Spring 1991, Volume 8.1
May in October: Life and Death as Existential Riddles in May Swenson's Poetry
The home in which poet May Swenson spent most of her childhood was torn down in 1986 by its new owner, Utah State University, which has allowed the property to deteriorate to a parking lot for junked cars and a weed-infested field. Located on east Fifth North Street in Logan, Utah, just below College Hill, the deep lot always had a hint of wildness. Not visible from the street were the overgrown ditch banks, the hives where her father kept bees, the thick tangle of raspberry bushes, the hollyhocks, the wild patches of chamomile, and the orchard of fruit trees in the back lot. Passersby saw the neat brick home her father built, the shade trees, and at a discreet distance behind the main house, a frame home containing apartments that her father later constructed to rent to college students.
When I was little, when
the poplar was in leaf,
its shadow made a sheaf,
the quill of a great pen
dark upon the lawn
where I used to play. ("The Poplar's Shadow" stz. 1)
The lawn is now gone, of course. All is wildness. A crude, fading sign, "Swenson parking," is nailed to one of the remaining Linden trees near the curb. The cracked concrete of what was once the east driveway is faintly discernible beneath the undergrowth. The tall, ascetic lombardy poplar tree that May Swenson described in "The Poplar's Shadow," which once distinguished the slope above the driveway, has been removed.
On Memorial Day, 1990 (which happened to be May Swenson's birthday), we talked at her gravesite in the Logan cemetery about the foolishness of selling her parents' home after her mother's death in 1973. As her siblings, our remonstrations were vague and slightly hollow. We had all participated. As the youngest of ten (May was the oldest), I had benefitted directly from the sale, using my share of the inheritance as a down payment on my own home. A sister who had protested most articulately years ago about the loss of the home was not on hand that day to observe our ironic ambivalence about what we had wrought.
We had often met in Logan, on or around May's birthday—the family visit was a sign of spring. (As a three-year-old, May had puzzled at the coincidence—"My name is May, I was born in May and my birthday is in May.")
Now, while we gathered to choose a monument for May's grave, the vision of another monument's destruction intruded. While pilgrimages to the ancestral homes of such distinguished poets as Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop were now commonplace, who would visit May Swenson's home when it had been levelled? Among the most anthologized American poets of the twentieth century, her critical reputation was likely to increase in years to come. She had preserved concrete symbols of childhood in her work ("Dad could do/anything. He built our dining table,/chairs, the buffet, the bay window/seat, my little desk of cherry wood/where I wrote my first poems"), but now some of these objects were gone.
These few lines quoted above are from a watershed Swenson poem, "October," first published in The New Yorker in October 1977, which blends a multiplicity of themes that resonated in her work over the half century of her career. The central theme, of course, is death—death and decay. For a poem infused with sadness, it is not lacking in playfulness, or in an insinuating, tickling use of language that had long characterized her style. And like her work in general, the poem is brimming with life. Thematically, visually, aurally, her work was always the unfashionable antithesis of minimalism. (Critic Mary Jo Salter complains of her "neat classifications of assonance, consonance, rhyme and off-rhyme . . . . ") Swenson's mind and imagination (even their inner workings) are on display in "October," but so is her sensuality, her humor and her deep passion for the natural world. The poem also has a dimension that should be called spiritual.
While she may have come to terms with her agnosticism as early as her teens, Swenson kept these feelings largely to herself. Her parents were devout Mormons, whose families were converted to the new religion in their native Sweden before their emigration to this country.
Very early, she had her own way of looking at the world. She was engrossed in the "thingyness" of things—the "rounded stone" shell of a turtle, the "thick impasto" of smashed insects on a car windshield. It was a paradox that the physicality and the concreteness of her investigations yielded the essence as well. As she turned things over in her hand, or in her mind, she made her observations as meticulously as a scientist or a detective, but she recorded them with the second sight of a philosopher/poet. It was a sureness of vision and a self reliance that would serve her throughout her life.
