Book Review

Swansdown is dedicated to the poet’s brother, Michael Platt, who died in 2018.  The collection begins with his brother’s death in “Sleep.” From there Platt expands through the world while retaining an anchor to his brother and his family, and then turns, inevitably, to his own anticipated end.

Platt’s gift is his ability to connect disparate elements and offer the reader new ways of considering life’s journey. He does this by facing the world head on, no mincing of words, no avoidance.

In “Sleep,” he parallels his own inability to sleep with the end of his brother’s life. Platt takes “three white pills” that cause him not to “remember / any dreams. Except / the recurring one in which / my brother lies dying.”  At the end of the poem, he returns to the idea of dreaming, as he exhorts his brother to “keep dreaming / your dream within / my dream.” He wishes to hold on to that recurring dream, but says, “I must / wake soon in this room / without you.” The redemption comes as “sunlight pours down / on the gigantic geranium. / It lifts up red blossoms, / palms open to the sky.”

Platt expands the world in “Earthly Ideas.” Platt’s mother is amazed at how brussels sprouts grow. Platt writes, “we are all earthly ideas that sprout from the ground, / grow on the same stalk, / and must return to the earth.” His world and the world of his brother and family now encompass all of us. Having caught readers in this wide net, Platt gives a litany of his brother’s ailments in tortuous detail. Sitting with his brother in hospice, Platt looks out the “wide bay window / at an evergreen and a maple whose leaves are turning to yellow-orange / fireworks, // eruptions of magma from the earth’s core.” Platt plans to bury his brother’s ashes with their parents. “We are your / two earthly ideas // sprung from the same womb.” The final lines reference a childhood photo where the poet holds up a bunch of radishes. “Dirt still clings / to those radiant radishes.”

Platt remains grounded even as he takes in the wide world, invoking writers and artists, mythology, history. He references other parts of the world, like the cemetery at Père-Lachaise, while still anchored in his family and brother. In “Penelope’s Loom,” for example, Platt writes:

Penelope’s skilled fingers are still weaving
each new day, weft of shadow, warp of sunlight.

On life’s great loom, 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. She

weaves other days. Neither my family nor
the teapot half full of strong black tea are here.

He melds disparate worlds and elements, and summons them to his purpose.

His long poem, “At Oscar Wilde’s Grave, Le Cimetière Du Père-Lachaise, Paris,” explores life after death. “A grand, longstanding / love affair we have with death,” is followed by a reaction to the kisses left at Wilde’s grave, kisses that “go gray, fade from the granite.” Platt overhears a woman speaking to her son: “Just look at how many beautiful women have come to kiss his grave!” Platt, the narrator, intrudes: “Well, no and yes.” He concludes that “Wilde would have loved / this new wider world,” then confesses, “secretly I, shy bisexual, would love to be adored and have young lovers // come trampling through the slush / of a winter day.” This confession, so huge, is slipped in. At closing time, Platt leaves “with the last lovers and a few homeless people pushing / two-wheeled wire carts / with all their belongings through the Door of Almond Trees.” This mix of the sublime, ridiculous, and mundane is what we come to.

The title, Swansdown, comes from “Cloud Study,” an ekphrastic poem on Constable’s Study of Clouds, captured on a day in 1820, which Platt elaborates with historical facts from that year. “This cloud study survived that history,” he writes, then speaks to the study’s ephemeral quality: “Two minutes later, // the clouds would have taken on a different cast of light and shape / just like the thunderheads / now piling up above the Liffey.” Platt is in Dublin with “a Ziploc bag of ice” on his swollen knee. “My body is breaking down,” he writes at the age of fifty-eight. He “will not run again in this life.” This is the mix of permanent and impermanent, the survival of Constable’s sketch and the sketch that captures only an instant, his own life when he ran and now will not run again. His life is “a cloud study / for some larger landscape // John Constable never got around to painting.” Platt suggests that “to approach old age, one needs a new harsher style.” He observes “screaming / infants in strollers,” teenagers “joking, texting on cell phones, smoking,” a girl and boy French-kissing, while a pair “of mute swans / preens and swims down the River Liffey whose amber waters mirror / how the clouds pass.” He concludes, “each of us—lovers, mothers, runners, me—no more / than windblown swansdown.”

As we read to the end of this collection, Platt returns to “Flesh of Their Flesh,” his family: Uncle Frank, who died a month before his hundredth birthday; his dad, who suffered from Alzheimer’s; and others now gone. “No one breaks free from history’s / grip.” In “Goodbye Dance,” “Each day is a goodbye dance, whose steps I must relearn / or invent / as I go.” His poem “North,” begins:

Live or die, the geese fly north each spring
Crocuses explode like trip-wired land mines—
nothing plus nothing equals everything.

And everything is what Platt gives us until his final lines in “First Crocuses”:

One day I too will close my eyes, won’t see that this spring’s crocuses
            are all there is.

In reading his “Notes” to these poems, he ends by thanking his daughters “for their love and support through difficult times. That struggle echoes through the work, but there is joy and hope and, above all, abundance.

About the Reviewer

Aline Soules’s writing has appeared in such publications as the Kenyon Review, Houston Literary  Review, Poetry Midwest, and the Galway Review.  She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and lives in Danville, California.  Learn more about Aline at