FitP Poet Highlight 41/82: Paul Swenson, "Negative Space"
Is There Deep Play in Heaven? Or, Rest Well, Brother Swenson, Rest Well
On the afternoon of the first
resurrection, I want to sit on my sister May’s bench and read
her new poems. So, maybe, if you’re still around when I go under,
I wonder—could you burn me, turn me into ash, and slip me in
[the family plot] somewhere?
—Paul Swenson, “Family Plot”
I received news last Friday morning (2/3) from Paul Swenson’s good friend and fellow poet Alex Caldiero that Paul passed away around noon last Thursday. I didn’t know Paul personally—we spoke on the phone once and interacted a bit via email while I was compiling Fire in the Pasture—but I do know for certain that his passing, which came after a long bout of unsettled health, leaves a void in the world of Mormon poetry, one that may continually be filled with the language he left behind and with any language and personal and cultural change that language inspires.
Paul had a playful, Blues-inspired lyric and his poems often come across as clever and witty—even, to some, bitter—more than profound. In fact, Deseret News’ Jerry Johnston panned Iced at the Ward, Burned at the Stake, Paul’s first poetry collection and an exploration of (among other things) Mormon conceptions of deity, ritual, and embodiment, as a “waste [of] space,” the overly playful ravings of a Scrooge. (Odd image that: raising a playful Ebenezer…) Stephen Carter suggests that while the “interpretation of Mormonism” Paul explores in his poems is, yes, “forever inventive, forever reflective, and forever playful,” Paul’s playfulness is “deep.” It’s more than mere wit, more than a child’s attempt to inflame his elders, as Johnston suggests it is. Stephen observes that Paul’s “deep play” works after the manner theorized by Jeremy Bentham, British utilitarian philosopher, though Bentham was curmudgeonly about the benefits of such play. Says Stephen, Bentham “describes deep play as when a person is engaged in an activity where, ‘the stakes are so high that … it is irrational for anyone to engage in it at all, since the marginal utility of what you stand to win is grossly outweighed by the disutility of what you stand to lose.’” As Jennifer Reifsneider, Curator of Collections at the Missoula Art Museum, has it in her discussion of the “joyful revelry and subversive whimsy” present in the MAM collection, deep play “arises when the potential for loss far outweighs the potential for gain.” So it occurs when the player gambles social, cultural, and spiritual standing against a compulsion to play with subjects others think too serious to consider with anything less than deep solemnity (if at all)—as when a Mormon poet tinkers publicly with religious and cultural taboos (like Mother in Heaven and sexuality), exposing himself, as it were, on the chapel’s front lawn. (Reference the image above, in which Paul is pictured “at a candlelight vigil for Lynne Knavel Whitesides during her church court.”)
But isn’t a poet in part someone who instinctively plays with words, and who plays with them deeply and well? Someone who, in process of such playing, speaks to our deepest personal and cultural needs and desires? I’ve said elsewhere that poetry is a mark of cultural health, that it’s an indication, as Pulitzer Prize winning poet Robert Hass says, that “a lot of people [in the culture are] literate and alive.” This is so because “[y]ou have to have some kind of interior life to make [and to enjoy] a work of art and in a world as busy and heedless as this one we need all the consciousness we can muster” in order not to wither on the vine, as it were. So poetry—like living a creative life, in general—comes in part of introspection and carries with it an abiding awareness that the inner life matters. And it matters not only because deepening our awareness of what’s on the inside requires that we make time to ponder, to sift through and reflect upon matters of the soul and our lived experience in the world. But also because self-awareness and creativity require imagination, which enables us to step into another’s soul and to consider the world as experienced from another’s perspective. Because imagination ultimately isn’t confined to the boundaries of lived experience, it becomes space of endless, deep play—space where the conscious and less-than-conscious minds come together to question, to make sense of, to critique, and to expand our relationship with the material and immaterial worlds.
