Author Archives: Jeff Schwaner

About Jeff Schwaner

Poet: three published books of verse and two novels. Studied poetry at Cornell University, where I was awarded the Dorothy Sugarman Poetry Prize and George Harmon Coxe Award for Contributions to Creative Writing. Entrepreneur: Co-founder in 2000 of Booksurge, an author-initiated self publishing and Print On Demand (POD) site purchased by Amazon in 2005. Working guy: manager at LexisNexis. Family man: husband and father of three. New England native and current Virginia resident. Big fan of Blue Ridge mountains and hills and trees in general.

Mid-October song

Mid-October song

It was late for a visit. I opened the door
And outside was standing my own language.

My old friend had traveled places I had not been.
Well don’t be a stranger I said. Come in.

You’re the one outside, said the voice of my language.
And I was, and I came on in, not sorry I was late.

The Instructions

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The Instructions

You unfolded the instructions like a bedsheet
And smoothed out the words with your palm.

First we identify all the parts, you said
To find the thing that’s missing. Or things.

It’s hardly ever just one thing.
The tools in the instructions, you pointed out,

We’d never seen before. Might have to make
Them out of scraps of other things we have.

Eventually that toolbox will have everything you need
but for now we just need a level and some sandpaper

So you can sand this grief to a shape that fits
the frame. Of what, I said. You read from the

Instructions: of that gap you fear so much.
If you look in that envelope included in the box

You’ll find the hinges of your life. You helped
Me sand and sand and mount the door

So oddly shaped and hear the bolt slide smooth
Like a finger through a ring.You folded the instructions

So the last line was all that showed and placed it
On my palm. What’s left, I said, the door is built.

You take your time, you said, and then walk through.

Creek, Cloud, Cricket

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Creek, Cloud, Cricket

I drove ten hours toward the gravity of mountains
Away from the withdrawing bay and on the other side

of the Cape the sea’s constant worry-beads whirled
In the many-fingered tide. I was home and a long way

From it. I was twenty trash bags tightened one at a time
With old things, stuffed with the past in a dark garage.

I was inert explosive. I was upright. My father’s lips
And eyelids affixed shut, his hands folded, all horizon.

Modest shadow details of sunset on a strange beach.
I was home and alongside the creek I was alongside

When my father spelled out the last word he said to me:
“Yes.” The creekbed’s brushed knuckles just below

The surface of running thought, watered down mountain
wisdom. Summer drifted like a jellyfish. A creekbed

Mumbling yes endlessly. A cloud over a hospital wing.
Ritual shawl over a casket. Spell it out slowly.

Dread lifts lightly like an August wasp. It has its own
Direction and settles according to unseen rules

Of behavior written in the humid afternoon air.
Eventually, after rain, crickets give the all-clear:

It’s too dark to tell if I’m happy or sad. If grieving
Is the rocks or the water, the cloud or the rain,

The pinpoint crickets or the spinning earth.

Night on Cape Cod

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Night on Cape Cod

Sister, the song keeps restarting
And each time it is a different song

With its insistence that nothing starts again
Not fathers or mothers or families

But the sunset our grandfather painted
Stays just where it always has

We believe the promise of wind on sand dunes
Surf on a tumbling shell

The house we grew our souls in
Where we pulled our mother’s memories

Out of albums photo by photo
To find the wrong name on the back

Or a name we didn’t know
None of our souls can outgrow

That house
The wind comes through the upstairs

Window like the house is breathing in
Before starting a song

Eulogy: my father

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Note: I gave this family remembrance in honor of my father Walter Schwaner at his funeral mass today in Lincoln, RI. 

“We have to follow the police officer,” my father told the family as he climbed back into the station wagon. It was the 1970s, we were on our way to Cape Cod, close to the Sagamore Bridge. Dad had been caught running a red light in the Friday afternoon traffic. The state trooper and my father talked for a long time outside the car while we sat anxiously inside.

The trooper pulled off the main road, and my father followed him. 

“Are you being arrested?” we asked him.

“No,” Dad said simply. A hint of a smile. “He’s going to show us a short-cut around this traffic.”

