University of Iowa, $10.95 (paper)
Cole Swensen’s sixth book, Try, winner of the 1999 University of Iowa Poetry Prize, is an extended and considerable meditation on paintings and sculptures ranging from the fourteenth to the twentieth century, including the works of Giotto, Bellini, Joseph Albers, Olivier Debre, Hieronymus Bosch, Rembrandt, Claude Lorrain, Fra Angelico, Titian, Rodin, and Gauguin. Swensen concludes the book with a prose poem on a twentieth-century video; however, the majority of the poems concentrate on pre-twentieth -century work–especially the fourteenth through eighteenth centuries–and in particular, on depictions of Christ, Joseph, and Mary.
The poems behave like paintings themselves, many written in the twentieth century dominant mode–the collage–and then arranged in triptychs, with all sections titled in associative riffs off the title of the book–"Triad," "Trilogy," "Triune," "Trio," "Triptych," "Triarchy," "Trinity," "Trine," and "Triage." But one soon loses the impulse to dash to the paintings themselves as reference points. The act of seeing, and seeing as a kind of consciousness, is where Swensen’s true project lies.
For unlike many poets before her who have practiced the art of ekphrasis by describing or illuminating the visual, Swensen is interested in the representation of representation, in examining not only the way the paintings make meaning, but the way language makes meaning of that meaning. Above all, she is interested in the process and procedures of perception.
In the prologue, "Whatever Happened to their Eyes," Swensen begins with a meditation on the depiction of eyes in five paintings from the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, but it is the eye of the viewer that is Swensen’s ultimate concern. We see Giotto’s madonna, "the right eye / traveling, planned, fled and / the left fixing forward like a pin." And on an altarpiece by fourteenth century painter Andrea di Cione, called Orcagna:
has passed but leaving any eye at the center of a painting drilling, stopped in
shock from all moving but forward to where a body barely now is standing:
viewer hold me to you, lace this fracture to a future
is mostly empty space seems to hold the very air in place.
It is not William Carlos Williams’s stilled moment of clarity, nor the dignity of object such an effort of seeing bestows on what is seen that interests Swensen. Rather, it is the complicated scanning, the figure/ground confusion, the synapse and delay, the unsteady vision of a contemporary being casting an eye back to representations of particular time and space:
From late medieval times
through the Renaissance, one loaded site drives
down to a point, and one
could say no it is the face surrounding but and though the mouth, but no
I saw someone leaving
and I saw the world, which was meant only for background, come to life.
Subject/object confusion, and the lack of a single, Cartesian self also inform and complicate Swensen’s position throughout the book:
Distill it. I, who can never be
single, splayed through a chiseled bevel
into the blues and greens and she’s
wearing red, which is why she
gets the depth, thus does not end.
Whether using a calm straight declarative sentence or fragment for the contemporary paintings, or the more anxious, syntactically disruptive mode when examining the more archaic works, Swensen has a painter’s eye for color and texture, and most particularly for gesture and movement. In "Trilogy," when writing on Joseph Albers’ The Interaction of Color (1975), she allows us as viewers to actually enter the painting, which constitutes a most thrilling event. In the first section, "One," a viewer touches the painting with a guard looking anxiously on, and the "she" of the viewer becomes the "she" of the painting, wearing "a bright red coat." In the last section, "Three," Swensen deftly moves between the world of the painting and the world of the gallery until the two merge: "In the painting, all the reaching hands are growing. / In the gallery, everything was green and gold and red."
Throughout the book, this sort of third dimension–where that which is viewed meets viewer–becomes a focal point. For example, in "Triptych,"
the careful act of seeing is the catalyst for such an opening of the doors of perception:
And so Mary took into her hand
And so the child, though sleeping, saw
And so Joseph prayed, stooped and prayed
Poussin: the angel is still there but Joseph looks back at her in fear while Mary
simply looks back and the child, simply, at us. Behind it all, an impossibly
intricate world that turns the sun blue.
The poems are often at their strongest when Swensen is writing about paintings on biblical subjects, and such poems compose roughly two-thirds of the book. The "Triptych" section, for example, is made in much the same manner as many of the individual poems, a form that collages through the centuries different artists’ depictions of the same biblical event, such as "The Flight Into Egypt," where Swensen devises (or perhaps appropriates) an art historian or critic’s voice in lines like "Throughout the Middle Ages and for several centuries thereafter, the eye was / continually directed toward a scene of moving people," juxtaposed against more lyrical utterances like "blue and green / this haze will never falter," and "Touch me and you touch the world because color is simple to fall in love with / a distance."
And Swensen is at her very strongest when such voice-swapping and diction-play leads her to stunning moments, as when Christ speaks from a painting, Le Corrège, in the Prado:
Mary who remembers, who sees her face in rivers,
raise your head a little higher;
the vase on the window sill has fallen, and it was I who grew those flowers
once when I was human I
thought I saw something beautiful. What
do you think you’re doing
with those arms
Better still is this mild, Christ-like humor:
(Sometimes I lean down and, with two fingers only, touch the top of your
head, which makes you carry a skull through the rest of the history of
Swensen’s emphasis on the gestural comprises moments when the very surface of the text becomes punctured. These moments arise or nearly arise throughout the book as she focuses on hands, fingers, arms, and limbs, and their positions within the paintings and the poems: "The natural extension of the hand / is the world is / reflected in its / proper motion here." And in the poem, "Here," there is "the graft of a private history, the tip of a foot that won’t sink back into painting."
Within a book as tightly structured and contained as this, the moments when the surface gets highly jostled, when the subject matter strays, carry a great deal of surprise and effect, as when in "Triage," her most discordant triptych, Swensen closes with the poem "Even," which does not contain any paintings for its reference points, but rather, an anecdote of two lovers, who "were getting nearer and nearer to a physical intimacy, so one day she said, there’s something I think I should tell you; I have no left hand."
Our speed of sight, the filmic surface of contemporary vision, our ability to pan, scan, splice, fragment, and make whole again, are made manifest in Try. By book’s end, we are ultimately caught in the gaze of looking at ourselves. To best exemplify this, Swensen turns to a documentary (of course!) video made in 1993 by Chantal Akerman, and asks, "What if all concerts were performed behind a huge screen onto which was projected a long line of faces all facing us and it had always been done this way. You can see hundreds, even thousands, of faces in fifteen minutes. It lets you lose track of the music."