In Other Words

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

These lyrics are filled with verbs of seeing, images of eyes and light, as when by flashlight, one moonless night in the desert, the poet espies the “round yellow eyes” of a “tiny pale-streaked owl.” Swenson paints brilliant natural and human tableaux under the pressure of change. Since “Paradise lasts for a day,” she commands readers urgently to see with her before it is too late. She writes of horizons disappearing in mist, of comets, of strawberries picked and eaten, leaving heart-shaped clumps of gray leaves. Elegizing Elizabeth Bishop, Swenson laments not knowing of her friend’s death until a week after it happened. Later in the poem, Swenson notices a troupe of pipers, a “flying string” that “slips behind the horizon. Vanished.”

For Swenson, flight is a crucial symbol, signifying both vanishing and transcendent exploration of earth, sea, and sky. Wonderingly, Swenson observes both bird flight (her poetry is, among other things, a splendid verbal aviary) and human flight. Commemorating the 1986 Challenger disaster, she writes, “They were alive. They knew.” Swenson suggests that although potentially tragic, the urge to fly defines our humanity. “If I had children,” she avers, “I might name them astrometeorological names.” To Swenson, we are as worlds flying through space.

Acknowledging change and death, Swenson does not stop with these realities. Her poems frequently end with images of new life--kittens, a young snowy egret, a bear cub, a boy playing his flute, elf-owls mating on the stiletto-points of dead cacti. New life is Swenson’s poetic project; for her, “Vision, potent, regenerative, lives in bodies of words.”