Wednesday, June 7, 2017

That the Soul May Wax Plump

Nature: Poems Old and New by May Swenson

It was in reading Megan Marshall’s recent biography of Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, that I was reminded of the poet May Swenson, of her friendship with Bishop, of their lengthy correspondence, and of her poems themselves, which I’d remembered liking very much. Considering them again, I was pleasantly surprised.

Water Picture

In the pond in the park
all things are doubled:
Long buildings hang and
wriggle gently. Chimneys
are bent legs bouncing
on clouds below. A flag
wags like a fishhook
down there in the sky.

The arched stone bridge
is an eye, with underlid
in the water. In its lens
dip crinkled heads with hats
that don’t fall off. Dogs go by,
barking on their backs.
A baby, taken to feed the
ducks, dangles upside-down,
a pink balloon for a buoy.

Treetops deploy a haze of
cherry bloom for roots,
where birds coast belly-up
in the glass bowl of a hill;
from its bottom a bunch
of peanut-munching children
is suspended by their
sneakers, waveringly.

A swan, with twin necks
forming the figure 3,
steers between two dimpled
towers doubled. Fondly
hissing, she kisses herself,
and all the scene is troubled:
water-windows splinter,
tree-limbs tangle, the bridge
folds like a fan.

Digging in the Garden of Age I Uncover a Live Root
                                          ( For E.W.)

The smell of wet geraniums. On furry
    leaves, transparent drops rounded
         as cat’s eyes seen sideways.
    Smell of the dark earth, and damp
brick of the pots you held, tamped empty.
    Flash of the new trowel. Your eyes
    green in greenhouse light. Smell of
       your cotton smock, of your neck
      in the freckled shade of your hair.
A gleam of sweat in your lip’s scoop.
   Pungent germanium leaves, their wet
smell when our widening pupils met.

Anna Thilda May Swenson was born to Swedish immigrants in Logan, Utah in 1913. After college she settled all but permanently in New York City where she worked—while writing and publishing her poetry—as a stenographer, a ghost writer, and a manuscript reader at the groundbreaking New Direction Press. Her honors included fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ford, Rockefeller, and MacArthur foundations, as well as a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Of the poet and her work writer Cynthia Ozick remarked, “Swenson sees more minutely than anyone, and with a nearly holy exactitude.”  Note for yourself the ‘nearly holy exactitude’ in this, perhaps my favorite of all her poems:

That the Soul May Wax Plump

My dumpy little mother on the undertaker’s slab
had a mannequin’s grace. From chin to foot
the sheet outlined her, thin and tall. Her face
uptilted, bloodless, smooth, had a long smile.
Her head rested on a block under her nape,
her neck was long, her hair waved, upswept. But later,
at ‘the viewing,’ sunk in the casket in pink tulle,
an expensive present that might spoil, dressed
in Eden’s green apron, organdy bonnet on,
she shrank, grew short again, and yellow. Who
put the gold-rimmed glasses on her shut face, who
laid her left hand with the wedding ring on
her stomach that really didn’t seem to be there
under the fake lace?

Mother’s work before she died was self-purification,
A regimen of near starvation, to be worthy to go
To Our Father, Whom she confused (or, more aptly, fused)
With our father, in Heaven long since. She believed
In evacuation, an often and fierce purgation,
Meant to teach the body to be hollow, that the soul
May wax plump. At the moment of her death, the wind
Rushed out from all her pipes at once. Throat and rectum
Sang together, a galvanic spasm, hiss of ecstasy.
Then, a flat collapse. Legs and arms flung wide,
Like that female Spanish saint slung by the ankles
To a cross, her mouth stayed open in a dark O. So,
Her vigorous soul whizzed free. On the undertaker’s slab, she
Lay youthful, cool, triumphant, with a long smile.

Here, bristling with intelligence, with life, is one of her many long letters to Elizabeth Bishop:


Finally, this is Swenson reading some of her own work at the Poetry Center in New York: Click Here

Peter Adam Nash

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