May Swenson’s verse is, first and foremost, poetry of the senses. Most especially, it is poetry of and for the eye. She is a poet in love with light in all its guises. A good starting point for analysis of her work is “Horses in Central Park,” a celebration of light, color, and texture: “Colors of horses like leaves or stones/ or wealthy textures/ liquors of light.” A horse is not, at first glance, very much like a leaf or a stone, but Swenson always looks beyond that first glance to show the reader something more. The alliteration in “liquors of light” is a mild example of her wordplay. Everything words together here. The sound is liquid, the sense of the words suggests intoxication, and the poem is on its way.
What follows is not just a catalog of horses, but the play of light and sound and meaning. As the horses parade by—a “gaunt roan” the color of “sere October’s leaves,” a “fox-red bay,” a “buckskin blond as wheat”—the reader takes in all the riches of the harvest and of autumn’s light, distilled into the colors and the flowing movements of horses. One has only to witness the “Sober chestnut, burnished/ by his sweat/ to veined and glowing oak,” to let the eyes at last convince the mind of what it may have shied away from at the poem’s opening. Swenson’s comparison of horse to oak leaf not only works, it is just right. It is as right as “Naked palomino” compared in another line with “smooth peeled willow.” It is this extraordinary rightness to the eye and ear that distinguishes Swenson’s work. One cannot believe everything one sees or hears, she seems to say, but one had better believe in it.
Swenson’s verse is variously described as fierce, fresh, inquisitive, innovative, and sensuous—and it is all these things. Her images are at times startling, but they work upon the reader’s senses and emotions to create a feeling of rightness, of inevitability. In “The Garden at St. John’s,” the reader is shown a mother caressing her baby, whose hair is “as soft as soft/ as down as the down in the wingpits of angels.” Any momentary hesitation over “wingpits” is lulled by the enchanting repetition of “soft” and “down,” as the image in the end rings true.
In poem after poem, Swenson affirmed that the wonders of...
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