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Spring 1991, Volume 8.1


May Swenson

Editor's Note: We publish posthumously a group of hitherto unpublished poems of May Swenson followed by a literary memoir written by her writer/editor brother, Paul Swenson, in place of the "Interview" series.

May Swenson died on 4 December 1989 at Bethany Beach, Delaware. She was born on 28 May 1913 in Logan, Utah, a daughter of Dan Arthur and Anna Margaret (Helberg) Swenson. After taking her B.S. degree from Utah State University, she moved to New York, NY, never to return to Utah on a permanent basis. May Swenson's career in belles lettres is a rich mosaic of dedication and achievements. Poet, critic, scholar, editor, writer in residence, and lecturer, she left behind a significant body of work.

She was recipient of numerous prizes and awards for her poetry: American Introductions Prize in 1955; William Rose Benet Prize of the Poetry Society of America in 1959; Longview Foundation Award in 1959; National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1960; Brandeis University Creative Arts Award in 1967; Lucy Martin Donnelly Award of Bryn Mawr College in 1968; Shelley Poetry Award in 1968, to name a few. In 1959, Ms. Swenson received the Guggenheim fellowship, followed by the Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarship in 1960, a Ford Foundation grant in 1964, the Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1981, and the MacArthur Fellowship in 1987. She worked for a time as an editor for New Directions and was writer in residence at Purdue University (1966-67). She lectured widely on university and college campuses.

May Swenson's books include Another Animal (Scribner, 1954); A Cage of Spines (Rinehart, 1958); To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems (Scribner, 1963); Poems to Solve (for children "14-up") (Scribner, 1966); Half Sun Half Sleep (Scribner, 1967); More Poems to Solve (Scribner, 1968); Iconographs (Scribner, 1970); New & Selected Things Taking Place (Little, Brown, 1978); and In Other Words (Knopf, 1987). She has been anthologized in numerous poetry collections.

May Swenson once said that her experience of poetry is "based in a craving to get through the curtains of things as they appear, to things as they are, and then into the larger, wilder space of things as they are becoming." The poet's task became, for her, a lifelong quest for a means of interpreting "the vastness of the unknown beyond [one's] consciousness." We hope the following poems reacquaint our readers with the range and depth of her imagery, the energetic optimism of her vision, and the tactile strength of her images.


Fruit without a stone, its shiny
pulp is clear green. Inside, tiny
black microdot seeds. Skin
the color of khakiImagine
a shaggy brown-green pelt
that feels like felt.
It's oval, full-rounded, kind
of egg-shaped. The rind
comes off in strips
when peeled with the lips.
If ripe, full of juice,
melon-sweet, yet tart as goose-
berry almost. A translucent ring
of seed dots looks something
like a coin-slice of banana. Grown
in the tropics, some stone
fruits, overlarge, are queerly
formed. A slablike pit nearly
fills the mango. I
scrape the fibrous pulp off with my
teeth. That slick round ball
in avocado (fruit without juice) we call
alligator pear:
Plant this seedpit with care
on three toothpicks over a glass
of water. It can come to pass
in time, that you'll see
an entire avocado tree.
Some fruits have stones, some seeds.
Papaya's loaded with slimy black beads.
Some seem seedlesslike quince
(that makes your tastebuds wince.)
Persimmon will
be sour, astringent "until
dead ripe," they say. Behind
pomegranate's leathery rind,
is a sackful of moist rubies. Pear,
cantaloupe, grapefruit, guava keep their
seeds hidden, as do raspberry, strawberry,
pineapple. Plum, peach and cherry
we know as fruits with big
seedstones. And fig?
Its graininess is seed. Hard to believe
is prickly durian. It's custard
sweetand smells nasty.
But there's no fruit as tasty,
as odd, or as funny
as fresh-off-the-vine New Zea-
land kiwi.


