Online Edition: Summer 2005

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Goest

Cole Swensen

Alice James Books ($13.95)

by Erik Anderson

The structure of Cole Swensen's latest, Goest, functions much like a single page: the book's three sections--entitled, "Of White," "A History of The Incandescent," and "On White"--mirror the format of "margins" surrounding "substance." Only there is nothing marginal about Goest. The book explodes the assumption of the "empty" portion of the page, while equally exploring the nature of the "filled" portion of it. What emerges is an absence that is really present around a poem, almost haunting it as its lines jut out into space, inventing a language as it goes:

so that with a single downward glance you can be
the infinitesimal:
                              Sing:
                              if in pieces
                              we are accurate
here the we accrues.

The book's central section, "A History of the Incandescent"--which, as its title suggests, brims with references to vehicles for, and materials producing, light--is its most substantial. It is also, unlike the other sections of the book, organized around factual, or seemingly factual, material (Swensen tells us it is based on John Beckmann's 19th century A History of Inventions, Discoveries, and Origins). But while the poems contain facts ("In the early 18th century, London hung some 15,000 lamps"), they are not, as has been suggested, arrangements of found materials. As Swensen relates in a recent interview, she does not "take other texts and collage or mix them"; rather, her method is to read and to write "in response to words that stand out on the page." Any facts the poems contain are diving boards for pools of rhyme and pun, distortion and song:

For the fabrication of artificial tears, John Christian Schulenburg, 1695,
sent a bitter silicate
                              to brittle it              to thin air
                              And dropped from there to fusing water
                                                                                                                   the entire
seventeenth century tier after tier

The book as a whole rotates around the details of light and invention in "A History of the Incandescent," but Swensen isn't making heroes out of the inventors or their inventions--she's celebrating inventiveness itself. Truth, i.e. the "facts" the book contains, are less important than the spirit in which they are conveyed. That which is presented as true is often distorted by the end. In "The Lives of Saltpeter," as in much of the book, there are two seas running parallel: in one, there exists the "true" story of the invention of glass by sailors; in the other, there exists the inventive story of the invention of glass:

Glass made its first appearance
on the shores outside Belus
                           when sailors placed blocks of saltpeter under cooking pots
                           causing the sand to fuse along the entire edge of the sea
ran another sea that refused to move

has been proved false. It simply wouldn't have worked.

The title of the poem presents itself as a similar sort of double: how easy it would be to read "The Lives of Saltpeter" as the "The Life of Saint Peter" (as easy as reading "Ghost" for "Goest"). And why not be reverent? The poem is at play.

The margins, the sections "Of White" and "On White," in keeping with their nature as margins, are parallels of each other: both contain serial poems entitled "Five Landscapes," and poems in response to a Cy Twombly exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. (a portion of which is available online at http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2001/twombly/twombly1.shtm). These sections are airier, not as concerned with the world as fact. Like Twombly's sculptures, they are "about" their interaction with, and invention of, the space around them. At the same time, the poems invoke a sense that what is being presented is subject to change:

Niepce's first photograph,
which was the first photograph,
was of a scene of roofs so blurred they were often mistaken for sails.

One clause follows another, distorting or appending the one before it; language becomes like a haze over the very words in employs: "in pieces or entire; its presence / veneers over want; in all its moving parts, it could be something else."

But "Of White" and "On White" are different sections. For instance, in the first "Five Landscapes" series there is little movement, as the poet watches through a third-person haze: "the air across the valley is slightly hazy though thinning though patches remain...A child...is turning to walk down to the lake." In the second series, however, an "I" is moving through landscapes on a train on a vibrant summer day:

There's a wedding in a field I am passing in a train
                                                                                a field
in the green air, in the white air, an emptier here
                                                                                the field is everywhere
because it looks like something similar somewhere else.

What was objectivity and inertia in the first series has transformed to color and movement and expression in the second--perhaps as the mind is transformed after crossing the poem's line from the left hand margin to the right.

Although the first and the last section of the book, as opposed to the central section, are obsessed with fields, presences, spaces, hazes, they are so while retaining a sense of playfulness and music: "and of all he touched it is said / the Red Sea is white, and the Dead Sea, dead. Is a thread / seen end on." The margins aren't empty: they form the space in which the inventiveness of the central section is sung into place ("it's called solmifying--to solmizate in the infinitive; transitive: to sing / any object into place").

There's no shortage of material here; and no matter how minimalist some of the poems may be, they are carried by their rigor, wit, and song. Like most of Swensen's work, and most good work in general, Goest may require a few readings, but the reader will find no shortage of pleasure and reward in them, given a little time:

                                             defined as that which,
                                             no matter how barely, exceeds
                                             what the eye could grasp in a glance:
intricate woods opening out before a body of water edged
with a swatch of meadow where someone has hung a bright white sheet
out in the sun to dry.

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