Issue 1 – Winter 2001 – Jonathan Minton on Cole Swensen (Review)

On the Border of Language

Cole Swensen, Such Rich Hour. University of Iowa Press, 2001, 110 pp. $16.00

Cole Swensen’s tenth book, Such Rich Hour (University of Iowa Press, 2001), investigates the margins between the medieval world and the Renaissance, and in doing so, suggests that the marginal is not so much a space on the edge, but a vital, and flourishing, space between:

                 …In the peripheral field, an impression of light that,
                 like other things, can’t be named
                                     (all living takes place
                           (just before the word
                           was said
                           was hidden (or slid, envelope style)

Thus, the margin is the space open to ongoing investigations of habitat and origin, where writing delicately hovers between the spoken and the unspoken. As Kathleen Fraser, with whom Swensen has worked as the translation editor for How2, suggests, “from that edge or brink or borderline we call the margin, we are able to create another center–a laboratory in which to look for the unknown elements we suspect are there.”

Such explorations inevitably lead to a revision of the line, an all-too-often rigid poetic device that for Swensen becomes an invitation for linguistic and poetic play. As Wittgenstein suggests in Philosophical Investigations, “If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be part of a game and the players be supposed, say, to jump over the boundary. . . .” In Such Rich Hour, language becomes this sort of game, in which rules are subject to negotiation. For instance, Swensen’s language refuses to name, or to line experience according to the demands of conventional poetic practice: 

                 To name an object is
                                       “to invent”
                       and to yet

                               that reaches out
                                   that must
                 distill to ghost
                            its want of all the almost lived.

In other words, to name is to deny language its process of exploration, to close and finalize the experience of language, to reduce the vitality of the margin to a “want of the almost lived.” Against such naming, Swensen’s language deterritorializes its given boundaries. This is language that is alive on the page.

As in Swensen’s previous works, notably Try (1999) and Park (1991), Such Rich Hour explores writing and history as processes that at once govern and liberate acts of perception in an inter-logic of play and rule. For instance, in the “Introduction” to Such Rich Hour, Swensen explains that the book is based on, and loosely follows, the Très Riches du Duc de Berry, a fifteenth century book of hours, a devotional text “designed to allow individuals to observe religious ritual outside the strict format of the masses.” Thus, the book is informed by the idea of a negotiating play within a seemingly fixed system of rules; the rule of the devotional calendar gives way to a divergent play. In much the same way, the seemingly fixed margins of page and poetic line give way to the play of word and phrase:

                 what makes a

                 curve are lined the visions:
                                ire, iron, ether
                               ember, every, ivory
                             eternity and isosceles, ides

Swensen persistently finds a hauntingly beautiful, yet exacting form for such divergences in her use of the ellipsis, as evident in the poem “Forward:” 

                 darkly darkly we      through a glass  (there was this once)
                        dark was             we see
                 dark as   thus is, and glass   glass   (sharp)

Here, words are resistant. That is, the words read as words, as visual marks, rather than simply a name for an object. Likewise, the words function as sounds that will not be contained within a normalizing syntax. The words are in play, in the multiple processes of, rather than a finalized, articulation. Swensen’s elliptical language is thus a subtle instrument for locating a past that cannot be fully articulated or totalized, but that presses on the given moment, disrupting the present even as it informs it:

                 (what I had heard
                 that you had won
                         my always did
                 thus onward   could

                 have died 

                 or called

                 or stood

                 any (act)

                 but that you did

                 not look back.

The effect is subtle, yet precise, as if the elusive word and phrase are held, momentarily, in their process of beginning anew. This process is ongoing, hence Swensen’s wonderfully suggestive use of multiple beginnings; Such Rich Hour “begins” with a “Prologue,” “Preface,” “Introduction,” and “Foreword,” followed by the poem “Forward.” Thus the past is elliptical, elusive, and resists our attempts to locate the originating, defining moment. Moving “forward” is a rich undertaking, in that our history issues from marginalia, and from multiple beginnings and possibilities. 

Such multiplicity is often beautiful, captured in a delicate ellipsis of language all the more arresting for its precise interplay of intellect, acute observation, and cadences of line and syllable. The liquidity of such phrasing as “arrival is/after all a slow” is deliciously balanced by the more tightly paced lines that follow it: “and on the ground, this (all over the ground)/that/ stars fall sometimes….” Swensen has a deft ear for such marginalized music within the elliptical phrases of everyday speech.

Swensen’s exploration within the marginalia of rule and play culminates in the remarkable analysis of the invention of perspective, in what is arguably the highlight of the book. In the epigraph to the poem “February 14, 1404: The Birth of Leon Battista Alberti,” Swensen quotes the historian J.V. Field who writes that “Alberti’s brief description of how to draw a picture of a chequerboard floor has often been subjected to the kind of detailed, awe-stricken analysis usually reserved for Holy Writ.” Such mystique arises, in part, from the fact that the technology of perspective, like the technologies of print and the clock (both of which were invented at about the same time as perspective) is an attempt to bend (quite literally) the world to suit the human will and desire for form, and to represent what otherwise can not be represented outside of nature. With such technologies, Swensen suggests, “we find triads: dimensions, form, and order/substance, nature, power.”

Yet, within such seemingly fixed rules of print, the clock, and perspective, there is, within their margins, a constant countercurrent of motion and revision, as embodied in the poem “March 8 (Feast Day of John of God, Patron Saint of Printers), 1746: The first Bible printed in Paris:”

                 Moves the word is good of God what moving

                 small would   (just as we would)     it did
                       in my life is a moving life
                 word and act, this one
                     times one

                          so what
                          ever         you can shift
                          at will       will
                    (they slip)

                                      at look

Here, the fluidity and algorithmic progressions of language (“this one times one”) negotiates such fixed technologies. The words spin off from their rules as fractals in a geometric progression. Thus, the word roams the margins of the page, just as the eye, as it scans the painted canvass, freely roams the margins of perspective: “The way things move/in uncertain light/is not to be discounted.” Likewise, time cannot be confined the margins of the calendar and clock: “The oldest/clock is the dark. The closest, a heart.” The imposition of will is thus checked by the elusiveness and slippage of the marginalia within language.

Therefore, the rules of hours and perspective, do not, finally, impede Swensen’s language, or her keen emotional, visual, and historical perceptions: 

                        …There is
                 no law to state this–
                 they turn over and over end over end
                 but the very fact of windows,
                 fixed or not, amid all that dark and the
                 nine grains of sand that began
                 the world, the nine windows of the face that fuse it into feral,
                 magnifying as it does
                 a shard of glass
                 dry grass in autumn.

By allowing such rich and detailed play within seemingly fixed laws, Swensen reminds us that the given rules are open to ongoing negotiation and revision, and “Beauty is no less unlikely for having been invented.”


Jonathan Minton is from Buffalo, NY and has recently published poetry in such journals as Sugar Mule, Moria, Seems, White Pelican, and Apples and Oranges. His chapbook Lost Languages was published by Longleaf Press in 1999. He is currently a doctoral candidate in the poetics program at SUNY-Buffalo.