7 Days on the Sea


The world is a ball of water.
See, it is round-sided.
I move across its topside,
upon the world, not in it.
The boat is a comb, acomb over idle
white hair.
Waves grow on a round skull
Sea, it is round-sided.
Fog is building a vessel.
Sea is the butt of a bottle.
Boat bobs in the center.
At the V
of the stern standing,
I see below me sea,
ceiling of fog, see
the round horizon, sea
tears on my cheeks. I see
through globes of tears
the last lost point of land.
The world all
of water below and a low
sky. The world is a ball
of water. Pendulum-sun
goes over slow.
All night out riding
beside the mast
the moon posts in the sky.


Aggressor prow. Agree-er sea.
In floes of marble vanish veins of foam
all morning. In the afternoon
the quarry-ocean starboard hisses, lashes into cracks.
Concussive blocks slip roaring aft.
A double thunder smacks the boat's drum-side.
Steep tents of wind and spray are pitched
on buckling, heckling water.
Papoosed under blankets, prammed in a yellow chair
on a grid of calked wide planks
that rush in long perspective to the rail,
I see a corner of the deck rise up
to roof over angled waves, and duck,
a hatch-lid closing below my eyelid's thatch.
Ramping, the paving sea romps, lifts, lets itself down,
rises, ramps and, romping, side-slips, lets itself down,
a floor that never stills and flats,
that never levels steady.
We dine behind steel ribs: a riveted whale,
white-bellied, bluntly breaks through acres of quartz,
bores a corridor with wedged head
in heavy, innocent, black, abundant water.
Portholes, gill-holes, jug-shaped, fill with sky
the purple whale-sheen drains away
fill with foam and freeze-greendrains away
fill with liquid sky, with solid sea, that drains away.
Oh, will it ever pause at half and half
so the soup can stop, can stop being sly in the bowls?


A slag-pile slipping, parting, shifting
black under ashes of cloud.
Smoke or snow blows off the square, the axe-blade waves:
A Nova Scotian color, the morning cold and April.
By noon blue tables with plentiful plates of foam.
Crisp napery of gulls unfolds aloft.

. . .

The wild side's portside after dark.
Ghost hogans rise on a plane of coal
in the mica of moonlight.
Houris, eeries, valkyries, furies,
sybils, satyrs, weirds and bards
orate, whistle, screech, scratch, scrabble,
snarl, quarrel, quibble in the rigging.
Trolls, trout, ghouls, geese and gargling walri
snort, sneer, chortle, sniggle, chuckle in the scuppers.
I stand at the rail of a wooden pen
all alone on the windy, dark, warped, harpy sea.
he moon gashing a cloud, slants up, slants down.
The moon is posting tonight.


Today, on the round horizon, rain in the east,
opposite a great gold sheepshead cloud.
I, in the portside lee of the fantale, found
the ladder of seven colors upsloped on the sea,
delicate-ribbed, quite short, a belt to the sky,
low-linking milky waves to a gray-scud dome:
Violet, Green, Yellow, Rose, and pallors in between.
All round, all large and round, the plattered sea.
All curved, all low and curved, the lid of light.
The white duck of the boat an only lump on the sea.
I, there, could not see me,
but who stared from the stair of the rainbow could see.
Tonight I lie on a shelf, the cabin dark,
the bunk floats in the purring ship on the panting sea.
I-Eye open, level with the porthole, see
in miniature, round-framed, captured, the round sea:
like a rushing sky of blue-black foaming clouds
racing counter to the boator like engines of infinity
pulsing a summer heaven full-speed by.
Or the hole is a planet turning, star-spray dashed
before its face as it travels the orbit's rail.
Or that white scud is its restless atmosphere.
Or it is a moon whose white volcanoes steam
such fluvia across its somber carapace.
The ship leans slippery sideways. My cradle rocks.
A rough wide white lash rears up, smacking the glass.
Atomic, bombastic water blasts, obliterates
the porthole's iris. The cabin quakes.