"I live on the north shore of Long Island," she related in a 1976 recording she made for Caedmon Records, which includes her reading of several of her poems. "My windows face the water and before me, whether I am outdoors or in, is Hempstead Harbor, with its moods and tides. The movement and sound of water is ever present like a deep subliminal current and rhythm of primal consciousness. I confess to pagan feelings and tendencies. My totems and my emblems are the sun, the sea, time and space, animals, including the human animal, and the central mystery of every natural object."
It was with a view of a building storm in this harbor that she began her seven-stanza poem "October," each stanza (after the second) shifting scenes in time, space and memory, circling back to the woods that surrounded her house and overlooked the bay. This essay will also make a full circle by quoting each successive stanza of "October" in introducing a new section. The poem draws on family and childhood (also recurring themes), religious imagery, biblical metaphor and not only the mystery of natural objects, but of life and death themselves.
A smudge for the horizon
that, on a clear day, shows
the hard edge of hills and
buildings on the other coast.
Anchored boats all head one way:
north, where the wind comes from.
You can see the storm inflating
out of the west. A dark hole
in gray cloud twirls, widens
while white rips multiply
on the water far out.
Wet tousled yellow leaves,
thick on the slate terrace.
The jay's hoarse cry. He's
stumbling in the air,
too soaked to fly. ("October" stz. 1)
Knuckles of the rain
on the roof,
chuckles into the drain-
pipe, spatters on
the leaves that litter
the grass. Melancholy
morning, the tide full
in the bay, an overflowing
bowl. At least, no wind,
no roughness in the sky,
its gray face bedraggled
by its tears. ("October" stz. 2)
The seemingly flat, almost banal recital of the visual details of the poem's day is deceptively freighted with emotion. Sounds break the placid surface—knuckles, chuckles, spatters. The soaked jay, "stumbling" in the air, is an ominous, almost pathetic image, his cry a warning. The bowl of the bay overflows in the sky's tears.
Death images and death poems appear very early in the Swenson oeuvre—she played with this central mystery in such poems as "Rusty Autumn" ("O mummied breast O brown mother hold me/though you are cold and I am grown grown old"), and the much-anthologized "Question":
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen ("Question" stz. 1)
While death was a major theme in Swenson's work from beginning to end, it was only a puzzle part in a much bigger picture. Intrigued by the riddles of existence, she herself was a riddler—both raveller and unraveller. With a body of work that came to be known as riddle poems (contained in the the books Poems to Solve and More Poems to Solve), she teased the popular stereotype of the obscurity of modern poetry, inventing a game in which the reader could be directly engaged. In these poems, the subject of the work is never directly mentioned, either in the title or the body. In such well-known poems as "By Morning," "At Breakfast," and "Southbound on the Freeway," the effect depends on the accumulated weight of image, nuance and technique to trip the mind's wire. (Curiously, when The New Yorker published the very first of these, "By Morning," in 1954, a literal-minded editor felt it necessary to append a parenthetical "snow" after the title, overriding Swenson's objections.)
"I took my cat apart/to see what makes him purr," she wrote in "The Secret in the Cat." As raveller/unraveller, Swenson took things apart in her poetry (her cat, a watch, a universe) and put them back together again. At the watchfixer's shop in "The Watch," she nervously observes the surgery. "I/watched him/split her/in three layers and lay her/middle—a quivering viscera—in a circle on a little plinth." As the operation proceeds, the poet feels faint. "I/was about to lose my/breath—my/ticker going lickety split—when watchfixer clipped her/three slices together with a gleam and two flicks of his/tools like chopsticks. He/spat out his/eye, lifted her/high, gave her/a twist, set her/hands right, and laid her/little face, quite as usual, in its place on my/wrist."
In "The Universe," a poem that metaphysically explores one of her favorite subjects—space—Swenson asks, "What is it about,/the universe about us stretching out?/We, within our brains,/within it,/think/we must unspin/the laws that spin it." Although she never considered herself religious in any conventional sense of the word, Swenson always put her own spin on the ultimate questions.
Peeling a pear, I remember
my daddy's hand. His thumb
(the one that got nipped by the saw,
lacked a nail) fit into
the cored hollow of the slippery
half his knife skinned so neatly.
Dad would pare the fruit from our
orchard in the fall, while Mother
boiled the jars, prepared for
"putting up." Dad used to darn
our socks when we were small,
and cut our hair and toenails.
