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 seem beautiful:
From an airplane, all
that rigid splatter of the Bronx
becomes organic, logical
as web or beehive. Chunks
of decayed cars in junkyards,
garbage scows (nimble roaches
on the Harlem), herds of stalled
All these details are assimilated into something lovely. And there is a poem which says that in New York City snow is like poetry; it is beautiful and useless; it gets in the way of the efficient pursuit of our practical lives; it arrests us from action. There is a whole aesthetic doctrine here.
Given all these riches and variety, I am at a loss to know what to quote to show her at something like her best, and have hit, not quite at random, on the first stanza of “One Morning in New Hampshire.”
We go to gather berries of rain
(sharp to the eye as ripe to the tongue)
that cluster the woods, and, low down
between the rough-furrowed pine
trunks, melons of sunlight. Morning, young,
carries a harvest in its horn:
colors, shapes, odors, tones
(various as senses are keen).
High in the grape-transparent fan
of boughs are cones
of crystal that were wooden brown.
Frederick Seidel’s first book of poems provoked considerable controversy even before its publication. It was chosen by a jury composed of Louise Bogan, Stanley Kunitz and Robert Lowell as the best manuscript submitted to them in a competition a year ago. But the award, through no fault of the jury, was never granted; it was felt that some of the poems were dangerously indiscreet, and that others expressed shocking attitudes. There is some truth in this: the poems here are often filled with violence, revulsion, fear and hopelessness. They are written in the form of dramatic monologues (in the first person) or as portraits (in the third person). Each poem has its own protagonist, whom we see at a crucial moment in his or her life; and that moment is often a revelation of meanness, emptiness or vanity. In this sense, the book has the shock of honesty about it, and some of its themes (adultery, frustrated lust) are exposed with an unsparing eye and in their most telling details. There will be those who are horrified by this sort of candor, and who may furthermore make the mistake of identifying the characters’ sentiments with the author’s. Clearly Seidel has created some characters he does not like, and has given them voice; but even the worst of them invite compassion, and there are in these tough and brutal poems some passages of extraordinary tenderness. Altogether, this seems to me one of the most moving and powerful books of poetry to have come along in years. And if it leaves one with a sense of bitterness, it is worth reflecting that there is a lot in our world to be bitter about.
The book’s title, Final Solutions, will remind the reader of Hitler’s notorious “final solution to the Jewish problem,” and the characters Mr. Seidel delineates with ruthless care have all come to a stalemate in their lives, an impasse which is a sort of “final solution,” an annihilating judgment on life. One poem, for example, concerns a refugee from that holocaust, a Jewish psychoanalyst; a woman whose family has been wiped out in the concentration camps. She lives alone on the coast of Maine now, and she sees in the wholesale slaughter of rabbits that are over-running the neighborhood, “Frail, pink-veined, pale ears,/And pink as perfect gums,/Pink eyes, rose noses, as if/Diseased…” a painful analogue of what has happened to all those dearest to her. In another called “The Beast Is in Chains” (which is the text of the telegram announcing that Eichmann had been caught), a young man in Paris whose mother has been lobotomized hears of a woman in England driven mad by German bombings, and sees the symbols of our obsession with power in the monument Napoleon erected to himself in the Place Vendome, and the pageantry arranged for the visiting American President.
But few of the poems concern the War. In the first poem of the book, a man recalls his painful adolescence, when he first conceived a secret lust for the colored maid who took care of his dying mother. Because these feelings are taboo, he identified them with Hadrian’s love of Antinous, and longed to live in Harlem. In another poem, obviously indebted to Robert Lowell’s translation from Propertius, an ancient Roman in bed with a woman dreams he is being taunted by a dead mistress, and dies of a heart attack. And elsewhere, a modern adulterous affair in Rome ends in frustration and a frightening image of transvestism. Finally there is a poem of madness which ends in a sort of vision of Hell; but even in the midst of this there is room for a gentle recollection of Central Park in summer when the protagonist had been in love. Seidel is hard to quote from because his poems are dramatic and need their whole context, and most of them are long; but here are a few lines from the middle of the last poem, “The Sickness.”
Bottlegreen grass in Central Park,
The early light streams. Lying like
A lover near her boy, a girl,
Pre-Raphaelite in profile, pearl
Smooth lips, nose and brow, and the passive
Long eyelids and lashes of Melan- choly pensive—
And when she rises and walks away
A borzoi and its soft sashay
On slender white paws comes to mind.
We lay there like a heart, our mind
Off to our right the blue lagoon,
Free still of sailboats, just free of the moon,
Our south the red and brown brick zoo.
But that was then. This now is Bell- vue,
And God knows where the girl is, a ruined
Wax mask, waist-down a shiftless hot wind.
Dear heart, those times that were sweet milk
For our pale bones, and in the clock spun silk
For our chapped skin, like dice have scattered.
I’m like that lady-killer Bluebeard,
Dead, but to my last wife’s dust,
All Bellevue-blue obsessive trust,
Repeating like an old blind cock,
“Dear heart, the light streams down on Central Park.”
June 1, 1963