Eye out running
on soft flints
on the pathless sea.
White-lipped near-stones
now ganged close to the boat.
A circular pasture
raked and cleared today
of wraths and rips,
snowy jags and cones.
I on the quarter deck
in-rolled in my chair,
infant or invalid set to cure
or spoil in the sun,
I run behind my outrunning eye
to toe every wave
that skips to the thin horizon,
every colt-blue wave
and its cobalt shadow . . .
Orange anchor-sun
steadies my chair.
Deck builds a foothill,
sea a gulf, and stern,
a great hip, leaps
on wind-free air.

. . .

I look for, what do I look for on the unfurnished sea?
On land I longed for a large place empty.
Eye-I avoided obstacles, vehicles, people, shapes intercepted.
Eye-I wished to veer out far, long, wide, high, unframed, uninterrupted
but like a thrown stone bumped, stopped, stumbled into buildings.
Now no upright, only the permanent low-fleeing waves
the sparse and insubstantial, transient clouds . . .
Which white loller afar might be a boat?
Or porpoise, or even a swimming man
naked, living on wave as gull on air?
Which dark dollop might be nose of a whale?
Or wooden joist from a down-gone ship?
Or even a seated man, ebony, shining
Sea-Buddha, rigid, afloat, with ivory grin? . . .
Only the waves perpetual, only the unpeopled sea.


There on the round rim east,
on the compass curve,
the ship the sextant's center,
there on the lead-thin line
I see a mark!
Growing square, approaching.
A hut? Oh, it is a boat,
a twin-ship sailing to meeting.
Trundling, tossing, tipping,
persisting, coming on.
Expanding, rounding tubbish,
towing a wide wake.
Cross-barred masts for and aft
stab her solid to the sea.
Yellow and green, her plump
stack issues energy.
Our sister passes, she
is our mirror on the wave.
How like a painted boot
(with doll-arms waving from decks!)
In full-hooped splashing skirts
she bobs on, opposite bound.
We wave all our arms.
Our toot salutes her toot.
So soon she littles and fades,
graying to a hut
of mist in the shape of a square.
And sharpens to a mark
on the empty map of the west.
And teeters on the edge
of horizon, and rolls off. . .
a period fallen from the font.


Land. Yes, Ho! A mist-made coast,
a strand of Ireland sighted off the bow.
Fast Net Rock, admonitory tower,
the lighthouse rising dour on a fist of stone:
Cobh comes forward quiescent to greet
the float of the boat.
How mat-mild now the tantrum sea
lured to the cove.
How flat and old the world,
and odd and still,
when upcropped the horizon halts
the willful eye,
shows it its stall and pasture
safe and small.
All sibilant little laps the boat glides on,
its lunge arrested.
A great heart has stopped.
A silent sled is whitely, mournfully borne
to the gray land's shed.
I, in the prow, here, hear my pulse again,
feel equal feet on the steady deck.
Fence of the rail nears fence of the dock.
The door to the wild is closing.
With hanging neck
I watch that crack far down
the world around
and world not round
through sliding tears.


The Many Christs

There is the Black Christ, and the Smiling Christ, and the Christ of Leather with human hair.

There is El Greco's Christ with flickering limbs, mesmeric, pulsing like the shadow of a flame.

Christ in a glass tomb in Spain is muscled like a man, with dense thighs and thick neck of a workman. Although of riven oak, the chest "lives" strongly, as if it had just now let go its moanless breath.

Michelangelo's Christ of marble, in the lap of his mother, a new-bathed body spare and young, tender-ribbed, hollow-loined, only lately twisted from the cross, lies lax in death, the right arm dragging the hurt hand pliant to the floor.

Cocteau's Christ, loose-robed, feathery-bearded, is borne by naked fish-eyed boysthey have plausible wingsthrough a ballet of resurrection, over the dome of La Chapelle St. Pierre.

Matisse made Christ of stingy bronze knotted like rope: a loop for the lolling head, the arms a single pegged-out strand, a braid for the legs. He is wrung out of all human shape to become his cross.

