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A Peterborough Tale Of Friendship, Poetry & The Dump

Todd Bookman

Here's a classic New Hampshire tale revolving around  neighbors in a small town, poetry, and the town dump's swap shop. Read the story here, which includes full transcripts of Swift's poetry, and listen to the full story through Caitlin and Swift's words below.

Caitlin Selby and Swift Corwin have thirty years of shared history, starting in 1984 with a change of address. Caitlin was nine at the time, and the Corwins moved in next door to her family home. According to her, they “kind of shared a backyard.” Though her young life was certainly fulfilling before the arrival of her new neighbors, both agree that life seemed to get a lot better after they moved in.

Swift’s family grew quickly and there were other kids from the block, who along with Caitlin, would create their own games and play around in the connected backyards. Through the years, Caitlin got closer to the Corwins. Swift’s wife was her swim coach and he taught her to windsurf. She was also, of course, their go-to babysitter. It seemed their lives were intertwined, out of both effort and sheer coincidence.

Caitlin grew up, and after graduating from college and getting married, she moved back to Peterborough at the age of 27. Unsurprisingly, she and her husband ended up renting a house diagonal to the house Swift was now living in, and for ten more years, they were neighbors.

They spent a lot of time together, especially around the TV… Swift’s house had none, so he would come to Caitlin’s to enjoy the tube. In Caitlin’s words “[he would] notoriously fall asleep every night in the same chair.”

One night, there was chaos that awoke Swift in his chair.

“I was watching the Red Sox, and um, I was asleep watching the Red Sox, and…”

Caitlin finishes for him “Beth, his wife, called, frantically screaming.”

Swift and his family had two sheep which they kept in their backyard. The sheep were in the pool.

“and um, I said, ‘Oh God,” and I sort of stumbled out of their house and sure enough, when I got back the sheep was out of the pool. My daughter had pulled it out by its horns. Anyway, we never should have had sheep in the middle of town. It didn’t work out very well.”

Not long after that, the sheep were on their way out. After spending half of her life living near to Swift, Caitlin and her husband bought a place on the other side of Peterborough’s small downtown.

However, even distance could not disrupt the pull between Swift and Caitlin. One Saturday morning at the dump, it made itself known.

“My daughter Lucy and I went to the dump for tapes for a birthday party we were going to, and we were supposed to bring tapes, so I, you know, was looking through the swap shop like I normally do, and in between Wham! And Sting was a copy of an old mix tape that just said, “Swift Corwin’s poetry,” and of course I grabbed it. And then my daughter Lucy and I put it in the tape player of our car and started listening to it. ”

On the way home through another town

Paint brush wisps on orange gold feathers

Clouds the sky deepening its blue as night falls

Indian paint brush and marsh marigolds

Wildflowers along the way

A boy with handlebar streamers out to play

In summers last light, schools first day ending

Workers at home, at last from grinding,

Their girths bigger,

Pork chops and pie

Blue and teledicted

Others flashing crazy through town

Big tires and testosterone

Where are all the girls to take home?

Which ones will home-make

Through the small new England town on the fifth of September

“It was just before my dad died. I got this idea to make this tape to my parents, to my father in particular cause I had had kind of a hard time communicating with him. He’d actually had a stroke, and so, um, I thought it would be a great thing to just write, to say this, some poems into a tape”

Caitlin commented on the meaning of finding Swift’s poems for her, saying “it was really amazing because the poetry was from the time in my life when I probably knew the Corwins the best, you know, 25 years ago when their kids were infants and I was babysitting all the time and we were sharing a backyard. So everything in the poetry sort of brought back that time in my life.”

Another one of Swift’s poems:

Beard Envy

I wish my beard would stop growing.

Not be dead, just stop growing.

Cut it off and like the lawn in June after three inches of rain the last two weeks

It grows back 

Unlike my lawn my beard needs fertilizer

Because it isn’t so lush

Scraggle wires wire their way out of each pore

Each time after I shave it off

What a shame to spend all this energy on something so thankless

But kiss my wife with three days stub

And I definitely get no thanks.

So, a thankless task is somewhat better than no thanks at all

I just wish it would stop growing.

There’s a full hour of these poems on the cassette, all first drafts and rough takes on Swift’s life. It was a Christmas present to his parents, but it feels more like a Christmas card, the type that catches relatives up on the various happenings of the last year. There’s a poem about catalog piling up in the kitchen, even one about a meal at a Chinese restaurant. The tape is an inner monologue, an intimate window into Swift’s thoughts and observations, all in the form of a final Christmas present for his father.

No one has the answer as to how the tape ended up at the dump. Swift’s father died shortly after he gave the tape to his parents and the cassette remained with his mother.

Swift says, “the cassette was with her, and then when she died, I don’t know where the tape went or how it got into the universe, but it was just somehow circulating with somebody and it ended up at the dump.”

According to Caitlin, he still hasn’t listened to the tape. Swift says he’s nervous to, that it feels a bit too much like time travel to hear his voice from that point in his life.

Peterborough is a small enough town that if you spend enough time at the dump, or specifically the swap shop, this sort of thing is bound to happen. And this is probably one of the reasons why people choose to live in places like this, to give yourself a greater chance to have these chance events. 

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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