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Sward Is Bond: Robert Sward explores his relationship with his father in his newest book.

Sward Swallower

Local poet Robert Sward finds himself tangled up in the web of mysticism and offbeat wisdom that is his father's legacy

By Mike Connor

The vision is absurd: In 1950, in the basement of a home in a middle-class neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, an 80-year-old Russian-born Orthodox Jew-cum-podiatrist pursues his secret passion. An otherwise stern, disciplined and fiercely practical man, Robert Sward's father was also a Rosicrucian, a member of the secret religious order that Gnosis Magazine described as "Christian Hermeticism allied with Kabbalah." And despite condemnations from the younger Sward's wife ("'Jew Overboard!' she yells, banging dishes"), it seems that his father's unusual spiritual pursuits are living on even now as he channels them into his poetry.

In his newest collection of poems, Heavenly Sex, from which he'll be reading at the Vets Hall on Dec. 10, Sward further develops the engaging father and son dialogue that began in the title poem from his previous book, Rosicrucian in the Basement. Divided into sixteen easily digestible vignettes, Heavenly Sex tells the story, in narrative form, of a father's journey into death, and the legacy--a humorous blend of mysticism/pragmatism--that he leaves behind.

"As a child, especially with a strong-willed, disciplinary-type, materialistic, difficult father, you don't always hear the humor when you're being corrected, when you're not living up to his expectations," Sward says. "With his voice coming through me now, I'm in the process of making peace with him in a way I wasn't able to do when he was alive. I have a father in my life now in a way that I never had a father in my life when he was alive. It's actually very pleasurable, and very strange."

All This, and a Talking Dog

Indeed, Heavenly Sex is an unusual ride. All four characters (narrator, father, stepmother and Catahoula Leopard Dog) have speaking parts, as well as distinct, consistent and intimately rendered personalities. Their interactions reflect one another in amusing ways, with bits of wisdom leaking through the crack between this world and that--usually coming from the voice of the father:

    Death is what happens when all you have left
    Is the life that was there all along.
    But remember: you're still gonna need money when you die.

Sward insists that the father's crack of materialism in the midst of mystical reverie has a long tradition, dating back to ancient Greek times. "In Greek mythology, when you cross the river Lethe [separating this world and the next], you had to pay Charon. He was the boatman, but you had to give him money. If you didn't have money, you didn't make a trip to the other world."

Bummer! But do these beliefs and attitudes still exist today? Sward thinks so.

"This goes back to the Calvinists, where if you had money, it was a sign that God favored you. Or you're a Puritan, living this severe life, and one clue that you were going to be saved is that you had money. This is the spiritual foundation of American capitalism. It's not a coincidence that our capitalist country is founded on these Calvinist, Puritan views about the world."

Sward also expounds on the virtues of tantric yoga and the mystical possibilities of sex, but stops short when I ask him if his father was into all of this kink-arati.

"No, not at all," laughs Sward, but then qualifies himself: "I guess I should say, 'not that I know of.' He never espoused it."

But in the name of sex, we must allow the poet artistic liberties! Sward says it's all part of the process. "In the book, the narrator is observing his father having sex with his stepmother, and the father has this integrity where he seems to have integrated the pleasure he takes in sex with what he's attained with Rosicrucianism. There's no separation between one and the other. In a lot of Christian teachings, there's separation between mind and body. William Blake talked about how the body is holy, too. The union of male and female, of yin and yang, good and evil, the sacred and profane, all the different symbolic representations of opposites--mystic teachings say you can't have God without having its opposite, and that's the tension that keeps the world charged. And if you're aware of this, if you've experienced this, you don't think of your sex life as separate from your spiritual life; they're one and the same ... in my father's view."

Robert Sward will read from his newest collection of poetry, 'Heavenly Sex,' on Dec. 10 at the Vets Hall, Room 23, at 7:30pm. $3 suggested donation to Poetry Santa Cruz.

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From the December 4-11, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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