May Swenson (1913-1989)

“The poem is an eyehole to a kind of truth or beauty that is finally unnameable.” –May Swenson

Last week I visited Washington University in St. Louis, MO, and, among other pleasurable tasks, I spent two mornings in the Special Collections section of the Olin Library, pawing through the May Swenson archives.

These are an example of her postcard journal—a stunning practice that I’d like to write more about, and adopt on my own peregrinations.

 

Many years ago—as a freshman in college—I encountered her poem, “The Centaur,” and though her work is varied and electric and vast, it’s as good a place to begin as any.

The Centaur

The summer that I was ten—
Can it be there was only one
summer that I was ten? It must

have been a long one then—
each day I’d go out to choose
a fresh horse from my stable

which was a willow grove
down by the old canal.
I’d go on my two bare feet.

But when, with my brother’s jack-knife,
I had cut me a long limber horse
with a good thick knob for a head,

and peeled him slick and clean
except a few leaves for the tail,
and cinched my brother’s belt

around his head for a rein,
I’d straddle and canter him fast
up the grass bank to the path,

trot along in the lovely dust
that talcumed over his hoofs,
hiding my toes, and turning

his feet to swift half-moons.
The willow knob with the strap
jouncing between my thighs

was the pommel and yet the poll
of my nickering pony’s head.
My head and my neck were mine,

yet they were shaped like a horse.
My hair flopped to the side
like the mane of a horse in the wind.

My forelock swung in my eyes,
my neck arched and I snorted.
I shied and skittered and reared,

stopped and raised my knees,
pawed at the ground and quivered.
My teeth bared as we wheeled

and swished through the dust again.
I was the horse and the rider,
and the leather I slapped to his rump

spanked my own behind.
Doubled, my two hoofs beat
a gallop along the bank,

the wind twanged in my mane,
my mouth squared to the bit.
And yet I sat on my steed

quiet, negligent riding,
my toes standing in the stirrups,
my thighs hugging his ribs.

At a walk we drew up to the porch.
I tethered him to a paling.
Dismounting, I smoothed my skirt

and entered the dusky hall.
My feet on the clean linoleum
left ghostly toes in the hall.

Where have you been? said my mother.
Been riding, I said from the sink,
and filled me a glass of water.

What’s that in your pocket? she said.
Just my knife. It weighted my pocket
and stretched my dress awry.

Go tie back your hair, said my mother,
and Why is your mouth all green?
Rob Roy, he pulled some clover
as we crossed the field,
I told her.

—May Swenson

For this blogpost, I pulled the quote and the poem from my copy of Swenson’s Collected Poems (The Library of America , ed. Langdon Hammer, 2013). A quick Internet search for “May Swenson books” brought up numerous used copies of her many books. If you don’t know this poet at all, she’s especially well known for writing about the body—or “the animal body”—of which the human is one, and she is also known for her  poems that play with shape and form, such as this:

I hope to circle back and share more—or offer a class. We’ll see!

And — this is a p.s. — you can take a peek at the Charles Johnson or David Wagoner archives by visiting https://humanities.wustl.edu/features/joel-minor-charles-johnson-magic-his-hands.

 

 

Tracy K. Smith, Wade in the Water

WADE IN THE WATER, Tracy K. Smith. Graywolf Press, 250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600, Minneapolis, MN 55401, 2019, 96 pages, $16 paper, www.graywolfpress.org.

For my last poet in #nationalpoetrymonth, this book is too perfect. Here’s Graywolf Press’s description:

In Wade in the Water, Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith boldly ties America’s contemporary moment both to our nation’s fraught founding history and to a sense of the spirit, the everlasting. Here, private utterance becomes part of a larger choral arrangement as the collection includes erasures of the Declaration of Independence and correspondence between slave owners, a found poem composed of evidence of corporate pollution and accounts of near-death experiences, a sequence of letters written by African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, and the survivors’ reports of recent immigrants and refugees. Wade in the Water is a potent and luminous book by one of America’s essential poets.
https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/wade-water

I lack words enough to describe this book. “Choral arrangement” helps (beginning with the gospel title). “Luminous” seems overused, but I knew when I found the audio version of Wade in the Water, that I would have to try to write about it. It captures both transcendence and terror, life itself. “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I will Tell You All About It,” one title promises us, and Smith delivers. I would love to know more about the process of writing these poems, or “creating” them, as some are erasures and others, collages of voices of slaves, and of Black Civil War soldiers and veterans. Smith brings it all to the page, and hearing her read this book aloud made my day.

Smith’s first book Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize; she served as U. S. Poet Laureate from 2017-2019. She is a must-read.

This is the first poem in the book, far more conventional than poems later in the collection, but easier for me to reproduce for you. (Find more poems at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/tracy-k-smith#tab-poems.)

Garden of Eden

What a profound longing

I feel, just this very instant,

For the Garden of Eden

On Montague Street

Where I seldom shopped,

Usually only after therapy

Elbow sore at the crook

From a handbasket filled

To capacity. The glossy pastries!

Pomegranate, persimmon, quince!

