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DRIVING THE BODY BACK: POEMS by Mary Swander (Knopf: $14.95; 81 pp.)

November 23, 1986| Madeline DeFrees | DeFrees' most recent book of poems is "Magpie on the Gallows." and

Wrapped in a gray blanket strapped to a cot, the corpse fills the back of the station wagon, but this isn't a getaway car. The narrator's mother has died, and an older relative (probably an aunt) shares the drive "back to the town/where we were born."

The two are never named or explicitly identified, but clues accumulate as in a good detective story, and one of the available pleasures is sorting out family ties and events as complicated and surprising as life itself.

Mary Swander's first full-length work, "Succession," treated family lyrically, almost magically. The new book's more ambitious design--larger than lyric, more concentrated than a novel--is interspersed with real speech and grounded in the rural Midwest.

Nine portraits, strung on the journey narrative, reveal the difficult lives (and deaths) of extended family members. One guesses that the material is largely autobiographical, but poets routinely borrow others' experience when it suits their purposes, so the shading of fact into fiction is unimportant. What matters is that the account rings truer than actual.

Memorable characters include George with his glass eye and short cigars; Maud, living in squalor amid her dogs while her savings fatten and her shack falls apart; Nell, the Good Samaritan, regularly summoned to attend the sick and dying. At 80, she resists travel, having already "seen scenery."

And here is Ed playing poker while updating his health bulletin:

Men of the Cavalry, deal.

Me? The ticker not the plumbing.

Hell, I'm already a gelding.

No, I come in for my yearly and just

when they wired me to the electro-heart-i-o-graph,

blam, it went off. Wanted to shut the gate

on me then, but I needed to go home

and feed Fanny--an invalid, you know--

rheumatoid. So, I drove out the lot

and it all went black, busted

right through the arm and bent my antenna back.

I'll take two.

Allowing the characters to speak for themselves enriches the verbal texture, adds dimension to the story. Besides standard, colloquial and regional speech, the poet uses song lyrics, speaking in tongues, and Catholic liturgical prayer. Except for the apparent confusion of the past tenses of lie and lay , twice in three pages, the craftsmanship is near-flawless.

From the outset, geography is Swander's ally, terrain reinforcing theme: "And the road winds back/ to the Divide where/ the prairie takes a breath/ rising up into the sky."

The reader travels along, enjoying even the road stops. At the Pine Grove Cafe, the menu is purely decorative: nothing but coffee. At the Grotto of the Redemption, Father Grieving serves up a tale of the first cure. Anecdotes sometimes recall Garrison Keillor's "Lake Wobegon," as in this account of a lockjaw sufferer: " . . . when Edith came home/ chomping and chattering/ she darted down Main Street/ to the Corner Cafe/ and soon even the Methodists/ began to make the trip:/ Shorty Long with his lumbago,/ Gloomy Heinz with his swollen prostrate/ Putt-Putt McNut with his harelip."

"Speak to the earth and it will teach thee," admonishes the epigraph from Job, and it does. From the hard task of wresting sustenance from the soil to the hard fact of thawing the ground for burial, Swander's concerns affect us all. If you complain that poets write only for themselves and other poets, this may well be the book for you.

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