Paul, like his sister, May Swenson, before him, occupied and pushed against the boundaries of this space. Sometimes these siblings even tried to represent the space concretely on the page. May did it more extensively than Paul, but Paul tried it, nonetheless. In her concrete poem, “Bleeding,” May lets space trickle through the text, a gap I view—in conjunction with the poem’s content—as a representation of trickling blood, a gaping wound, the gap between women (the seeping gash) and men (the unrelenting knife). This negative space thus contributes to the meaning of the poem. Paul did something similar with his aptly titled poem, “Negative Space,” in which he talks, of all things, about the difficulty of “being Mormon / and having”—*gasp*—”nipples.”
The text of the poem is presented in two pointed columns. The left column opens to the right, like a “less-than” sign; and the right opens to the left, like “greater than.” Taken together these columns circumscribe a diamond-shaped inner court. Negative space is thus quite literally at the center of Paul’s poem. And this emptiness signifies the negative space present a) in the poet’s life as a joyfully embodied being, one who took pleasure in “[h]aving hard nipples,” in being fully sexed and fully sexual even though he lived amidst a people often conditioned to be suspicious of and to put off the body and its needs and desires; and b) in the “mind” of Mormon culture generally, where the correlated body—as the mannequins and comic strip bodies in the poem—has been stripped of its nipples. This “censor[ed],” “emasculated,” “nervously neutered” male body is meant to be the standard against which everyday Mormons gauge their sexuality. But, the poet points out, this body is “purely negative space.” Its presence, he seems to be saying, represents the conspicuous absence of erotic desire, of sexual play—even of cultural play—in much of Mormonism’s religious and cultural aesthetic.
So Paul, the poet, frolicked in this space, filling it with Blues-infused rhythms, with everyday language and passions and conviction, with earthly meditations on the divine. By so singing the body electric, I think he hoped to stir the kingdom up a bit, to encourage his readers to think a bit more deeply about and to play a bit more deeply with the popular, though perhaps not fully doctrinal, beliefs and institutions of Mormonism. And all this to the end of facilitating a more expansive “Mormon mind” and soul. This expanded being is one that could eventually be assigned, perhaps, to organize “the big reunion party,” as Paul calls the celestial afterlife in another poem—or could we call it an after party? Here Paul and his sister—and anyone else who’d care to join them—gather in an open field the afternoon of the first resurrection (as Paul hopes for in “Family Plot,” the last poem in his first book), sharing new and old poems, playing deeply, wittily, imaginatively, with the structure of the universe, with Heaven’s language, Heaven’s culture, and Heaven’s institutions. Their incorruptible bodies fully nippled, eternally rested, eternally ripe.Source: signaturebooks.com
FitP Poet Highlight 40/82: Danielle Beazer Dubrasky, “Legacy”
In Danielle’s sonnet, the poet explores an intergenerational relationship—and the rippling effects thereof—among three women and one man: the poet, the poet’s grandmother, the grandmother’s brother, and the poet’s great-grandmother. This complex relationship is narrated from the poet’s point of view as she observes her grandmother’s interactions with her material, maternal heritage. Grandma carries this heritage in her habits of being—her characteristic ways of interacting with the world: in the “afghans” she knit and the “roses” she cultivates and that perhaps she learned to cultivate by watching her mother care for her own garden. These objects “give her day a pattern.” And through the routine tasks that make up this daily pattern, she can focus her failing energies and channel away any undercurrents of resentment that threaten to disrupt the placid surface of daily living.
But the violence done her in the past manifests in her present emotional and physical state. When the “memory” resurfaces of having been emotionally and physically neglected by “her mother” in favor of “the favored son”—who got “fatten[ed …] with milk” because, apparently, “only boys needed calcium, not girls”—the resentment builds up and “her mouth purse[s].” The emotional force of such pursing is mirrored in the vocal force required to speak the word purse: notice the explosive release of breath and sound come bursting through the bilabial /p/ and slightly suppressed by the /s/. The poet’s grandma represses such emotional explosion with her daily routine—but only partially. That she’s still bitter—and deeply so—comes out in the linguistic friction present in the poet’s retelling of the memory, especially in this phrase, “how her mother would fatten the favored son,” and in the imitative reiteration of Great-Grandma’s claim, which likely remains with the daughter because it was perhaps too often repeated.
