A Window with Reality Through It: Everything Here by Billie Swift

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The title of Billie Swift’s chapbook, Everything Here, suggests a contained excess—all that the eye can see within a given space. On the cover, a girl reaches out a window in an attempt to touch a tide that is halfway up the siding. Though the ocean’s enormity bleeds off the image, the girl, constrained by her position in the house, cannot reach its lip. While Swift’s speaker often resembles the girl—looking out the window with curiosity—readers of this gem-like, refractive collection are also like that girl, unable to see, hold, or touch “everything.” Instead we get reflections, glints and glimmers; we interpret Swift’s churning ocean through the smell of salt and wisps of spray that the speaker places with calculated ease on our wrists and fingertips.

The opening poem, “Needle,” trains the reader in the collection’s logic, tone, and concerns. Its first stanza—“Freedom is a needle / or mother / is a mop”—grounds us in metaphor. Concepts are both absurd and complex, characteristics will commingle, and because the metaphors are linked with the word “or,” we may have to decide which direction to look in. Tonally, the poems are assured, trusting that we are nimble enough to follow their leaps.

As for the concerns—on one hand, the speaker is telling us not to force a narrative. Indeed, the music Swift provides gives readers enough to enjoy with the assonance of “freedom” and “needle” followed by the alliteration of “mother” and “mop.” And yet, we’re tempted to make meaning. How is freedom sharp and slender, how does it inject or sew together? And how does mother sop up and wipe away? How does mother retain the stink of years of work? At the very least, this stanza gestures towards the domestic and the feminine, only to be quickly displaced by the public, chaotic, spectacular, in the second stanza: “A stadium is a whirr / of flying fish.”

The third stanza pulls us back into the interpersonal: “This isn’t what I meant: / Your evening / is a blackberry fist.” The delicate rhymes of “this” and “meant” and “fist,” an echo of “fish” in stanza two, create harmony. They contrast the negation of “isn’t what I meant” and the fraught relationship suggested in the close proximity of “you and “fist.” But what is a “blackberry fist”—summer bounty or dark fury? Stanza four, though phrased as an imperative—“Cloud this light home / or ring my night done”—shifts into surreal, tonal submission, the “ring” signaling something “done,” like a boxing match. By the fifth stanza when the speaker reiterates the opening metaphors, they have taken on a new valance—less playful, more resigned. Is this resignation where the speaker resides?

The complexities and contradictions of intimate relationships seep through the collection. While the title “When We Fight We Fight Dirty” suggests it will reveal a particular interpersonal dynamic, the poem instead details the colors of the leaves and sky. Seasons change for ten and a half lines: “The leaves / are yellow & green. The sky is blue. / The leaves are orange and red.” The fight only emerges as a sliver in the last two lines: “or the loud smoke of war & how much / we get carried away & what for.” This poem enacts the buried narrative; we understand the fight progresses—with the seasons, through the years. We often associate youth with the relationship-as-heated-battleground and age with the relationship-gone-cold-and-distant. Because years pass alongside the intense, recurring battles, Swift reminds us that even long-term relationships defy the finality of “happily ever after.” The speaker, like most people, endures chaos, and the speaker, like most people, prefers to direct her attention elsewhere, dwelling in the small-talk level of weather and seasons, avoiding the dirty fight beneath. Through suggestion and withholding, Swift creates a scene that feels utterly relatable.

Tension also arises in the confines of the feminine. An early poem, “Peninsula with Guidebook,” tells “the story with lava” where a “girl / jumped having been pursued” and “landed / hands palm down in the molten / earth it sounds even worse / when you use the word escaped.” This almost literal rendition of “out of the frying pan, into the fire” characterizes girlhood—where even to “escape” pursuit is to emerge scathed. The lack of punctuation or line break between “earth” and “it sounds even worse” rushes the aside into our view, lest we look away before the speaker makes this point.

Later, in “Metamorphoses,” “we” shift from emulating monkeys, dragons, spiders, parrots, and lions “until we learn to purr / cup our buds in coconuts and shells / grow into nurses and maids.” The wild feminine is tamed to the docile kitten, the caretaker, the mermaid with seashell bra. The speaker proposes other powers for the female: “we save soldiers coming home with our bare knees” and “one of us is even a line from Ulysses / or a word // then one of us is a word // the perfect word / we coo and we coo.” The female shrinks from whole animal to a single sound, to a coo “perfect” for another.

In “Still Life” and “The Way it Expands” the girl and woman become more personal, domestic figures. In “Still Life” the speaker is inside a room, inside a life, a caretaker:

________he’ll need me
changing change the room
________to pick him up
room full of shadows
________or drop him off
shadows full of room
________then he’ll be
shadows of the room
________gone and I’ll
watch the shadows
________re-live my life
creep around bend around

Two strands twist together. Reading every other line reveals “he’ll need me / to pick him up / or drop him off / and then he’ll be / gone and I’ll / re-live my life” and “changing change the room / room full of shadows / shadows full of room / shadows of the room / watch the shadows / creep around bend around.” Once twisted together, the lines render the “he” into “shadows of the room,” something fleeting. Also, it is “I,” not shadows, that “creep around bend around,” an image evocative of the mad narrator at the end of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” who has been so confined by domestic life that she creeps in repetitive circles around her attic room. Here, Swift’s shuffled lines create haunting, breathtaking possibilities.

“The Way it Expands” also looks at the “homemaker” who interacts with a gray hair she finds “in the dough”: “She says—Hair, of course I still love you. / Of course you can stay.” This surreal piece ends with her eating the hair and the dough, and the reminder that “Raw dough will kill a dog. The / way it expands, maybe—or how hunger has / nothing to do with it.” As a title, “The Way it Expands,” might refer to the dough, or to the life the homemaker has not noticed passing before her. By the end, expansion clearly refers to the dough, but it still contains the idea of time, such that consuming time may have nothing to do with actually desiring it. Still it expands; still it kills us.

Time and desire tug at one another again in the closing poem, “Evening Into Night.” This poem presents a seemingly straightforward description of looking outside a window at night, such that “[t]he room behind me is outside the window.” The speaker addresses desire twice in the form of hunger and thirst: “I’m not hungry. My fingers are full of pen.” First, the act of writing becomes sustenance, replacing food. Next, the speaker drinks tea, “without mentioning my thirst.” Of course, by saying she has not mentioned it, she mentions it, but more important, she reveals both desire and its purposeful suppression through what is unsaid. And in this collection, isn’t much unsaid? The poem closes—“The glass is room shaped”—evoking the idea of stanza as room, but also the idea of the back-lit window as both a mirror to the interior and an access point to the exterior. The glass contains “everything here.”

Though seemingly linear, “Evening Into Night” lures us again into metaphor, turning what seems a normal window into a multifaceted surface. We are lulled by Swift’s apparently simple diction and subtle rhyming chimes, and the humor of observations like “the houseplant / stays quiet,” only to find when we look up the light has refracted. Swift holds our gaze in the “or” of a moment. We are looking out or we are looking in, watching the literal or the metaphorical evening—its frozen moment, its passage of time, its calm, its simmer—stretch into night.

Emily Pérez is the author of House of Sugar, House of Stone, and the chapbooks Made and Unmade and Backyard Migration Route. A CantoMundo fellow, her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Copper Nickel, Fairy Tale Review, and Poetry. She teaches English and Gender Studies in Denver, where she lives with her husband and sons. More from this author →