Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
May Swenson often writes about things in such a way as to transform common objects and experience into something mysterious and new. She is also interested in states of consciousness—sleep, dreams, meditation, trances, life, and death—awareness and the loss of it. In this poem, she is writing about a transformation in consciousness brought about by a work of art. “A Navajo Blanket” combines several subjects. It is a poem celebrating the beauty of a particular kind of Native American craft. It is also about a mystical experience in which the design of the blanket draws the observer into an altered state of awareness. Finally, the poem is about the experience of art itself, which might include poetry as well as weaving and any other art form. She says that art takes one out of oneself and gives renewal and refreshment.
The nature of art and its effect on human life are subjects that are bound to intrigue an artist, particularly a meditative poet such as Swenson, who often finds her inspiration in common things—an eye blinking, a wave rolling up on the beach, a skunk cabbage, or some other object that is so familiar one has stopped really seeing it. In her poems, Swenson restores a sense of awe to the world. The blink of an eyelid becomes a slow series of monstrous events; the movement of waves becomes a perpetual motion machine. So, too, does “A Navajo Blanket” become a key to past and present, the story of a culture, a mysterious maze into which one is compelled to enter and where one undergoes a strange out-of-time experience, and an allegory about the effects of art on the individual. The poem is also about a blanket, a work of art, that is, artifice, something made by human hand and shaped by human imagination.
Swenson’s poems often have a strong sense of closure. This one is no exception. In the last line, the cycle is complete, and, like a chalice or a bone china cup, “your mind/ is rinsed and returned to you.” Refreshed, one is free to exit the maze of the blanket and the poem itself.