“Swan Hammer” and Poem as Prayer

Image of "Swan Hammer" poetry collection superimposed on illustration of swans and hammers.
Cover illustration of Swan Hammer by Erin Kirk.

To indulge in a little main-character delusion, I’d say Maggie Graber created Swan Hammer: An Instructor’s Guide to Mirrors with me in mind. Sure, she included a whole poem explaining “Why I Shouldn’t Be an FBI Agent,” but maybe that’s the perfect cover for surveilling a random bisexual who shares your first name and then composing a poetry collection certain to pique her interest! Like, y’all…there’s poems here about Ms. Frizzle, tomatoes, and doing violent things to impress girls. 

But even if your name isn’t Maggie and you’ve never emotionally depended upon a fictional science teacher, Graber’s collection charts a familiar ambivalence with the digital and natural worlds we inhabit day to day. Worries about a rapidly changing climate follow memories of the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse. In “iContact / Screens,” the poet reckons with her closest relationship: the “monogamous bond” she has with her phone screen. By the end, readers come to understand the power of all these connections — good, bad, funny, and neutral.

Out in time for the hot stillness of summer, Swan Hammer, winner of the 2021 Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Prize, is equal parts personal history and manual for living. The former comes as odes, elegies, and self-portraits (“Self-Portrait as a Jack-o’-Lantern” and “Self-Portrait as Loan Payment” are stand-outs). The latter arrives in the form of rules, rituals, and prayers. 

In one poem, “a bowl of tomatoes burns / like a bonfire” and Graber wonders, “How will we love / when all we’ve buried grows / on vines and tastes unsalted, / like weakening sun?” In “House Rules,” she subverts and deepens the cheesy text-based home décor strung across American suburbia. Later on, “Moonrise Ritual” appeals to anyone battling their subconscious manic pixie dream girl (the trick is to give in! Be your own manic pixie dream girl!). It begins:

Fill a tub with saltwater

and soak your feet for one hour.


Write an apology to the dinosaurs

on behalf of outer space.

Breathe harmonica. Imagine

sleeping in an igloo of sand.

I used to scoff at self-help books. At the belief a stranger could help me out of the muck of life. But lately I’ve caught myself reading things with the intent to learn, to change, to improve. The only difference is I reach for queer memoirs and single-page poems instead of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. When distraught, I recite “The Peace of Wild Things” until my heart rate slows. If I want to feel punk rock and incredibly feminine, I do the same with Kim Addonizio’s biting “What Do Women Want?” 

Graber’s collection, subtitled An Instructor’s Guide to Mirrors, fulfills this craving for benevolent guidance and then some. Maybe, as in the titular poem, the girl who lives inside Graber “knows the way out” for all of us.


It's dangerous to go alone! Take the following poem with you!


By Maggie Graber


The spring I could say aloud

to myself, I like girls, I was twenty,

listening to Ani DiFranco, 

watching The L Word, reading

on Taoism before bed

by flashlight. On every page

a photograph of rocks or trees,

mountains, flowing water.

That semester I wrote poems

and watched Planet Earth.

Meanwhile, Saturn

with her belted halo

of ice, spun on.


1 comment

  1. I love Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things and also this quote from another of his writings which I copied and repeat again and again during times like these: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”


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