Odd Beauty, Strange Fruit



THE BOOK: Odd Beauty, Strange Fruit: Poems

PUBLISHED IN: October 2015

THE AUTHOR: Susan Swartwout

THE EDITOR: Jennifer Geist

THE PUBLISHER: Brick Mantel Books

SUMMARY: A Southerner by birth, Susan Swartwout’s writing is steeped in the gothic elements of life in the Deep South, a celebration of difference and uncommoners—odd beauties who embellish our plain lives. These poems explore the lives of freaks—celebrities of Southern fairs’ sideshows—such as conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker’s married lives, the Fat Lady’s work schedule, Tom Thumb’s Barnum-warped ego, all parallel to the hidden desires and plots of the rest of us. Our exterior normality belies the internal twisted landscapes—how complicity and silence echo abuse, how depression infects entire families, how a five-year-old learns to use words as weapons, how human need dispels language’s boundaries. From circus oddities to real-life boogeymen, from Louisiana to a Central American village, earth has no dearth of the gothic’s strange fruit, illuminating the complexity of what it is to be human.

THE BACK STORY: I’ve always celebrated difference–of color, creativity, gender, style. My poetic interests are how those differences manifest themselves within quotidian life, molding “difference” into girders of similarity that bridge the false waters of “not one of us.” The freak shows of the mid 1900’s in the South were a starting place, but I found difference to celebrate in other countries, other ages, and from living much of my adult life in the Midwest, difference such as the willingness of people in a remote Central American village (but not so remote that the Coca Cola Company couldn’t appropriate them) to spend a week’s wages to buy a Coke for the “sideshow” of an American painting murals in their church.

WHY THIS TITLE?  My Mississippi grandmother had a description of a person who was different, who didn’t match the standard qualifications of attractiveness. She’d say, “She’s a odd beauty,” meaning that the individual was indeed beautiful, but in a unique way. That phrase stuck with me. The “strange fruit” in the title comes from a poem by Abel Meeropol that later reached fame as a song by Billie Holiday. It seems the Southern flip side of odd beauty, a dark phrase for unaccepted difference and death rather than celebration.

WHY SOMEONE WOULD WANT TO READ IT:  Many people are unfamiliar with the sideshow and circus freaks (as they call themselves) such as Charles Stratton, the Bunkers, Celesta Geyer (respectively, Tom Thumb, the Siamese Twins, and Dolly Dimples) or with the carneys who move and market the shows. And I imagine that few people have lived in a Honduras village that is a two-hour mule ride away from any road that could support a jeep or ATV. The poems give readers a short vacation to places very different from the American quotidian and to the magnificent Others therein.


“These vivid poems celebrate the carnivalesque, as M. M. Bakhtin would have it, the sacred and profane blending an edgy verbal gumbo of ‘kindled envies.’ Desperate changelings, this cast of misfits and saints hankers always to be other than who they are and to be anywhere other than where fate plunked them down. Swartwout renders ‘paradise parodied in such odd / beauty,’ that locale where spirit covets the body’s blood riches. Her gift is the flesh and funk of us given wings.” -Kevin Stein, author of Wrestling Li Po for the Remote and Poetry’s Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age

“In Odd Beauty, Strange Fruit, Susan Swartwout’s discerning eye and musical ear offer a cast of characters ranging from Tom Thumb and The Fat Lady to related oddities beneath the surface of ‘normal’ life. From these well-crafted poems comes her view of the human condition as a Chang-and-Eng bond between beauty and deformity, comedy and tragedy, good and evil, reality and illusion, love and loathing. Beneath all this, abides the closing poem’s death-lipping blue catfish, ‘whose pale / blue skin mimics high heaven rising / from the river darkness like a heavy soul / or salvation.'” –William Trowbridge, author of Put This On, Please and Ship of Fool

“Susan Swartwout’s riveting poems take us from the time we are ‘born into our language’ through to adulthood. With an unflinching eye and a lust for invention, she exposes the curious beasts that men and women can become in whatever forms they might unexpectedly take. Through her keen lens we see the often unseen, seasoned by the ‘sweet venom’ her poems deliver.” — Sally Van Doren, author of Possessive and Sex at Noon Taxes

AUTHOR PROFILE: Susan Swartwout is Professor of English at Southeast Missouri State University, founder and publisher of Southeast’s University Press, and editor of the semi-annual journals Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley and The Cape Rock: Poetry. She is the author of several books, editor of 6 anthologies—including the military-service literature series Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors—and has published over 100 poems and essays in anthologies, collections, and literary magazines. Her writing awards include the Stanley Hanks Award from the St. Louis Poetry Center, New York’s Rona Jaffe Foundation Award for Poetry, the Davenport Award for Fiction, a Ragdale Foundation Fellowship, and Seattle’s Hedgebrook Writers Fellowship.

AUTHOR COMMENTS: Many people I’ve met are reluctant to write their stories. They aren’t sure how to begin. Just write every day. Writing is a practice that must be performed regularly. Find workshops in which your work is critiqued by people doing similar kinds of writing, and you in turn must critique the work of others, in a diplomatic, responsible manner. Workshops will inspire you and require you to consistently work on your writing and revising. Be serious about your writing, and not just in a big rush to get something/anything in print no matter how poorly it’s prepared, nor so self-critical that you give up. Never give up. Your writing is your history.


This poem won the St. Louis Poetry Center’s Hanks Award:

When our eyes have opened to shadows in mote-thick air of the circus tent,

when old men’s droning of what circus once was and mothers’ sibilant

scolding to restless children has slowed to a barely perceptible pulse,

the carney throws back the bedsheet curtain, strides to stage’s edge

where he pauses, above us. In the growled breath of a crank caller, he twangs

his whiskey-hard speil: what you are about to see … nothin’ ever like it

on earth … tenderest part of the body… beyond human understandin’ … Electra.

From behind the bedsheet shuffles a scrawny woman whose bones knuckle

creped skin, her face the lined mask of a thousand farm wives: she reveals

no opinion. The carney’s arms and yellowed grin refer to her widely: door

number three: his prize in the faded two-piece swimsuit, Marilyn of canvas

roadshows. She stands mute, like the woman in Anderson’s tale who feeds

and feeds the world until she dies in moonlight, reborn a romantic

instant in villagers’ eyes as a lovely girl—mistaken and taken for what

she never was. We sit silent, praying for transformation to save her from us.

The carney reveals a cattle prod and the timepiece that is our breathing halts.

He waves the rod like a flag: it sings, whines to be fed—she is hypnotized.

The tenderest part of the human body, says the carney. He slides the rod,

horizontal, in front of her, not touching. Our nerves become her. Before her

breasts, then level with pelvis, he pauses the rod the tenderest part and moves

upward as if he would stroke her—for us—as if he would enter her on stage.

Rod at her throat, her tongue takes its cue, appears automatically in a curve

as if taking a bow the tenderest and he lays it down: rod onto flesh. The fake

smoke of his hell and susurration of his pardon that keeps her tied to this place

rise over her head like a benediction, resigning all faith in the tenderest part.

LOCAL OUTLETS: Southeast Missouri State University Bookstore or contact the author

WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Brick Mantel Books, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble Online

PRICE: $14.95

CONTACT THE AUTHOR: sswartwout@semo.edu

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Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

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