four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
49-Nov-Dec-2010
By: 
Daniel Swift
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0

The Poetry of a Lost Pilot's War

A-Bomber CountyBritish book critic Daniel Swift has written for Bookforum, the New York Times Book Review, and the Times Literary Supplement. Bomber County, the story of a young man's search for his lost grandfather and the poetry of the air war, is Swift's first book.

The Topic: James Eric Swift, a bomber pilot for the Royal Air Force in World War II, disappeared along with his crew on June 12, 1943. His body turned up a few days later on a Dutch shore, and he was buried there with other war dead. More than 60 years later, Swift's grandson, standing over the grave, muses that many of the cemetery's headstones were inscribed with snippets of poetry. "The graves were quoting one another," Daniel Swift writes. "They were carrying on a conversation in verse." Swift traces his grandfather's presence in the war and--through the eyes of poets as disparate as T. S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, Mervyn Peake, Cecil Day Lewis, Dylan Thomas, Randall Jarrell, John Ciardi, W. H. Auden, and James Dickey--the important contribution that poetry makes in helping us to understand the complex ethical and psychological issues raised by the air war.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 269 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780374273316

New Statesman 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[Bomber County] is an exciting new kind of criticism--part literary readings, part history and part personal memoir, tracing the story of what happened to [the author's] grandfather. ... This is an astonishing debut." David Herman

Telegraph 4.5 of 5 Stars
"This is a book that, in its quietness and subtlety and quite beautiful writing, steals the breath away. It is certainly too well written to provide any easy answers." Sinclair McKay

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"What holds this all together is [Swift's] own sensibility, through which all the facts and pictures and conversations must pass. He is an excellent reader and literary critic, and this, his first book, is accomplished and moving." Peter J. Conradi

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Bomber County is its own series of runways, one from which a variety of genres (memoir, war history, literary criticism) take off and sometimes daringly land, having delivered formidable emotional and intellectual payloads. ... In Bomber County the low-key but confident Mr. Swift does almost everything well, and goes further than he has to, confronting at length the arguments that the aerial bombing during World War II was morally indefensible." Dwight Garner

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"Daniel Swift's look into the death of his grandfather in World War II is far more than a detective story. This gifted author hitches his search to an analysis of the relationship between bombing, the Great War and the poetry it spawned, making Bomber County fine history, probing literary criticism and profound moral commentary." Carlo Wolff

Spectator 4 of 5 Stars
"The author has undertaken, on the whole successfully, a fascinating, if complicated, task of construction, weaving his literary vignettes and his moral and aesthetic reflections around the gradually unfurled story of his bomber pilot grandfather. ... Bomber County is a poetical work in itself, evoking the atmosphere of wartime bases, of devastated towns and the ‘sea-flat landscape' of the Dutch coast where the body of his grandfather was washed ashore." Hugh Cecil

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The book's multiple parts do not ... fit together neatly. Mr. Swift's grandfather was not a poet, and the author's memoir episodes seem far removed from his passages about poets and their attraction to the aerial war. Yet Bomber County is never less than interesting." Robert Messenger

Guardian (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"If we value poetry as something irreducibly human reclaimed from the ashes of an inhuman conflict, then we need above all to remember the poets whose writing records most fully and responsively the pressures under which they fought and wrote and died. In that respect, Bomber County is a missed opportunity." James Purdon

Critical Summary

The literature of World War II has seen countless books covering just about every aspect of war imaginable, though few, if any, explore the poetry of air bombing. Using as his starting point a visit to his grandfather's grave and uncovering the man's story through documents, interviews, and histories, including W. G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, Swift succeeds in combining memoir, history, literary criticism, and biography--no easy matter. "I think I wanted to tell a story, and [my grandfather] was available" he writes, and he nimbly juggles the two very different parallel story lines. Although the story could have gotten away from him, Swift explains away the sometimes jarring juxtaposition of his grandfather's life and death with the poetry of annihilation. Swift writes well and with great insight, and the poetry becomes a lens through which he views the war's more complicated and poignant legacy.