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Illustrations by Thomas Nozkowski
Yale University Press ($25)
by Kristen Evans
From the moment the reader takes flare off the shelf, she is asked to think about space and form—two elements Cole Swensen's poetry and Thomas Nozkowski's paintings challenge on both visual and linguistic registers. Published on textured, heavy stock, flare is an oversized book (nearly thirteen inches long) that allows Swensen and Nozkowski ample room to maneuver with long, sweeping lines of poetry and full-color illustrations. In part because of the form the book takes, Swensen's poems are all the more extraordinary for attempting to navigate these registers simultaneously, questioning what it means to write with and about art.
Swensen has always been interested in ekphrastic poetry, and in her recent works—notably Ours (University of California Press, 2008) and The Glass Age (Alice James Books, 2007)—it is easy to see her searching for the most precise way to represent the visual in linguistic terms. In Ours, she explores the carefully cultivated gardens of eighteenth-century French royalty; in The Glass Age, the visual elements examined are those framed by glass, including the windows painted obsessively by post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard. As Swensen strikes out into the territory of contemporary abstract painting in flare, her writing becomes, accordingly, less representational, moving forward by sound rather than image.
Purposefully disorienting, the poems in flare receive their traction from the lengthy lines that pepper these otherwise sparse, language-centered pieces, lines that run the length of the considerably long page. The book opens with two lines that read like facts lifted from an encyclopedia: "The magnetic field of the human heart has actually been measured. It has only a millionth / the strength of that of the earth, but is a hundred times stronger than that of the brain." Lines similar to these will crop up in later poems, creating brief moments of respite from the influx of a language system that has no true center, no solid jumping-off points where we can touch down before being catapulted into a world of dismembered body parts and a fractured sense of time:
salt stole of wind
a slightning sting
if laughing felt
in spine for thrall
all known to the hour
heard alternate wing
or ship that slipped
on sound that whips
a stone from awe
And then, finally, we land: "true vertigo is not the fear of falling so much as the irrepressible urge to leap." Language, in the act of falling, in the act of failing to make narrative sense or to hide itself from us in its purest form—sound—projects us into the vertigo created by Swensen's poetry.
Perhaps for these reasons, the poems in flare take real work to read, asking the reader to question their expectations about poetry, but also making it challenging for them to share in the delight Swensen takes in seeing the world. Swensen's lines are at their strongest when she rouses the ringing clarity and impressionistic qualities that mark her older poems. At times, she is even poignant, musing on the feeling of how time passes, how "an afterhood shattered / in a long swoon," or how
a hat in the sand
marks a moment he thought
and then thought again
at this hour
is the hour itself
Even at its most difficult, flare accomplishes a real kind of work, and Swensen's "irrepressible urge to leap" into new language systems propels us along as she strives to create poetry that corresponds with Nozkowski's illustrations. From each of Swensen's long lines, a phrase is lifted and, in the seamless design of the book, placed on a blank verso page no higher or lower than the corresponding placement of the original line. From "in the bare tree were placed exactly where its eyes would have been if it could have seen everything," the phrase "its eyes would" accompanies a labyrinthine black and white illustration of hundreds of hand-drawn squares marching across the page, the orderliness disrupted in the center of the image by a series of diagonal lines and oblong rectangles. In another pairing, the line "of the many who've gone blind who've learned to see with their hands" transforms into the phrase "the many who've gone." This phrase faces a beautiful full-color illustration with a textured blue background, as though a screen had been pressed into the paint to create a fabric-like effect. Two yellow rectangles, one a pale echo of the other, occupy the foreground, their facing edges rounding out into circles. The geometrical play between the rectangle and the circle is accented by bright, whimsical color blocks, reminiscent of construction paper cut-outs.
Strikingly, many of the phrases drawn from Swensen's poems to accompany Nozkowski's illustrations describe a way of seeing, whether with eyes, hands, or heart. Yet the poems in flare move beyond the urge to respond to or simply describe artwork in the traditional ekphrastic mode. They are new visual and formal systems that attempt to capture what it means to see using the only available tools: a faulty language and its correspondence with another artist's masterful efforts to evoke an image on the page.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010