On a literal level, the term “swan dive” describes a graceful maneuver, but its plummeting connotations also make it a suitable descriptor for a negative event. It’s the latter use that sets the tone for this collection; these poems add up to a self-deprecating downward spiral, and Michael Prior seems content to fulfill his role as the defeated.
Swan Dive is divided into two major segments, “Ventriloquisms” and “Second Skins,” suggesting a retreat from the self, but it plays out more like a detached observance of the self. Prior is thus able to maintain a sober wit throughout, whether he’s tackling ventriloquists’ dummies — “Got wood? It’s all I’ve got” — or his own failed relationships: “You’re accessible, she says, meaning / I bore her.” A palpable cloud of rejection hangs over these poems, and even their titles read like amused sighs of resignation: “The Train’s Ceiling Has Been Painted To Look Like The Sky.”
When Prior plays with anthropomorphism in his “Second Skin” section, the animals he inhabits don’t fare much better than he does: a hermit crab hides from intrusive beachgoers; lobsters languish in traps; a jackrabbit contemplates “the world’s edge” at a riverbank. We even get a poem about lessons learned from the death of a digital Tamagotchi pet.
Watching someone fall apart from a safe distance is as alluring as you might imagine, and there’s enough humour here that Swan Dive shouldn’t drive readers to the same depths of despair. (Scott Bryson)