BY RUSTIN LARSON
Have you ever sat down to lunch with someone and felt like you’ve become a memory sandwich? Say your present is a slice of multi grain and the sandwich goes down through strata of deviled whatever, shredded cheddar, a cool crisp year of Romaine, an autumn of roasted garlic till you hit that subtly spicy bit of sweet relish that’s been haunting you all along. She was hard to forget, wasn’t she? And equally hard to forgive. Such entrées veteran fiction writer Gladys Swan (who, by the way, is a major presence in The Iowa Source’s recently released poetry anthology, Leaves by Night, Flowers by Day) serves us in her short story collection, A Garden amid Fires, released this year by BkMk Press.
In the story “On the Island,” an aging man recalls his youth on a lake island in Maine where he has lived his whole life. He recalls the rich summer occupants of cabins there, the work he did for them, and the impossible love for a girl who, it finally dawned on him, belonged to a class and culture he could never hope to join:
“Listen,” she said slanting her head, looking at me like an owl questioning my sanity, “what could you possibly offer me?”
I knew suddenly what I’d hidden from myself all along. “What do you want?”
She looked into my face. “Everything,” she said. “I want a man to give me everything.” She turned and walked away.
The pair don’t see each other again, until one year, when they are both old, it is rumored she is returning in hopes of acquiring some property on the island. Sure enough, she arrives, and guess whose land old moneybags has her eyes on?
“You’ve really made something of this place,” she said looking around.
I acknowledged the compliment—I’d completely rebuilt it. “Yes, Margaret and I worked hard.” Perhaps she knew I’d married, perhaps not. . . .
“You know I think of those summers back on the island—we were happy then, weren’t we?”
“I suppose,” I said, with a shrug. “And did you find him?” I asked her.
“The man who’d give you everything?’
She leaned back and roared with laughter. “Oh,” she said, in the voice I could recall so well, “you knock me out, you really do. Arthur,” she said, “you know what I’d like—I’d like to give you a hug, a great big hug.”
I waited to see what made me specially deserving.
“Oh don’t be put off,” she said. “I’m just blundering on.” She looked at me for a moment as though considering. A look that was almost tender. “What do you think it would be like if we took up where we left off—”
“Rewrite the script?” I said. “What could I give you now that you’d want?” But I knew—it was the piece of land I owned, a piece of inheritance, because I had no one special to leave it to now that Margaret was gone. . . .
And I wondered, as I turned to go inside, if she could see me now as what she couldn’t have and would never get.
A few of Swan’s tales are placed in Maine where she experienced over 30 summers on a wooded lake. Others take place in Spain or New Mexico. She summons her experience as a writer and a painter (she also painted the cover art for the book) to enliven her stories. “Painting,” she says, “allows me to see the world in terms of light and color, gesture and form. Writing sends me in the direction of action and motive, irony and ambiguity.”
Swan especially mines her experience as a painter in the story “The Orange Bird.” Here she considers the integrity of remaining true to one’s creative impulses, and the consequences of turning from them. The artist in this story is faced with the temptation of making some easy money painting copies of Spanish production line art. This schlock, it turns out, sells more quickly and for more profit than serious art. The artist yields to temptation, takes the commission of reproducing the hideous canvases, and gets his mind altered in the bargain:
“Whatever object he shaped with his brush took on a life its form could hardly contain. From the grapes, a bursting fullness—within each a small universe exploding into being. The apples rolled from their position lethal with temptation as lobster moved in, straight from the sea, in its claw a wriggling frog with a human face. Beneath his hand, the drape and backdrop turned to rocks and trees, an original garden writhing with copulating human and animal forms. Monkeys swung from the vines. He struggled for order amid the riot of color and movement. Before he collapsed altogether, the eye of the orange bird caught his and wouldn’t release his gaze, as though they had made some sort of pact. It looked ready to take off for some other dimension.”
Swan says, “The main strands of my work exist in this collection as interplay between the real and the fabulous. . . . I like the statement by the great water colorist Charles Burchfield that he likes to play between the real and the fantastic in order to approach a truth he couldn’t otherwise realize.”
It is easy to make comparisons with a certain famous writer as one reads Swan’s story “Exiles,” (a story that takes us to one of his old stomping grounds, Spain), but I think Swan has connected (in this case with the bull, the matador, and the fight) from a level of consciousness that eluded Hemingway:
“The moment seemed to break apart and she was spiraling inside it. The man had known from the outset what he faced, but the bull had to awaken to its fate and saw now the instrument of it, saw and would throw himself at it, trample it to the ground, if he could. As if in that moment of pure ferocity, in the recognition of the force that shaped its death, it too attempted to shape a death for what threatened, the process moving beyond the bull itself to something almost human. In the same moment, the eye and consciousness of the man were connected to the two eyes of the bull, both looking at the death that hovered over them. The passes very close to the horns now caught them in the deepest intimacy, as if only they existed, the spectators in the stands melting into illusion. Intimate as lovers, seeing nothing but each other, the flash of the cape, the maddened rush toward it, each knowing the other beyond all knowledge.”
Author of two novels, Carnival for the Gods and Ghost Dance: A Play of Voices, Swan’s previous collection of short fiction, News from the Volcano, was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award, National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and American Book Award. Swan says, “Actually what you’re seeing is what I’ve managed to publish. I’ve written a sequence of three other novels dealing with the characters in my first novel, Carnival for the Gods. . . . In other words, most of my major work has yet to be published.”
Publishers Weekly acknowledges how A Garden amid Fires “skillfully track(s) time’s toll on the ability to live and love fully.” Past poet laureate of North Carolina Fred Chapell remarks how Swan’s book evokes “the irresistible powers of memory.” Gladys Swan is an author who conjures the power of time, memory, and the past in the heart of her work. Swan says, “I’m convinced that there are spiritual realities that we can potentially apprehend, and they certainly belong to a mystery. The past is part of that mystery.”