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Sep 16

Blot Lit Reviews: Under the Mountain Born by John Swain

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Under the Mountain Born, John Swain

Least Bittern Books, 2015

ISBN: 978-1511943727

Reviewed by Catherine Vlahos

Grab your granola bars and hiking boots, because we’re going camping. Maybe. Honestly, “camping” is possibly too manufactured of a word to describe the trip John Swain’s poetry collection Under the Mountain Born embarks on. Regardless, get ready to kiss your comfortable bed and smartphone goodbye.

Swain acts as a tour guide to mystical, sacred places and scenes in the natural world that you can’t really reproduce in a trail mix commercial. He calmly observes both the most delicate and devastating of nature’s forces in his collection of 100 poems:

Chrysalis like a glass tomb rises
lit by sinews clinging
to bones and hairlocks and nails.
and the most devastating:
Tables of waves
in the night
like commandment

With a reverence that suddenly makes you think, “Maybe the author isn’t exactly human, either.”

With this tantalizing thought in mind, Swain remains distant as a narrator—while many poems are written in first person, the focus is clearly on the vibrant, wild imagery of ancient, hallowed forces of life—summer and winter, birth and death, flight and ground, water and rock. We often equate nature with solitude and simplicity (see: Walden), and the sheer raw energy of Swain’s crisp prose carries the weight of isolation as he explores these pairings through different animal guides. Raptors and wild dogs often appear throughout Under the Mountain Born, and here together in “After the Path”:

The light released
waves chasing like a song dog,
all the afternoon
moves your shoulder to wing,
swimming beneath an osprey
entangled in talons like a lover
as the sea dreams and I wake.

Swain collects these animal traits like a shaman along our journey to reveal to us mortals a world distinctly supernatural among the familiar physical world we live in, and it soon becomes clear that he is not alone in this voyage.

A woman’s presence is made apparent in pieces like “Hibiscus Tea,” which serves as both a campsite and a time for human bonding amidst wild, magical, and sometimes frightening forces. In the desolation of the first frigid winter night, they work together for a common purpose—whether it is some sort of transcendence or merely survival is not for us to discover:

In the drift on the hill
we warmed beneath my coat
and sipped hibiscus tea
from a silver bowl I carried.
Trees floated from the ice
as she polished a rabbit jaw
and dropped prayer beads
to mark our path.
Fear darkened my heart,
so I kneeled on my teeth
broken to rejoicing her.

The woman adds an element of humanity and intimacy to Swain’s pieces, yet he alludes to human sexuality with the same reverence and power he worships with nature in his works. “Torch,” is a powerful example of the precarious balance between passion and fear:

I looked at you
Like a deer
and raised
your legs
around my waist
in flight
and stillness.

It is clear by now that Under the Mountain Born is far from your average nature hike, and Swain is far from your average narrator. His words and the vivid scenes they breathe life into are truly beautiful—honestly, they would look great on some hip wall art, to abruptly transition back to the modern world of materialism. I’d hang those posters up all over my room not only to admire the beauty and care behind their stories, but also perhaps to get lost, to every so often be whisked away into Swain’s magical, fearsome world of spirits, creatures, and wilderness.

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