To Mix With Time
by May Swenson
by Frederick Seidel
Random House, $3.75
One way of indicating the distinction and quality of May Swenson’s poetry is to say that she deserves to be compared to Elizabeth Bishop. And indeed there are things in this book, which contains new poems together with selections from two previous volumes, that sound a note of indebtedness. Miss Swenson’s “The Totem,” for example, about the Empire State Building, may vaguely remind the reader of Miss Bishop’s “The Monument.” But if there are points of kinship, the differences are still important; and May Swenson has an idiom and voice of her own, both more playful and baroque than Miss Bishop’s.
In this ample volume of 183 pages, Miss Swenson exhibits several different kinds of poems. There is a small and excellent group of what are frankly called “riddle poems” in which objects like an egg or a butterfly are ingeniously described at a metaphoric remove. There is a group that entertains metaphysical questions, like: does the eye create visible reality? There are poems scattered throughout the book, but particularly there is a small group about De Chirico paintings, in which Miss Swenson is having fun, like Apollinaire, in the arrangement of a design of words on a page.
So it is hard to characterize her in a simple formula, but if you will allow for the gross simplifications of a book review, I shall make the attempt by saying that she seems to see the world around her with delight and with a calculated naiveté that reminds one of the paintings of Le Douanier Rousseau: there is the same hard clarity of outline, the same freshness and joy, the vivid coloring and innocent awe. There is, in short, magic. As she says herself in one poem, “So innocent this scene, I feel I see it/with a deer’s eye.” She is able to bring this eye to contemplate a vast variety of objects and events. There is, for example, an extraordinary group of poems written during travel abroad on an Amy Lowell Scholarship which are handsome justifications of the award. One is about a bullfight; others concern a view from the window of a pensione in Florence. St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, the Pantheon in Rome. But if I had room here to quote even a respectable fraction of a long poem called “Instead of the Camargue” about a graveyard in France I should leave you in no doubt of Miss Swenson’s skill and brilliance.
And it is by no means only the foreign and exotic that charms her. She has a group of poems in which her deer’s eye contemplates with equal freshness and delight a variety of aspects of New York City. A woman who feeds pigeons on the steps of the Public Library; the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art; a roller-coaster; Trinity Churchyard. There is even one suggesting that the uglier aspects of New York, seen at a certain distance and in a certain light, can …