May Swenson has published six volumes of poetry for the adult audience as well as some volumes for children. In New & Selected Things Taking Place she provides the reader with more than sixty new poems, written since 1970, plus a selection from her previous volumes: Iconographs, Half Sun Half Sleep, To Mix with Time, A Cage of Spines, and Another Animal. The result is a collection of poems which reveals clearly how May Swenson has for more than twenty years been a clear-eyed observer and interpreter of the world around her. Born in Logan, Utah, she has developed the keen, clear vision of a Westerner, as well as the breadth of interest that is also the hallmark of men and women reared in the American West, with its broad expanse of blue skies and its remarkable distances across valleys and mountains.
It becomes readily apparent that Swenson is making a statement about her poetry through the title of the collection. Her poems, most of which look out to the world about her, seem to be taking place upon the page, to have an activity within themselves. The opening poem in this collection, “A Navajo Blanket,” sets the tone of the volume in this regard. Although an Indian blanket is usually regarded as an inanimate thing, Swenson gives her subject a life of its own. She suggests that the colors of the blanket are paths to pull the viewer into the maze of the pattern, where one can rest, calm as a hooded hawk, at the center, later slipping out, free of the zigzag of the pattern, by following the path of a green thread.
The nature of the West is explored in poems ranging in setting from the desert Southwest, home of the Navajo, to a highway near Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, to the Canadian prairies from Winnipeg to Medicine Hat. The poet’s life in the East (Sea Cliff, New York), where she now lives, is also important to her poetry, however. She sees life objectively; she is not afraid to speak satirically. For example, in “Fashion in the 70’s” she devotes a page to the fad of looking black, which is especially noticeable in New York City. She notes glasses with black frames, faces framed in black beards, black leather or plastic jackets and boots, floppy black pants and sleazy black body-shirts: everyone looking “hoody,” blacks and whites alike. The other side of it, she says, is that some whites want to look dead, especially the women. The result, she summarizes, is that everyone seems to want to look ugly, as if the ugly has somehow become the beautiful.
In reading the two sections of newly collected poems the reader is soon conscious of the importance of nature in Swenson’s poetry. She has written lovingly of bison, a whole herd of shaggy bulls, well-muscled cows, and honey-brown calves crossing a highway, as she has written of mating birds she once observed on a saltmarsh, the dead flicker she brought home from a walk, and the varieties of birds (angels, she calls them) one morning in her yard. The cycle of the seasons, too, is part of her interest in nature, as evidenced by such titles as “Shu Swamp, Spring,” “September Things,” “October,” “November Night.” But people are an important part of her life and art as well. In “Staying at Ed’s Place,” she describes how she reacts to her friend’s apartment, to the fold of a purple towel he left, to his small hexagonal table covered with dents, to the moon-white ceiling and its paint-layered surface. In reacting to these things, she is reacting to the absentee owner who made the apartment what it is. Again, in “Holding the Towel,” the...