In a world filled with loss, diminishment, negation, Cole Swensen offers a book of addition. Not as the too-muchness we often live in, but as a “touch on the lip”; “a play of light on the windowsill”; “dust . . . just that sort of lightness that while unsettling, nonetheless settles.” Each page offers a meditation, in language, through language, of language, all the while managing not to be a book primarily about language.
The book invites the most generative kind of thinking, an active reading that sets the mind roaming from this to that, asking what words might be doing in us and to us; Swenson also draws attention to the moment of actually doing that strange thing, shedding a kind of mottled light onto thinking itself: “There’s a shadow on my hand. It’s where my eye fell,” and my own mind takes in the peripheral view of shadow on my own hand, holding the book. Next sentence: “Not where my eye is falling; it’s the tense that makes it stain. That the tense of a verb has a physical effect. That the act of sight (so different from that of seeing) becomes this mark.” And suddenly my mind is abuzz with new thoughts about seeing vs. sight, movement vs. statis; the flat font on the page on the book that is object; the movement of my eye, connected to mind, connected to body, breath, blood. The physical act of reading. The difference between reading and having read something. The next phrases ask us to think about gaze, about objectifying of people, of bodies, that “sight is fraught with danger. For others.” Then turning the page, she begins again: “Thinking of a shadow—of something not in itself material—as casting a shadow. For instance, a flaw in the windowpane,” and we are off again, back in the current.
These essayistic, short, poetic vignettes are witty, charming, smart, while still feeling humble and honest—a mastery that questions and undermines its own voice, but not overtly or annoyingly so; the questioning feels of a deep craft, honed over many years working in language. Like an expert river guide placing her oars, each phrase offers a subtle turn in a larger flow of questions. Pages 50-55 are titled “Winds,” “Sailboats,” “Wind,” and in “Wind” she asks questions of voice, syntax, speech, words, through images of feathers, sailboats, trees, “and the fur on the tops of the ears of everything listening,” ending the revery with a moment of intimacy (which she does throughout the book), making the thinking close, meaningful, bringing it home, so to speak:
The night wind is blustering hugely just beyond the window and, on the other side of you, your partner, not exactly snoring, but audibly sleeping; between the two is the zone of the soul. It’s a large zone, and it’s not at any point attached to you, but it is, nonetheless, your soul.
It is a book of reflection, of simple thoughts, ideas, images, stories, and deep questions. It seems important that it is also “free,” not participating in the transactional economy in the standard way, but offered as a genuine gift to read and to pass on, my thoughts and your thoughts invited in, the questions and conversation expanding in and through our shared language, our memory, which she describes as “a huge grazing ground enriching us all calmly and greenly and continually expanding.”
I want to pick up on the image from “Wind” Kristy mused on, as it feels so emblematic of this slender volume’s immense and ongoing generosity. The “night wind is blustering hugely,” and the partner in bed audibly sleeps, the poet here the one who is awake enough to tend to both. The gale and the audible breath mimic each other, each speaking toward the same principle, an ancient one, connected not only to air and breath, but to spirit, to pneuma—that force that binds star to seed, a single living breathing potency that binds all life into a myriad one. Or, as Cole Swensen so rightly puts it, the very demarcation of the “zone of the soul,” which, contrary to common opinion, isn’t an entity within us, but an immensity outside of us. “Winds,” stitches the concern to language itself—a care Swensen weaves throughout the book, making of a poetics as much as a book of poems:
I grew up surrounded by huge winds, in a house on a ridge surrounded by huge trees, which raises the question: is the wind huge in itself, or is it the trees that make it so? And now returning years later, I hear it in terms of syntax. I think that I always heard it syntactically—as a problem of sequential development—wind being, if nothing else, directionality. But so many years later, I can see something inherent in wind that relates to syntax differently, and that is feathering. As such, wind offers a syntactical model of forward momentum that is yet constantly fissured with infinite, infinitesimal lateral propensities. What this model might offer to the possibilities of linguistic expression is dubious, but perhaps worth exploring.
The wind is a lesson in grammar—I always thought it might be so. The sly encouragement to think via dubious methods suppresses the ease of our instinct to attribute language’s meaning as an arbitrary but agreed upon set of signifiers to something both more wild and more intimate. Remember somewhere at the origin of poetry’s potency is Orpheus and a lyre, and when he sang songs about stones they rolled toward him to listen. So of the trees. So of the rabbits. So of us now. Swensen is psychopomp back to an orphic sense of voice, one the critic Elizabeth Sewell, in The Orphic Voice, describes in these terms:
This means giving up the right to abstract language into timeless pattern, and making the effort to grasp it not as a fixed phenomenon but as a moving event, language plus mind, subject to time and process and change—to try and think in biological terms, perhaps.
And a little later:
. . . a kind of manual of language and mind as a dance of relations, moving and not static, which may help us forward.
The last could serve as worthy blurb for And And And. Swensen is returning us to a kind of first poetics, a prima poieia, in which word and world are co-creative and mutually flourishing. Here language doesn’t define, doesn’t categorize, doesn’t lay claim to fact or knowledge. What paltry things such certainties are against the ongoing mystery of the vital energy stitching one life to every other life, including the life of that strange creature we call in our language abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz.
And hence, the thought of a collaborative review—as the gale that blows through this lovely volume blows through my wife and me with equal force. So may it blow through you—though finding it for yourself is its own lovely maze. And And And is Volume 3 of the Poetry and Poetics Series from Free Poetry, the poet Martin Corless-Smith’s gift to the rest of us—and gift in the truest sense, one that refuses to take part in copyright, in the po-biz of publishing, an anarchic venture that is publishing right now some of the most verdant thinking on poetry and poetics and doing so outside of any model of current economy that makes it a viable venture. How beautiful and necessary is that? Click on the link to see the other volumes, and if you get in touch to ask for some of them, and you should, find a way to get postage the good editor’s way. Or not. Ask for two, give one away, and become yourself one of the ones through whom the good wind blows.
About the Reviewer
Kristy Beachy-Quick is currently a practitioner of reading, writing, and making pottery, having previously worked in social policy research and evaluation. This review is her first journal publication. Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and translator, and is a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar at Colorado State University.