Skip ahead a few years. After Little League, where my father had coached my teams, I joined a Babe Ruth baseball team. I came home from one practice discouraged. The players had so little respect for the coach that the only thing they had done as a team was push his Volkswagen bug onto its side in the parking lot. Hearing this story over dinner, my father calmly said, “Huh. Maybe he needs a little help.” The next practice Dad was there, quietly standing by the bench and offering his assistance, and the mood of the team changed considerably. “Assistant Coach” Schwaner taught the kids how to sacrifice bunt, hit to the opposite field, steal a base, position fielders to help each other — and turned us unruly teens into a team. 

That’s Walter Schwaner. 

Nearly forty years later, on my last trip to Dad’s home on Cape Cod, I found myself taking photos for my wife of the many statues of Jesus of the Sacred Heart in my parent’s old bedroom.

My father built the house when I was a child and it has always been the family’s sacred ground to me; to my wife Mary, it’s a place of spiritual transformation. One day years ago she saw those statues on the dresser, the bookshelf, the sewing table and felt changed by their iconic open-hearted gestures. That June day also happened to be the Feast day of the Sacred Heart, and this idea of an open-hearted God has been central to her life since then.

If you’re here today you’ve probably been witness at some point or another to my father’s open-heartedness, his casual welcoming nature, his way of enabling others to do better, which is at the core of coaching, which he so loved to do.

For his open-heartedness, Dad was rewarded by a life surrounded by people whom he loved and who loved him— family, neighbors, long-time and new-found friends. 

He didn’t preach the positive, he just accomplished it. The last word I heard Dad say? It was “yes.” In a crowded room discussing his fate, he spoke up above the doctors when I asked over the phone from Virginia if he wanted to leave transfusions and chemo behind so he could go home. He spelled it out loudly so I could hear– “Y. E. S.” 

That “yes” to death is not easy. Because the hard work of dying must be done by the dying. 

The hard work done by survivors is an important part of being alive. It is in fact the main fulcrum of a faithful life— our faith in God, our faith in each other, our faith that being human is living a realistic, generous love in all our relationships— these elemental values teeter on our response to the deaths of loved ones. These moments try us, but reward us in manifold complex ways.

A wise young poet once wrote:

When joy goes to work
Sadness must take care of you.

I’ll let the sadness take care of me for the time being, until joy gets back from work, just as my dad would get home from work to my childhood home and bring with him a sense of things being right, and calm, and me being permanently in good hands.

During my trip to the Cape weeks ago, I stopped at a used bookstore I’ve been visiting for five decades, and found a battered translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao de Ching, or Way of Life. A stanza of this ancient poem seemed to express that openness to vulnerability we see in Jesus of the Sacred Heart, and that was so elemental to my father’s life:

A sound man’s heart is not shut within itself
But is open to other people’s hearts:
I find good people good,
And I find bad people good
If I am good enough;
I trust men of their word,
And I trust liars
If I am true enough;
I feel the heart-beats of others
Above my own
If I am enough of a father,
Enough of a son.

It doesn’t strike me as odd that I found these words exactly when I would most understand them. It strikes me as enough. That like my father often did, I can look around me, even in sadness, and find more than enough for a good day, a good life, if I am open-hearted enough. 

This message can be found in the gospels. It can be found in Ecclesiastes. It can be found in the writings of Lao Tzu, and doubtless in many other texts of wisdom and faith. 

I learned it from my dad.

Walter S. Schwaner, Jr. 1933-2019

Vigil (1)

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Vigil

1.

I can take a nap any time of day.
Five minutes at my desk. Ten

At the dining room table. Longer
In an uncomfortable wooden rocker.

My kids see it all the time, like
Clockwork; their father’s momentary

Ease. I didn’t see my father sleeping
Until last week after a long day

Of transfusions and transport,
He was asleep to the sounds of

Baseball on TV when I got
To his room and sat quietly by.

All the years of my life to see
His hands, his face, alive, at rest.

Enough

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Enough

Time between the tides.
Horseshoe crabs guard

The low tide, bury themselves
Beneath the sand ripples,

worry lines on the sleeping
god’s forehead.

*

The thought comes to the edge
Gently, again and again. You pile

Rocks to keep it at bay. It’s not
The thought that will drown you.

The rocks glisten in the sunset
Where the thought caresses them.

*

Even tears big as jetty stones
Disappear into the thought.

It’s enough, you think, to know
If you just lay on your back, relax,

The thought will support you,
Hold you to the sky like an offering.