Odd Beauty, Strange Fruit

Susan Swartwout

Southern poetry with a gothic twist

A Southerner by birth, Susan Swartwout's history and writing are steeped in the gothic elements of quotidian life in the Deep South, a celebration of difference and the uncommon—odd beauties who embellish our plain lives. These poems explore the lives of freaks—celebrities of Southern fairs' sideshows—such as conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker's married lives, the Fat Lady's work schedule, Tom Thumb’s Barnum-warped ego, all parallel to the hidden desires, plots, and jealousies of the rest of us. Our exterior normality belies the internal twisted landscapes—how complicity and silence echo abuse, how depression infects entire families, how a five-year-old learns to use words as weapons, how human need dispels language's boundaries. From circus oddities to real-life boogeymen, from Louisiana to a Central American village, earth has no dearth of the gothic's strange fruit, illuminating the complexity of what it is to be human.

Advance Praise for Odd Beauty, Strange Fruit

"Odd Beauty, Strange Fruit takes you on a road trip through the Midwest down to Georgia, Louisiana, and into South and Central America, stopping along the way to visit fairs and tourist attractions, and to meet some dark and interesting people. . . . This collection of poems is best read as a collection of fairy tales for adults, full of gothic imagery and cautionary tales. It will take readers through the fun house and the freak shows, leaving their impressions intact, and not unmasking the monsters—merely identifying them should we meet them on our paths."

—Laura Winton, Rain Taxi, Volume 21, No. 3, Fall 2016 (#83)

"These vivid poems celebrate the carnivalesque, as M. M. Bakhtin would have it, the sacred and profane blending an edgy verbal gumbo of 'kindled envies.' Desperate changelings, this cast of misfits and saints hankers always to be other than who they are and to be anywhere other than where fate plunked them down. Swartwout renders 'paradise parodied in such odd / beauty,' that locale where spirit covets the body's blood riches. Her gift is the flesh and funk of us given wings."

—Kevin Stein, author of Wrestling Li Po for the Remote and Poetry's Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age


"In Odd Beauty, Strange Fruit, Susan Swartwout’s discerning eye and musical ear offer a cast of characters ranging from Tom Thumb and The Fat Lady to related oddities beneath the surface of 'normal' life. From these well-crafted poems comes her view of the human condition as a Chang-and-Eng bond between beauty and deformity, comedy and tragedy, good and evil, reality and illusion, love and loathing. Beneath all this, abides the closing poem’s death-lipping blue catfish, 'whose pale / blue skin mimics high heaven rising / from the river darkness like a heavy soul / or salvation.'"

—William Trowbridge, author of Put This On, Please and Ship of Fool


"Susan Swartwout's riveting poems take us from the time we are 'born into our language' through to adulthood. With an unflinching eye and a lust for invention, she exposes the curious beasts that men and women can become in whatever forms they might unexpectedly take. Through her keen lens we see the often unseen, seasoned by the 'sweet venom' her poems deliver."

—Sally Van Doren, author of Possessive and Sex at Noon Taxes

About the Author

Susan Swartwout is professor of English at Southeast Missouri State University where she serves as the publisher of the University Press and edits two literary journals, Big Muddy: Journal of the Mississippi River Valley and The Cape Rock: Poetry. She's the author of the poetry collections Freaks and Uncommon Ground, editor of Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, and co-editor of three books. She has published over 100 poems in literary journals and anthologies. Among her writing awards are the St. Louis Poetry Center's Stanley Hanks Award, New York's Rona Jaffe Foundation Award, the Davenport Award for Fiction, a Ragdale Foundation Fellowship, and Seattle's Hedgebrook Writers Fellowship.