Susan Swartwout’s exquisite poetry collection, Odd Beauty, Strange Fruit, captures, under dirty mason jar glass, a visceral, grotesque, and, at times, beautifully demented circus of Southern Gothic aesthetics.
“When our eyes have opened to shadows in mote-thick air of the circus tent,
when old men’s droning of what circus once was and mothers’ sibilant
scolding to restless children has slowed to a barely perceptible pulse,
the carney throws back the bedsheet curtain, strides to stage’s edge
where he pauses, above us. In the growled breath of a crank caller, he twangs
his whiskey-hard speil: what you are about to see…nothin’ ever like it
In Odd Beauty, Strange Fruit, monsters and beasts lurk beneath freak show tents in sweltering state fairs, on morgue slabs, under beds in eerie, poverty-stricken houses, in Central American village squares, and behind the eyes of Civil War-era Southern belles.
Amidst the Barnum pomp and sideshow celebrities like Tom Thumb and Chang and Eng Bunker, lie quiet ruminations on love, sex, travel, political regimes, and ignorance born of privilege.
My personal favorite poems are “The Expanse Between Porch and Sky,” a defiant Dust Bowl romance, and “Stay on the Planet,” which urges us to seek and acknowledge the world’s beauty in the face of our own mortality.
For, as Susan Swartwout so eloquently and vividly portrays in Odd Beauty, Strange Fruit, life is the true circus and we are all freaks.