by Gillian Conoley
Cole Swensens 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 workespecially the fourteenth through eighteenth centuriesand in particular, on depictions of Christ, Joseph, and Mary.
The poems behave like paintings themselves, many written in the twentieth century dominant modethe collageand 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 Swensens 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 Swensens ultimate concern. We see Giottos 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:
It is not William Carlos Williamss 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
Subject/object confusion, and the lack of a single, Cartesian self also inform and complicate Swensens position throughout the book:
single, splayed through a chiseled bevel
into the blues and greens and shes
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 painters 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 dimensionwhere that
which is viewed meets viewerbecomes a focal point. For example, in "Triptych,"
And so Mary took into her hand
Poussin: the angel is still there but Joseph looks back at her in fear while
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 critics 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,
Better still is this mild, Christ-like humor:
(Sometimes I lean down and, with two fingers only, touch the top of your
Swensens 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 wont 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, theres 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 books 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." n