Mark Swift

Cape Town - Mark Swift was a poet and romantic whose flower bloomed early and withered too soon. He enjoyed being young and vital, and in his last years preferred not to see himself in photographs that belied the youth within.

He was a vagabond at heart, a roué, a bit of a lad, driven by lust for life, words and women, and when he found a sudden death the manner of his going was no conventional heart attack, long illness or quietly dying in his sleep. He died days after falling to the ground on his way home, laden with shopping, and then fell again. He hit his head and remained unconscious for 10 days while his sons flew out from England, where Mark had lived for many years. That a poet and drinker should die in dry Fish Hoek weighed down by domestic necessity has depths of sad irony.

The Mark Swift I first knew was 30 and sub-editing at the Cape Times in its Tony Heard heyday. He was an imp, a smiler, a rogue, and women loved him. This was robustly reciprocated, as several of his wives will attest. I was present for one of his weddings, when he married Jo-Anne Richards in the early 1980s. She was then an ingénue reporter, now a novelist. Josie fell for him, they wed, and eight months later they divorced. Some of us considered asking for our gifts back.

They’d met at the Café Royal, the press haunt in Cape Town where we all misbehaved, especially on Friday nights. “I was a new face in town and impossibly young,” Josie says now. “‘Who are you?’ he said. ‘I need to know your name because you’re the woman I’m going to marry.’ So I did. It seemed romantic at the time. I was awed by his talent and, desperate to be a writer myself, enthralled by the circle of writers he moved in, including poets of such stature as Jack Cope and Patrick Cullinan. Mark was a complex, difficult man who had two wives before me, and a good couple after. He had a great many demons, his most damaging being alcohol. But when he was sober, he was the most sensitive man alive. And, as he liked to say, he could write ‘like an angel’.”

By then, Swift had won the Ingrid Jonker Prize for his 1974 debut volume, Treading Water (David Philip), edited by Jack Cope. In 1978 he produced Gentlewoman with photographer Sigurd Olivier, which was at first banned in South Africa. Published by Grosset & Dunlap in New York and later by Don Nelson, it was a selection of poetry and images by two artists who shared a fascination with sex and seduction. Seconds Out (Bateleur Press) followed in 1983 and in 1987 he won the Thomas Pringle Prize for poetry, and his work has appeared in anthologies of South African poetry since.

When we knew Mark best, in the 1980s, he was past his zenith and clearly frustrated, the bulk of his output being his journalism. He spent his working days correcting the words of others more than conjuring his own.

Richards says: “Mark found the expectations imposed by his own talent difficult to bear. ‘I should have died before I turned 30,’ he liked to say. ‘Then I’d have died a prodigy.’ He didn’t die a prodigy. He died older: more tried and more trying; more tested and troubled, but still an extraordinary poet.”

Jack Cope wrote of him: “His youth and early maturity were marked by estrangement and isolation, reinforced in his case by a lack of affinity with anyone who could share his interests… Yeats has said that out of a poet’s quarrel with the world he creates rhetoric; out of his quarrel with himself, poetry. Mark Swift’s more intense quarrels with himself have spilled over into his poems; not as chafing personal obsessions, but as an attempt to relate his own dilemmas to wider, more universal themes.”

The late poet Lionel Abrahams saw him as “a master of beautifully focused images and cadences”, adding that “all this comes close to making him a poet of extraordinary stature”.

Poet Geoffrey Haresnape found Swift “an intense and exciting person to be with, the intensity a little scary at times” when they were young poets in the 1970s. Years later, visiting him in Cambridge, the two would walk the tow-path along the Cam, falling into a pub. He got the feeling Mark “had not made as much headway with his poetry in England as he would have liked”.

Haresnape found himself “strangely moved” to hear that Swift had returned to South Africa on his retirement in Folkestone, Kent, two years ago, first trying to settle in East London (Mark was an Eastern Cape boy) and then Fish Hoek.

Poet and cartoonist Gus Ferguson chose to honour his friend with a quote from the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig: “I read your collection (Testing the edge) three times and got great pleasure in it.

“The last time I read I made a note of the ones that particularly fascinated me but gave up when I reached 21…”

In a eulogy at his funeral in Cape Town, his elder son Adam, 39, a motoring journalist based in Cambridge, pointedly avoided romanticising his father. “He had an incredible intellect, he had the power to entrance, the ability to turn words into art, and the charisma to stop you dead in your tracks.” But he did not shy from his father’s darker side. “Mark battled many demons, always ready to fight, but never quite ready to face them. He was destined to mollify the trials of existence with alcohol, and with the soporific comfort and desperate confusion of addiction. Booze lubricated his mind and tongue, even if he admitted that his predilection had cost him ‘at least a few books’… and was utterly exasperating to those who loved him.”

In his poetry, Swift top-and-tailed his own life. In Treading Water, he wrote, “On the first day of the life of a man the last day is apparent, the setting of the sun begins/ The first winter rages and they make up his bed like a grave as he leaps from the cradle into the fire/ Cajoled by the midwife of time he is Cain in a wheatfield of words, a scythe in the bird-bright world until buried with all six senses in the shallow grave of his body he mouths his own funeral oration, whistling through grass roots to the clash of spade and prayer – though his belly is crammed with stars.”

But it’s his younger son, Dylan, 19, who pens the last word: “Landfalls, and so do we all/ The bittersweet dread beat/ stilled/ A cheap end/ boots filled/ Your footprint remains/ Deeper than the sea. You drift on the high plains/ shackled by mortal coil/ No more the shouts from giants/ of brick and glass/ Pacified. You were the lucky strike/ The spark in the dark/ Mark, spinner of tales/ both tall and the fables/ A wordslinger with gunfighter’s eyes/ You died under your big sky.”

A big sky in Fish Hoek, an imp on the ground, bequeathing words.

RIP, Mark Swift.

The women had better watch out up there. - Weekend Argus