Cheryl Passanisi on Donald Platt’s Swansdown

The title “Swansdown” is evocative of the mythical realm of swans, downy feathers, and lakes serene and idyllic with swans gliding through the water with a gentle plash.  The iconic association of “swan” is that of a mystical transformative power.  Then there is the stabbing realization of the famous dying swan in Swan Lake ballet also transformative but a dance of death.  Early in the book we are introduced to the author’s brother who has Down’s Syndrome and another layer of meaning is superimposed and expands the initial expectations.  Throughout “Swansdown” the author wrestles with the loss of his brother as well as mourning the loss of his nuclear family of origin and other loved ones.  There is an echo of “Blackhawk Down” – each of these associations expand in a devastating way. 

In the first poem “Sleep” Platt says: “I don’t remember/any dreams.  Except//the recurring one in which/my brother lies dying.”  They connect through video calls with a distance of 900 miles between them.  “I cradle him/between my palms,/brother the size/of my cell phone’s screen./Brother, you/who have only/a handful of words-yes, no,/garage, that’s right – /to get you through this life...”  The distance of miles, illness, technology and dreams work hypnotically to create the medium where he can reconnect with his beloved brother and he delivers a blessing: “Wake/at noon in another body,/one without/inoperable ulcers./Keep dreaming/your dream within/my dream.” 

In “Earthly Ideas” Platt compares our lives to Brussel sprouts which is comical and absurd except that it rings true: “We are all earthly ideas that sprout from the ground,/grow on the same stalk,/and must return to the earth.” Talking more about his brother’s illness, Platt describes his treatment and nutrition which includes Boost and Breeze dietary supplements: “Michael brings palm to mouth/and blows on it//to show me he understands.  ‘Yes, Michael,’ I reply, ‘breeze means wind.’ It’s moist/breath an idiot God blows from chapped lips//against his own dry/palm to make himself feel alive.  Michael is his earthly idea/mutated.”  In the poem he notes the passing of time, his “coppery auburn” hair has turned grey which once rivaled the bright red radishes he dug up from the garden and held up for a photo his father took.  Speaking to his mother who died at ninety-six about his brother who died at 59, he says: “I’ll bury Michael’s/ashes in the ground next to yours and Dad’s. We are your/two earthly ideas//sprung from the same womb.”

Many of the poems are written in long jagged lines and the narratives are reminiscent of journal entries fresh and burning with the enthusiasm and engagement of newly discovered connections and uncovered realizations: “eruptions of magma from the earth’s core.” 

In contrast, “Child’s Riddle” skips down the page in short stanza’s of short lines in a hopscotch pattern and has an Emily Dickinson conundrum as epigraph: “Split the lark – and you’ll find the music...”  Deftly Platt taps each enigma of his trinity: mother, father, brother.  “Razor each tear/And taste the ocean//Dredge the ocean/there’s my drowned father//Eviscerate father/Here’s a gold coin//Bury the coin/To sprout an ash tree...”  In the next poem the gold coin is required: “Brother everyone must pay the sun’s coin/and pass from day to night.”  There is a poignancy to the recurrent images and the process of retelling the sad tale of his brother’s life and death which harkens back to folklore and stories retold that gain a mythic quality.

Indeed, Platt leans on mythological associations heavily in “Penelope’s Loom”: “...each new day, weft of shadow, warp of sunlight... and she wove my father, mother, /brother sitting together, drinking black tea//from a chipped teapot painted with red flowers./Come night, she ripped them from the tapestry...”  The flawed container and contents are cherished: “I miss the tea, its taste of smoke, as I miss/them.  My brother’s mind a loom on which the world//unraveled.”  And yet, in the everlasting, the trinity of father/mother/brother: “...are still sitting together, drinking black tea.”