Sunday mornings, in pajamas, we'd
take turns in his lap. He'd help
bathe us sometimes. Dad could do
anything. He built our dining table,
chairs, the buffet, the bay window
seat, my little desk of cherry wood
where I wrote my first poems. That
day at the shop, splitting panel
boards on the electric saw (oh, I
can hear the screech of it now,
the whirling blade that sliced
my daddy's thumb) he received the mar
that, long after, in his coffin,
distinguished his skilled hand. ("October" stz. 3)
It was in 1977, with the leaves beginning to turn on 13th East in Salt Lake City, that I sat in the passenger seat of a car, en route to the University of Utah, reading "October" from the pages of The New Yorker for the first time. The confluence of emotions that I felt comes to me now. The poem's controlled rhetorical power, the evocation of my father's death, and the intimations of my sister May's mortality were a potent combination. There was also a sense of dZj vu, since four autumns earlier, another Swenson poem in The New Yorker, "September Things," had a telling first line: "Brutal sound of acorns/falling." The placement of this poem in the magazine—immediately following Pauline Kael's review of Jan Troell's epic film, The Emigrants, about the Swedish migration to America around the turn of the century—spliced together a curious genealogy in my head. The poem, the film (which I had just seen), and the review merged, connecting May and me more intimately with our parents' physical and metaphysical voyages to this land. More strangely, the merger also linked three of my personal heroes—the poet May Swenson, the critic Pauline Kael and the Appalachian folksinger and musician Doc Watson, whose haunting hymn, "The Lost Soul," appears on the soundtrack of the movie.
My sister May left Utah for New York City when I was less than two years old. Curiously, I felt a deep connection with her poetry before I knew her well as a sister or a person. In the early 1960s, I drove cross country alone and stayed at her small apartment on Perry Street in Greenwich Village for a week. There, the poetry, my sister and the poet began to coalesce. In the late 1960s, she visited our small apartment on 12th East in Salt Lake City, which we entered from a cluttered back alley. While that alley was sometimes redolent with garbage, only two visitors in seven years employed other senses to name and identify the variety of birdlife which made that urban landscape its home. One was May Swenson and the other was Doc Watson.
May Swenson's immersion in her art did not signify a withdrawal from life. Just as she created the interior worlds of her poems, she created her own world's view and philosophy. but she maintained a remarkable connection with, and openness to her family—always sensitive to how her parents might regard the life-choices she had made, never insecure or confrontive about her own or others' belief systems. In the late 1950s, in a letter to her father, she wrote:
Dad, I expect you sometimes wonder about me and perhaps feel pain at the fact that I seem to be 'outside the fold'—not only that I have spent so many years at a distance from home, but that my beliefs and attitudes seem different from most of the rest of the family. I want to point to the fact that this seeming separation, or opposition, is actually not the case—that, in fact, it proves my likeness to you and mother and my comparison with you (at least psychologically)—for just as you and mother were not content with inherited knowledge and belief, with the traditional way of life of your parents and ancestors and felt the need to find a new faith and even a new land for yourselves, I had this same impulse.
It is a healthy impulse—it is really the evolutionary impulse itself at its root, which accounts for all progress (for decay as well, perhaps)—let us say, for change, which is the dynamics of life. I do not know whether I am making a big circle with my life (I hope it is not a zero!) simply in order to arrive, in the end, where I started—but even if this turns out to be the case, the journey would not be entirely foolish because every sensitive human being is confronted with the necessity of learning by himself, of discovering through experience, and is simply incapable of taking his course in life for granted as pointed out by parents or others in authority—just as there are many human beings, more docile, who are incapable of taking any other course than that recommended by the majority around them. (Letter)
I sit with braided fingers
and closed eyes
in a span of late sunlight.
The spokes are closing.
It is fall: warm milk of light,
though from an aging breast.
I do not mean to pray.
The posture for thanks or
supplication is the same
as for weariness or relief.
But I am glad for the luck
of light. Surely it is godly,
that it makes all things
begin, and appear, and become
actual to each other.
Light that's sucked into
the eye, warming the brain
with wires of color.
