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Monday, August 1, 2011

Swensen's Inventions

One of my most favorite poets of all time is Cole Swensen. She takes a subject, such as glass in The Glass Age (Alice James Books, 2007), and explores it every which way she can. The painter Pierre Bonnard, windows, lenses on cameras, chemical properties—all this and more is explored in a scholarly manner and then employed as the underpinnings for her poems. There is a tremendous amount of historical and scientific fact there, but Swensen at her finest doesn’t become weighted down by reality. It is there as an almost transparent scaffolding behind the deeply imagistic poetry.

My favorite book of Swensen’s (currently, anyway) is The Book of a Hundred Hands (Kuhl House Poets, 2005). The subject of this 125-page book of 100 poems is, you guessed it, hands. What can there be to say in that many poems about hands? Well, you’d be surprised. There’s pretty much nothing that a human can consider that doesn’t have some relationship with hands.

The first section, The History of the Hand, lyrically refers to history and anatomy at a slant. The next section, Positions of the Hand, describes poetically how we grasp, grip, fan, and make other motions or positions. Professions of the Hand and Representations of the Hand have topics which are easy to guess at, but Swensen’s fragmented lines and loosely tethered imagery allow you often to forget what is being described. The reader is transported into the language and out of the physical, despite the fact that it is sheer physicality that makes each and every poem possible.

The fifth section, The Anatomy of the Hand, examines the fingers and the thumb and the Palmar Method with insight and beauty. The sixth section, American Sign Language, is one of my favorites, describing  the implications of the movements of American sign language on the meanings and import of words (see the links to audio files from the Poetry Foundation below). Poems in this section leave me breathless and in tears. The book finishes up with Shadow Puppets, A Manual of Gesture: Public Speaking for the Gentleman (1879), and Paintings of Possible Hands. The final section is ekphrastic, while the pentultimate one is based on an actual manual of the era indicated.

I love Swensen’s tricky mix of thoroughness and whimsy, of research and fantastical imagery. I’m re-reading The Book of a Hundred Hands this summer for the third or fourth or maybe fifth time, I’m not sure, although it’s some number I could count on my own two hands. Swensen accomplishes what I would love to do, but cannot as researched details tend to overwhelm me, and my need to explain and explicate overcomes my lyrical direction. Not so with Swensen, a masterful writer who rarely loses sight of the poetic possibilities, despite her carefully fact-studded preparations and reality-wrought insights.

Links to poems from the book:
The Hands' Testament on Poetry Daily
The Hand Photographed  and The Hand Etched in Glass at the Poetry Experiment
Hand Defined audio from the Poetry Foundation
Understanding the Past, Present and Future audio from the Poetry Foundation
Thinking and Feeling audio from the Poetry Foundation
Pronouns audio from the Poetry Foundation

Addendum on 8/3/11: Still reading The Book of a Hundred Hands at night before I sleep. Last night I was thinking that Swensen's use of fragments, an impulse I admire but cannot copy, is all the more amazing given the fact that her obsessions are so well researched. To learn all that, and then discard most of it requires an egolessness I have not got, that I hope for someday. And it is the better artistic impulse as well.

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