Swan Wife by Sara Moore Wagner. San Diego, CA: Cider Press Review, 2022. 88 pages. $18.95. Paper.

A book of poetry that simultaneously frightens and beguiles is a rare treasure; and Swan Wife, by Sara Moore Wagner, does precisely that. These original poems are often startling in their fearlessness and beauty. Each piece resonates with the astounding strangeness of everyday life and creates shifting worlds that are both fairytale and madness. The sheer weirdness of metaphor drew me in immediately, and Wagner reveals herself as an expert craftsman of the surreal image, the internal metaphor, and the spellbinding complexities of impulse, intimacy, and desire. 

Sara Moore Wagner seems to have a secret window into perception and experience, and in Swan Wife, she unravels what she sees. The poems are organic, physical, archetypal, and supernatural. The voice is startlingly honest and precise. Swan Wife examines wildness caught; but only for an instant—as a sparrow, a tensile wing, or an unsettling dream. Wagner pulls apart how we are trapped by domesticity, intimacy, gender roles, relationships, and our bodies.  

The book is built around the traditional heroic narrative structure developed by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (from Swan Wife, Notes.) The poems build themselves on metaphor borrowed from fairytale and myth to explore realms of the body and the psyche of the “housewife”, Swan Wife, or woman who is half wild creature and half tethered by pacts of domesticity. The result is a world fraught with surreality; a continuous pushing and pulling of the self and the psyche as the speaker navigates the realms of womanhood, motherhood, marriage, beauty, permeability of the self, and autonomy.

The opening poem, “Licentious,” begins “When spring comes, I go naked to the lake / near the hospital where I was born” and captures a highly physical sense of intimate and psychic tension. The speaker commands “Give me a husband who’s never seen the glint / of my skin, how it looks like a knife” and conjures the ambivalent strangeness of the possum, “long-nosed, a jawful of teeth” to create a sense of being half-hidden, “playing dead” with a “pouch full/ of babies, thick as disease.” It’s a startling, visceral vision of self-mythos and quiet power. 

In “Like I Won’t Take Something from You,” the speaker intimates the strange fluidity of familial love and romantic love, the ways her body resembles and become the landscape she inhabits, her “golden hair” “like new hay / rolled into tiny suns.” The poems delve into the intricacies of long love, troubled girldom, and childhood blurring into adulthood. The woman as swan emerges in “Ball and Chain,” where the speaker’s partner calls her “swan” when she touches a dirty lake where no one will swim; he observes “you’ll go where you want,” and the speaker allows herself the metaphysical embrace, and stops herself from running. 

In addition to themes of duplicity and dislocation, the poems also explore physical vulnerability, permeability, rot, disease, and birth. There is a fascinating compartmentalization and animism of the body as separate vectors, as in the gorgeous motherhood poems “Venus Complex,” “Nervous Condition,” “Postpartum II,” and “Reward.” These subdued yet powerful pieces exemplify the mysterious, ambivalent spirit of poems so rooted in the body. 

Swan Wife is also lyrical and musical, and in “Circe Complex” Wagner draws on her singular command of sound and diction to create an elemental incantation reminiscent in spirit and sound to Glück, Plath, and Sexton. Similarly powerful are “A Woman Like That is Not Ashamed to Die,” which envisions a terrifying landscape of motherhood and wifehood and “Getting My Body Back,” which invokes Perrault’s Donkey Skin to examine self-image, grief, and the strangeness of personal physical and mental metamorphosis:

       I try on each skin like a dress,

       each one lovelier than the next—stables

       in the heart open. They’re running.

The poems in this book will surprise you. In craft and in voice, they are original, relentless, and vulnerable. Sara Moore Wagner is a poet who sees the world through her own strange prism, and in Swan Wife, the reader is offered a glimpse into worlds both alluring and frightening—yet tempered with Wagner’s hyper-perception, sensitivity, and deep instinct. 

––Mary Robles, Mid-American Review