Once, a bag of black beluga

Lentils spilt a trail behind me

While I labored to find

A tea they refused to carry.

It was Brooklyn. My thirties.

Everyone I knew was living

The same desolate luxury,

Each ashamed of the same things:

Innocence and privacy. I’d lug

Home the paper bags, doing

Bank-balance math and counting days.

I’d squint into it, or close my eyes

And let it slam me in the face—

The known sun setting

On the dawning century.

—Tracy K. Smith

I found numerous recordings on the web, and felt this one–her thoughts on the history and witness of Black poetry, and a tribute to Amanda Gorman–was the perfect one to share.

Brenda Miller, The Daughters of Elderly Women

THE DAUGHTERS OF ELDERLY WOMEN, Brenda Miller. Floating Bridge Press, 909 NE 43rd St, $205, Seattle WA 98105, 2020, 41 pages, $10, paper, www.floatingbridgepress.org.

Not only are these poems I wish I had written, but they are poems I should have written. It’s a meditative, almost spiritual collection, but busy, too—like a care-taking daughter—with minutiae. Doctor appointments, dust, hospital rooms, post-it notes nudging a failing memory, loss.

I knew of Brenda Miller because of her brilliant essays, and her book on writing, co-written with Holly J. Hughes, The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World (Skinner House Press, 2012). She teaches at Western Washington University and is the author of several books of essays. An Earlier Life won the 2017 Washington State Book Award.

The Daughters of Elderly Women won the 2020 Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. And even though it took me on a trip down the rabbit-hole of memory, I read it hungrily. I lapped it up. These poems (several of them titled “The Daughters of Elderly Women”) made me remember that I, too, was a member of this strange tribe. I am happy to recommend it to you.

The Daughters of Elderly Women

are planning ahead.

They print it all out:
Advanced Directive, Power
of Attorney, Last Will and Testament.

In hospital rooms,
at the edges of beds,
they hold a neon form

in their palms
as if it were an oracle—
Physician’s Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment,

beneficent and dangerous
all at once. POLST—almost
pulse, what we look for—

faint throb, Morse code of the heart.

If the body
wants to go, watch it go.

They use the simplest words
possible. They say
it’s up to you

knowing nothing is up to us,
that the body does what it does,

fierce flesh that keeps living

no matter the circumstance.
They explain how CPR damages:
crushed ribs, deprived brain.

The daughters remind
their mothers about the fathers,

the ones who had heart attacks, ended
up in nursing homes, so frail
they couldn’t turn over in bed.

The daughters try not to speak
so fast, words a scatter
of birdshot that dissipates

before reaching the target.

That’s not what you’d want, right?
the daughters say, looking their mothers
in the eye, voices soft
as they’ll ever be.

—Brenda Miller

To learn more about Brenda Miller, visit her website. I found several essays on-line, including this one, “The Blessing of the Animals” (a favorite of mine) at The SunIf you want to purchase the book, you can find it (perhaps on sale) at Floating Bridge Press.

 

Arthur Sze, Sight Lines

SIGHT LINES, Arthur Sze. Copper Canyon Press, PO Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368, 2019, 70 pages, $16 paper, www.coppercanyonpress.org.

Today I started a couple different poetry books and for some reason—I don’t blame the poets—couldn’t get any traction. Then I stumbled across this one, sat down, and read it all the way through. Arthur Sze has long been one of my favorite poets, and Sight Lines is a book I already knew well. I’ve studied the poems and shared them with my writing group. But reading the whole book, all in one go, was a very different experience. (I recommend both approaches.)

Sight Lines is Sze’s 10th book of poetry and it won the National Book Award. The Copper Canyon editors call it “prismatic,” and “stunning.” They’re not wrong. I love the way Sze both eulogizes our crippled planet and celebrates its images. The nest of a spotted towhee, Norway maples, cedar trees, deer, lichen, wild irises. Nothing escapes notice: “a fern rises out // of the crotch of an ‘õhi’a tree and droplets have collected  / on a mule’s foot fern” (“In the Bronx”). Everywhere nature’s fragility is both itself and a reminder—singing to us—of our own fragility: “…only look yes look at me now because you are blink  / about to leave” (“Lichen Song”).

Here’s a poem from a dog-eared page:

Xeriscape

When she hands you a whale vertabra,
you marvel at its heft, at a black

pebble lodged in a lateral nook;
the hollyhocks out the window

stretch into sunshine; a dictionary
in the room is open to xeriscape;

the sidewalk and gravel heat all day
and release warmth into the night;

the woman who sits and writes
sees pressed aspen board, framers

setting window headers and door-
jambs—here no polar bears rummage

at the city dump, no seal-oil lamps
flicker in the tide of darkness—

you know the influx of afternoon
clouds, thunder, ball lightning,

wavering lines of rain that evaporate
before they strike the ground,

as you carefully set the whale bone
on the glass table next to the television.

—Arthur Sze

To read more about Arthur Sze and Sight Lines, visit his page at Copper Canyon. At Poetry Foundation I learned that he has a new book,  The Glass Constellation: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2021) which I will need to get my hands on.