Light that hatched life
out of the cold egg of earth. ("October" stz. 4)
If worship can mean a studious devotion, a bottomless curiosity, a heightened capacity for wonder and awe, a refusal to sentimentalize or trivialize the intensity or infinite variety of life experience, perhaps May Swenson's poetry—at least in these ways—can qualify as worship. Yet she herself has issued her disclaimer ("I do not mean to pray.")
On April 5, 1984, May Swenson delivered an essay on Emily Dickinson at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City, under the auspices of the Academy of American Poets, celebrating the 50th Year of the Academy and in commemoration of 100 years since Dickinson's death.
Swenson identified with Dickinson's fierce independence and with her willingness to live her life according to her own lights. She reports that much of Dickinson's writing "was done in her room at night while the others slept, all of it carried on in secret. Sundays were welcomed as writing days since housework was curtailed, and because she did not go to church with the rest of the family, she had the quiet house to herself. One Sunday (as told to Mabel Loomis Todd by Emily's sister Lavinia), Father Dickinson, assembling the family for church, could not find young Emily anywhere. She had disappeared. 'Late in the afternoon, Vinnie discovered her rocking away peacefully in the cellar bulkhead, reading a book.'"
Swenson notes that "Emily did not like church, but she loved God. . . . She had intimate quarrels with God in some poems, and was not above humourous blasphemy." She cites Dickinson's quatrain:
God is indeed a jealous God
He cannot bear to see
That we had rather not with him
But with each other play.
An avid player in life's gambol, often in rhetorical and visual games of her own devising, May Swenson's poetic interest and imagination extended to everything from football ("Watching the Jets Lose to Buffalo at Shea"), to space exploration, to a sort of cosmic play. If there were gods in the cosmos, in Swenson's view, should we not invite them into the game as well? But which role should they take?
They are born naked
and without tails.
Their blood is red.
They are children until they die,
and then "are God's children."
Are gods . . . children. . .
Are gods children?
And if there were a cosmic playwright, what sort of play would he or she write? While Swenson may or may not be alluding to such a question with her poem "To Make A Play," she wasn't waiting around for a definitive answer. She had written her own script.
To make a play
is to make
people; to make
new. So real.
In Swenson's view of the cosmos, evolutionary processes are always at work. The title of her first book of poems, Another Animal, published in 1954, was sometimes misunderstood to refer to the book's hoard of animal poems. "The 'Animal' of the title refers to man," she said, "and it implies there will be 'another animal' after man. Evolution goes on."
Dark wild honey, the lion's
eye color, you brought home
from a country store.
Tastes of the work of shaggy
bees on strong weeds,
their midsummer bloom.
My brain's electric circuit
glows, like the lion's iris
that, concentrated, vibrates
while seeming not to move.
Thick transparent amber
you brought home,
the sweet that burns. ("October" stz. 5)
May Swenson's art, as evidenced in the poem "October," recognizes no barriers between the intellectual, the spiritual and the sensual. Her "brain's electric circuit glows," like the concentrated vibration of a "lion's iris," the color of "Dark wild honey." In free association, it becomes the "Thick transparent amber/you brought home" from a country store—"the sweet that burns."
That phrase—"the sweet that burns" is a fitting evocation of the sensuousness of her work as a whole. In the often sinuous, sometimes voluptuous lines of such "shape" poems as "The DNA Molecule" and "the Powerhouse" (collected in her book Iconographs), form becomes content, and content is represented as form.
In the punningly titled "A Couple," nature is a showcase of sensuality. "A bee/rolls/in the yellow/rose./Does she/invite his hairy rub?/He scrubs himself in her creamy folds./A bullet soft imposes/her spiral and, spinning, burrows/to her dewy shadows."
Nothing is ever innocuous in a Swenson poem. A deceptively predictable subway trip on New York's "A" train ("Riding the 'A'"), makes her feel "like a ball-/bearing in a roller skate." Her face is "a negative in the slate/window, I sit/in a lit/corridor that races/through a dark one". . ."Wheels/and rails/in their prime/collide,/make love in a glide/of slickness/and friction./It is an elation/I wish to pro-/long./The station/is reached/too soon." Written in the 1950s when the subways were relatively clean, the poem may not have the same appeal to today's commuters, who might not be able to imagine why one would resist premature evacuation.
