘A serious house on serious earth it is’, he writes. However, Swift finds less to celebrate in the local library system, where books, ‘Bloated / By rain-damage, yellowed, quiet as kids / Traumatised by the playground into books // And music, they spell out culture’s purpose: U-S-E-L-E-S-S’. Looking at recent BBC programming – BBC Radio 4’s 2012 dramatisation of Joyce’s Ulysses for Bloomsday, or last year’s reading of Eliot’s Four Quartets by Jeremy Irons – it’s clear to see that some national institutions are still motivated by a sense of cultural mission. Local libraries, however, now struggle with this. Constrained budgets have forced them into chasing lending stats by filling their shelves with large print romantic fiction and picture books to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. God help you if you’re a sixth former and hoping to use one for your studies.
The Ministry of Emergency Situations runs to over 200 pages and this partial overview of an immense selection creates its own skewed narrative. There’s a tender nostalgia to Swift’s poetry too. The sonnet In My Father’s Briefcase revels in memory, opening with ‘Pink and blue file folders, as if his work / Divided into boys and girls’ before acknowledging the tragic heroism of a life spent ploughing away at the unfulfilling furrow of work. The elegiac Evening on Putney Avenue aches with a deep sense of loss and sees the speaker standing outside to smoke and finding the grace to take pleasure in the small things. If you only know Swift as the publisher and editor down at Eyewear, then now’s the time to get reading.