There are all the countless Christs with insteps forced one upon the other by a single nail through both feet, so that the knee bones knock, inverting the calves, wrenching the arms from the sockets, the torso's whole weight being slung from the palms, the sternum arched like a chicken's carcass, with the pelvis a pit, with a clout about the cringing hips, the crooked neck toppling the dead head and its wreath of thorns forward on the chest.

Of gold, of stone, of glazed clay, of wax, of polychrome, of silver, jasper, ivory, plaster, wood. . . .

The Black Christ of Barcelona once rode the prow of a ship. Some journeyman tooled him in Columbus' time. Such figureheads were common then. Now he gleams from the dark cathedral transept, like a charred beam. He was blackened by smoke from the burning ships in the maritime war with the Turks, the great sea battle (1571) that the Spaniards and their North European allies won. This Christ is side-twisted. He bent his body to avoid a cannon ball, the guide

will tell you, adding that, in 1493, Columbus brought six American Indians to be baptized here, in the cathedral"The font is over there." The place where he hangs is dim and high in sooty darkness. The bedraggled body slumps on a flaked gilt cross. Dark red drops stitch the smudged side, and trail from the brow, and the left hip juts.

What are these Christs? Gods, dolls, symbols, omens, puppets, fetishes, amulets, objects of art? They are notions given shape and tangible form. They are the same notion graven or painted in many forms. Or they are various notions forced into the same form.

If you draw a line and transect it with another line, you have put No over Yes, or Yes over No. You have produced the enigma of the Cross.

A most curious crucifixion is told in small marble reliefs behind the choir in that Barcelona cathedral. The carver, Ordonez, Michelangelo's pupil, has depicted St. Eulalia flogged for heresy, and otherwise tortured to death. Her slight body, naked, is nailed upside down in the form of an X: the only "Christ" so sexed that history knows of. Her head, with streaming hair and open mouth, dangles, her arms

stretched wide, her legs spread so that the right arm forms a slant line with the left leg. Hung from the feet, she is Xed, crucified in reverse. Crossed out.

Works of magic, works of wish, works of conscience. But works of art! And the act of crucifixion. Is this not art? He is sculpture (framed by the cross.) He is dancer, halted. Dancer made to dance (on the cross) to the tug of blood. He is puppet, worked (on the stage of his cross) with every veritable trapping. And worked still in the crossed theatre of the soul.

In France, in a southern fishing town by the sea, a six-foot Christ stands handsome, gypsy-tawny, scarcely sagging against his rough-hewn cross. A little shelf supports his feet that are spiked side by side to the timber. A froth of purple tulle, the loin cloth around his virile hips, wags in the wind, and a crown of cactus circles the wooden curls. Open eyes, of some bluish jewel, look down. The face is blissful in accomplished agony.

Blood is let from a lamb, before the Easter rites each year, and made to drip through pores in the forehead. It is made to flow from hands and feet, and through hidden pipes behind the carved gash in his side. In the spring he is unnailed, and lifted down, washed in the sea, and garmented in the wide-sleeved shirt a virgin of the town cards and spins and weaves from the wool of last year's lamb. The Christ is laid in a cave in the sea wall for three days. On Sunday, hoisted upright, embraced at the wooden ankles by a strong man, he is carried to the church, white robe enlivened by the wind. With

outstretched arms of blessing, and wearing a crown of yellow giroflet, the risen Christ smiles down from the chancel over stairs of flowers.

He is the Smiling Christ, with skin of sunny wood.

On Monday, hearty hammers pin him up, replace him, naked, on his rightful shelf.

Did Christ live in history? Did he die in it, and did he live again, as these tangible forms insist? Which is projection? Is art the progeny of act? Or did these galvanic notions spring from works of art?

It is likely he was done to death with all such originality as befits a King, hung so, high up, on so grand and permanent a frame, that all eyes must roll aloft to distinguish him. That he rose again when his veins had emptiedthat, broken, lowered, entombed, the heart stiff, shrunk, he rosied, awoke and climbed the air in a robe of cloud above a vacant cross, and entered a crack in heavenit is here that wish and conscience, guilt and mystery part with art and history.