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Alice James Books, $13.95 (paper)
In previous collections, Cole Swensen submitted opera and painting to refractory procedures of re-description, refreshing our sense of art’s inherent strangeness and our mindfulness of the exigencies of its manufacture. In Goest, her ninth collection, she performs a similar operation on the manifestations and vehicles of light. The mind in apperception is Swensen’s point zero, a site from whose vantage history is subjugated to subordinate clauses that mimic perceptive faculties: “Niepce’s first photograph, / which was the first photograph, / was of a scene of roofs so blurred they were often mistaken for sails.” The poems in Goest’s middle section, “A History of the Incandescent,” again and again return to lamps, lusters, candles, chandeliers; flares, photography, and phosphor; matches and powdered magnesium; “a bright white sheet / [hung] out in the sun to dry.” The book’s title (recalling the biblical Ruth’s “Whither thou goest, I will go”) both indicates a strategy and serves as lament, its homonym “ghost” designating both an observer and the fleetingness of any observation. Facts are filters; roofs are mistaken for sails. Time is “defined as that which, / no matter how barely, exceeds / what the eye could grasp in a glance.” We name things to stay confusion, but “the Red Sea is white, and the Dead Sea, dead.” The astonishing thing is that occasionally we “stumble into brilliance,” discover manganese, and “if we’re lucky, we remember / what the stone looked like.” Swensen catalogues many such ingenious accidents, her graceful transformations of found material calling notions of accident and invention into question. Readers benumbed by the epistemological didacticism of much post-Language poetry will rejoice in Swensen’s blazing, molten effects. If any number of contemporary poems demonstrate that “Any liquid can be weighed by its resistance; / it’s like falling into history, which misses you,” or that “Beyond every
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