"The very hairs of your head
are numbered," said the words
in my head, as the haircutter
snipped and cut, my round head
a newel poked out of the tent
top's slippery sheet, while my
hairs' straight rays rained
down, making pattern on the neat
vacant cosmos of my lap. And
maybe it was those tiny flies,
phantoms of my aging eyes, seen
out of the sides floating (that,
when you turn to find them
full face, always dissolve) but
I saw, I think, minuscule,
marked in clearest ink, Hairs
#9001 and #9002 fall, the cut-off
ends streaking little comets,
till they tumble to confuse
with all the others in their
fizzled heaps, in canyons of my
lap. And what keeps asking
in my head now that, brushed off
and finished, I'm walking
in the street, is how can those
numbers remain all the way through,
and all along the length of every
hair, and even before each one
is grown, apparently, through
my scalp? For, if the hairs of my
head are numbered, it means
no more and no less of them
have ever, or will ever be.
In my head, now cool and light,
thoughts, phantom white flies,
take a fling: This discovery
can apply to everything. ("October" stz. 6)
Something that could apply to everything was an intriguing notion to the poet. I'm not sure she believed she had found such a thing, but she played with the idea. It appears, in different forms, in several of her poems. In "The Key to Everything," she satirically exposes the absurdity of trying to figure everything out (she's poking fun at herself) and the futility of trying to unravel the complexity of human relations. In "How Everything Happens (Based on a Study of the Wave)," she typographically simulates the motion of the wave to take us through the ascent and descent of the universal laws of motion and energy.
When nothing is happening
When it happens
The poem continues in its mathematical progression, represented typographically on the page: "When pulling back happens/stacking up has happened./When it has happened/something pulls back while/nothing stacks up. Then nothing is happening."
Swenson wrote to critic Sven Birkerts in November 1988: "Changes in my technique have not been predetermined, have been largely instinctive, even subconscious. I'm an autodidact. I do not 'cook by the book' but only aim, with each particular 'dish' to have it taste right—to my own tongue, of course. Tastes change with time. I think that either a strict or a loose style—formal or casual—is valid, as long as it fits the content of a poem. I let each poem find its individual structure and language in the course of the making. I hope to avoid being influenced by other poets' methods."
In a telephone conversation with me in 1987, later quoted in an article in Utah Holiday magazine, she described herself as "partly sensuous, but I also have a scientific bent. I want to know how things actually are." Exposure to new environments "made me see things fresh—as if I were seeing them for the first time. I come at poetry in the only way I can, because I'm not really an intellectual. My mind doesn't work that way. I come at it in a more primitive way."
She looked at death and was interested in it from the beginning. And near the end of life she was flashing back to the beginning in such poems as "My Name Was Called" and the soon-to-be-published "Memory of the Future? Prophecy of the Past?" Evolution, change, transition, death—all were pieces in the mysterious mosaic of existence. Had she been able to observe the destruction now on display where her childhood home once stood, I believe she likely would have seen even this scene — a fruitful lot gone to seed as part of natural processes at work. She would not, I know, avert her eyes or turn away. 7
Now and then, a red leaf riding
the slow flow of gray water.
From the bridge, see far into
the woods, now that limbs are bare,
ground thick-littered. See,
along the scarcely gliding stream,
the blanched, diminished, ragged
swamp and woods the sun still
spills into. Stand still, stare
hard into bramble and tangle,
past leaning broken trunks,
sprawled roots exposed. Will
something move? some vision
come to outline? Yes, there
deep in a dark bird hangs
in the thicket, stretches a wing.
Reversing his perch, he says one
"Chuck." His shoulder-patch
that should be red looks gray.
This old redwing has decided to
stay, this year, not join the
strenuous migration. Better here,
in the familiar to fade. ("October" stz. 7)
May Swenson died on 4 December 1989 of a heart attack at Bethany Beach, Delaware.
•Acknowledgments: Weber Studies thanks the estate of May Swenson for permission to quote in full the poems "October" and "How Everything Happens (Based on a Study of the Waves)."