Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 111 in 2007.
Jonathan Schwartz, From the Dark Side: The Collected Poetry of Jonathan Schwartz
(Santa Clarita, CA: Jonathan Books, 2004)
From the Dark Side collects the work of the short-lived writer and French horn player Jonathan Schwartz whose early promise in both arts was derailed by recurrent episodes of schizophrenia that took him in a few years from playing in world class symphony orchestras to living in halfway houses. The classification “schizophrenia” doesn’t tell us much. It’s a broad portmanteau term, covering many dysfunctions. In Schwartz’s case, it meant hearing voices, having episodes of obsessively preaching evangelical Christianity – context suggests he was raised in the Jewish faith – while parading half naked through the streets of Aspen, and threatening his infant son, whom he imagined was an alien.
The book was edited by his mother as a tribute to the gifted Schwartz, who died at age 34. It is unclear from her introduction whether she wants her son’s poetry to be read as a testament to what the mentally ill can accomplish or as valuable works of art in their own right.
In any case, the book is a collection of beautiful fragments. The difficulty is that these fragments come not as unfinished poems but as flashes of curving brilliance in longer, otherwise pedestrian pieces. Such fragmentation doesn’t indicate mental problems, of course, but simply inexperience. Like the writing of a sheltered adolescent, Schwartz’s verse dwells nearly exclusively on his personal relation to nature and his own thoughts, with almost nothing said about other human beings. This is not to say there haven’t been major poets whose verse shows little contact with daily life. Shelley comes immediately to mind. But Shelley, to stay with this example, had a vital and extensive imbrication in literary tradition and was able to animate old thoughts with living force. Schwartz’s poems lack this background and rely on a stale, half-hearted Christianity to give them a skeletal framework. This lack of a placement in the tradition is not a peculiar lapse of Schwartz’s. As Allen Tate has shown, all modern American writers suffer from the failure of religion and other belief systems, whose collapse have set a heavy burden on authors seeking a viable framework.
But let’s get back to Schwartz’s more positive qualities that must be balanced against these weaknesses. He has the ability to compose fragments of superhuman beauty and evocativeness as if his edgy relation to sanity gave him a glimpse of depths others dare not reach. Some examples are in order. In a description of California, “Simple time winds through the shallow canyons”; describing memory, “the jaded film we see through,//contagious with the warm pyres of thought”; and in a portrait of what might be a Venus flytrap, “a carniverous flower//sloughing off silently its crimson dew.” Each of these images is striking, pinning a sense of thought or a feeling for nature to an unexpectedly apt phrase.
What is jarring about reading his verse is that such phrases or longer passages appear in the midst of what are otherwise lackluster poems, which in a way makes their power even greater than it would have been in a better piece. His best work shows in such poems as “For What Pine Is Left” where the beauty flows through an extended passage. The poem seems to describe a deserted street in a forested area, which experiences a double emptiness. It is a cold night and so no one is out and about and, further, even the trees are leaving town, as it were, since developers are whittling away their provenance. Due to the cold, the stream is frozen over, something he expresses hauntingly.
that mountain gorge ... [through which] once a stream
abruptly flowed, clear, innocent, carrying the sound
of wishes bubbling in rustic ecstacy
Next he invokes the melody of the wind in the trees, which unheard by anyone but him, goes seeking other auditors.
If even colder this road takes that silhouetted message
careful into another street
It is an extraordinary image, the pantheistic thought of the wind doggedly sending its message, whose drift only solitary walkers will recognize. These passages, which make up the central stanzas of the work, lift the poem into great clarity and purity that is only to be rattled away in a trite ending.
To repeat, Schwartz was a poet capable of real sublimity, but, dying young, never was able to harness his creative force, so he seesawed between writing relatively unified but unremarkable poems (I haven’t touched on those here) and poems that lack coherence in that they clumsily articulate mediocre passages with ones of breathtaking poetic authority. If he had lived longer, it may well be he would have gotten it right and extended his fragments into total gems.