Friday, October 07, 2011

Cole Swensen, greensward

Over the course of a dozen trade books and numerous chapbooks, American poet Cole Swensen's [see her 12 or 20 questions here] poetry collections have evolved into a sequence of single-book explorations around an idea or series of ideas. Composing poetic sequences with all the thoughtfulness and research of a lengthy essay, Swensen's bounding energy and wordplay, liveliness and cadence have produced the finest poetry to come out of the United States over the past few years. Her poetry collections to date include: It's Alive She Says (CA: Floating Island Press, 1984), New Math (New York NY: William Morrow & Co., 1988), Park (Inverness, CA: Floating Island Press, 1991), Numen (Providence, RI: Burning Deck Press, 1995), Noon (Sun & Moon Press, Los Angeles, CA., 1997), Try (Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1999), Oh (Berkeley, CA: Apogee Press, 2000), Such Rich Hour (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2001), Goest (Alice James Books, 2004), The Book of a Hundred Hands (University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 2005), The Glass Age (Alice James Books, 2007) and Ours: poems on the gardens of Andre Le Notre (University of California Press, 2008).

Her most recent collection, greensward (Brooklyn NY: Ugly Ducking Presse, 2010), a “text by cole swensen with graphic collaboration by shari degraw,” seems to extend some of her previous works on gardens, such as the collection Ours, where she composed poems around notions of the garden, specifically Versailles and its creator, André Le Nôtre. Composed nearly as an essay, greensward is designed as a collaboration between poet and designer, combining stretches and blocks of text over, and alongside maps, drawings and other images historical and archival. The book begins (unpaginated) with these two blocks of prose-poem:
That whatever aesthetics is, it
can only be transmitted to other
species – and it can be transmitted
along with other higher cognatitive
functions – through gardening.

And less alone there, a garden is, in short,
an open link bent on forming more, ever
outward, a line between humans and other
species, falling open, a following thinned to
an horizon with all its attendant aesthetic
principles of balance, rhythm, motion, etc., and
the ethical principles inherent in them, and
in both directions, i.e., it comes back to us.
The way the images and design blends so well with the accompanying text (or, possibly, the other way around) reminds of Don McKay's infamous Long Sault (London ON: Applegarth Follies, 1975), allowing both the space to breathe, mix, co-mingle and even respond to each other. Most of the images in greensward are details taken from larger works by John Rocque (c. 1709-1762), an English surveyor and cartographer known for his engraved plans of English gardens, as well as his detailed map of London published in 1747. Swensen writes, “Well-known at the time for his maps of aristocratic estates and landscape gardens, John Rocque did an etching of a plan of Esher in 1737 that includes two horses in the margin. They are standing alongside a canal, and, facing each other, they are grooming each other's backs in perfectly reciprocal gestures that echo the perfect symmetry of the building on the far bank with its two towers and its two wings.” There are other images in the collection, by Humphry Repton, William Kent and Lancelot Brown, each from similar eras and geographies as Rocque. What exactly precipitated Swensen's fascination with 18th century English gardens, and does it make this project an extension of Ours, a follow-up, or merely the second of a longer series of book-length projects on gardens? As the press release for the book tells us:
Greensward looks at the interaction between animals, humans, and gardens. Often playful, it explores the question of whether animals other than humans have an aesthetic sense, posits that they do, and suggests that they develop it through watching humans garden. The short sections of poetry and prose, sometimes plainspoken, sometimes poised precariously on the line between sense and non-sense, are dovetailed into engravings of 18th century gardens by the artist John Roque. Graphic artist Shari DeGraw and poet Cole Swensen collaborated on excerpting elements from the garden maps and playing with scale and patterning to create a conversation between the visual and verbal elements. Two well-known 18th century garden designers also make cameo appearances, giving the text a historical sweep from the heyday of the English landscape garden to the present.
There is a lovely meditative edge to Swensen's greensward, in the way the poem wanders from point to point, exploring the minute details of various engravings by Rocque and his contemporaries, and just what purposes or meanings their animals held. What do animals know of aesthetics, of gardens?
William Kent's trademark was the dogs. Dogs fill all his garden sketches—they bound on ahead, or they chase a rabbit; they race back toward their people, they leap around the children, and are always shown “taking off,” which is to say, their back feet are always on the ground while their front leap into the air and stop there, poised as sheer energy, as energy surely becomes the arcing that ultimately untangles the body.

And the dog keeps her eyes locked on the vanishing point, which alone is what is pulling them (dog and man) silently, smoothly, inexorably into the heart of the 18th century. It's the future that vanishes, not thinking, and the dog sets off at a run, as it is, as it always has been, her gift and her wish to bring it back to him.

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