The poems of literary figures are equally vivid and poignant such as “At Oscar Wilde’s Grave, Le Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise, Paris”.  He describes the graffiti expressing devotion on the grave and kisses so prevalent that a glass barrier was erected to protect it (explained in “Notes” in the back of the book).  And the author confesses that he: “...would love to be adored and have young lovers//come trampling through the slush/of a winter day, hand in hand, armed with green maps of the cemetery...”  Other graves of famous figures in art and literature are visited throughout the poem and followers’ peculiar reactions to being confronted with the remains of their chosen idol.  One woman dances a flamenco and sings the Habanera from Carmen on Bizet’s grave; someone leaves white roses and pink carnations made of silk on the grave of the painter Modigliani with the inscription in black sharpie: “Pour Modi, Jean”.  This type of mourning is less intimate than the family losses yet no less moving.  This is also where the musician Jim Morrison is buried and others including Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Sarah Bernhardt, and Maria Callas.

“Stanzas for Anna Akhmatova” the author declares: “ hear/how love sounds in Russian,/the one true//language of poetry...”  He doesn’t speak Russian, nor do I, and yet I have been to poetry readings of Akhmatova’s work as well as Yevgeny Yevtushenko and am always struck by the grand musicality of Russian and share his fascination: “...consonants/that are/barbed wire//at the back/of my throat. I try/to pronounce/love’s fricatives, dentals,/sibilants, and fail.”  He explores the extraordinary life of the poet who truly suffered for her art, who did not emigrate, whose husband, also a poet, was imprisoned and executed by Stalin’s secret police.  Platt writes: “...that raven-haired girl with/a crooked nose//and eyes that changed color/gray to green to blue,//in different/lights.” 

The author explores his wife’s chronic illness in “At the Mayo Clinic I Stare at a Wall of Blue Sodalite Marble” and reads a plaque about the properties of the sodalite: “Wisdom stone/is believed to aid in concentration and to quiet inner turmoil./Others believe//that it also has healing properties.  We encourage you/to touch the wall...bound in the dim blue light of dawn for the Mayo Clinic, our Lourdes...”  You can feel the healing touch of it.  He enjoys “...Miro’s lithographs/of larger-than-life/surreal figures – The Mad Woman with Ill-Tempered Pimento...Miro’s wacky humor fell flat” on the patients in the waiting room.  His wife’s name is called “ if it were a game show that Anne Marie//had won. She had to go/to Door B to collect her mystery prize.  In the back of the room/a black-haired woman...vomited quietly into a plastic bag.”

The poems relentlessly explore, loss, pain and sorrow.  In “Caddy”, the author is caddy for his father-in-law who has Parkinson’s disease and osteoporosis and describes their adventure on the course with humor and irony explaining “TODAY’s COURSE RULES” posted on a board on the golf course.

In “First Crocuses” he describes the color of the crocuses as: “the colors/of my dead father’s Lenten chasuble, royal purple with one huge gold/cross” or “No, these crocuses are the colors/of my first girlfriend’s/striped panties as I groped her on the balcony of the Mahaiwe/Theater” watching Doctor Zhivago.  “Flesh of their Flesh” is the complex and disturbing lineage of his father’s family. 

“Blink” contrasts the procreative/creative powers of lovemaking with his wife in contrast with a young friend’s suicide, groping for meaning and “why” such a sad and hopeless resignation and rejection of Life.  You might ask: Where does Platt get the boundless determination to deal with such heavy subjects and manage the paralysis of enormous loss?

He says of his parents: “After Mom delivered Michael, the doctor told her/he had Down syndrome/and the nurses could take him away, institutionalize him//...Our parents said, “No, we want him/to live with us.”  Platt was gifted with a brother and what unconditional love looks like.

Cheryl A. Passanisi is a nurse practitioner, poet and singer who has published poems and reviews in Tupelo Quarterly, American Journal of Poetry, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Cider Press Review.  Her first book of poetry was published in June 2020 entitled: “Geraniums from the Little Sophias of Unruly Wisdom” from Finishing Line Press.  She lives on the San Francisco peninsula.