We live here
by Keith Taylor
A few years ago MSU Press published a lovely anthology edited by Alison Swan titled Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes. It was a useful combination of obsessions: fine writing and a passion to protect the lakes. And yes, because of its gender bias, it did have a different feel from most of the books that take the lakes as their theme. For instance, there was far less racing and fishing and conquering than one usually finds.
Swan has proved herself a skilled observer of our region, writing essays and reviews for years that have proved her abilities. She has also done the real work of environmental advocacy. She and her husband, David, shared the Michigan Environmental Council's Petoskey Award as Michigan Environmentalists of the Year in 2002 for work they did to help protect Saugatuck Dunes State Park. That work is ongoing, as new and better-funded attacks on the Lake Michigan shoreline continue to appear out of someone's strange idea of progress.
But in a much quieter way Swan has been making poems for many years, poems that celebrate the place she lives in but that also recognize the tenuous nature of the beauty she finds there. Although an occasional resident and regular visitor to Ann Arbor, Swan lives in Saugatuck, a short walk from Lake Michigan, and that place is clearly at the center of her imagination. In Dog Heart, her first chapbook of poems, she writes of the place and its importance, even during the harsh months of winter, when "the sun which cannot outrun this cold crawls along / so low in the sky it catches in the trees." The season forces her to look at small things, like the tracks songbirds make in the snow:
We learn to look that closely and who can blame us
For days the sky has descended
This builds character, we tell each other
hearing the wish even as we nod or shrug
What's to be done? We live here
of her walks in the dunes Swan was accompanied by her dog, Keweenaw, and a good deal of this little collection is a lament for that companion. When she stops to remember one scene, she writes, "that Kewee and I were there together to see it / feels like some sort of miracle." And readers who have followed Swan this far through her poems also can become convinced that these small moments--in the right place, the place where we live--can become luminous.
Alison Swan reads from Dog Heart at Nicola's Books on Friday, February 17.
[Originally published in February, 2012.]