Yet, bad memories, destructive language, and bitterness aren’t the only holdovers from childhood neglect. There was also physical and relational damage done. As Grandma explains through the poet, “She gave me weak bones”—and someone to blame for an inadequate skeleton. I also surmise that she got a strained relationship with her brother out of the deal, a brother whose dated gift, the “Dresden shepherdess”—a substitute for his presence in her life and his attempt, marked by the doll’s “milk-white” skirt, to maybe make up for what he got that she didn’t—“darkens” with the physical and psychic space she inhabits as autumn permeates her world. In this space, she, as perhaps the poet, longs to redeem that little girl still “thirsting for milk.” They long to give her language with which she might recover what she lost, if not in bone structure, then in the psycho-emotional scaffolding of a healthy intergenerational relationship, one built on compassion and the desire to connect intimately, empathetically, with another flawed and frustrated, trampled over soul.Source: dialoguejournal.com
(Mormon) Poet Highlight 5: Linda Sillitoe, “Encounter”
This unrhymed sonnet takes as its lyric province the intergenerational relationship between people, places, and possessions (yes, the alliteration was on purpose). The poet, born of goodly parents (at least it seems so from the cache of memories stirred up in this sensory experience), begins by lyrically binding the three (people, places, and possessions) and expanding and deepening the connections from there. Notice in particular the alliteration at work as binding agent in the first five lines (as through the entire poem): the /n/’s, the sister sounds /b/ and /p/, /d/ and /t/, the /s/’s, the /g/’s, all grouped variously throughout, then combined in the last clause of line five: “I glanced behind me.” I read this mixture as the lyric medicine the poet found in this cabinet of wonders, even though she claims she was just looking for a comb: as she turns toward her past, toward (I presume) her father’s presence in the room, in her life, she finds a genie-like granting of the wish smoldering beneath the surface of the poem—that she could remember her father, “[t]wo years” gone, but always a defining presence in her being and in her connection to her mother and to the past and thus to her present and future.
This desire surfaces—and ripples through subsequent readings of the poem—in the last three lines, the denouement in which the poet wonders about her mother and, beyond that, about the fusion of time and person, place, thing, and sense as this union moves to draw lucid experience, even ecstasy (something suggested by the narcotic-effect the sudden encounter has on the poet: “The room wavered like my knees”), from memory’s cistern and to immerse us in melancholy wonder over the duration, strength, and will of human connection. Such is an appropriate sentiment to keep in mind, I think, as we strive to “summon” presence and experience from kith and kin past to help and heal us in our present and our future relationships with person, place, and thing.Source: dialoguejournal.com
FitP Poet Highlight 39/82: Jim Richards, “Cleave”
I take Jim’s “it” to be, yes, sex—but also more than sex. It take it to be the much deeper state of being, the more-than-intimate connection, the dual state of oneness entered into when partners become more than lovers, lovers more than partners. Such eroticism goes much deeper and means much more than just the mutual coming to physical pleasure. I’ve written about such intimacy before: To be buried with another in sensuous pleasure; to be immersed in the rush of fluids, the passion, the organizational construct of sexual intercourse, the most earthy mortal craving, is to pass into a ritually enacted relationship between the sexes that essentially serves as the source and metaphor for the broader connection between material and immaterial bodies across time and space. For what is sex but the primal (re)generative ritual meant to unite physical bodies in the propagation of the species and the shared invigoration of the flesh?
As Alicia Ostriker puts it in Dancing at the Devil’s Party, where she speaks about the intersection of poetic language and human passion, this “impulse to connect” bodies—whether those entities be words, lovers, or generations; flesh, psyche, and spirit; subject and object, artist and viewer, poet and reader—and thereby “to perceive unities across the conventional boundaries of separation” is “always implicitly erotic, always a form a making love.” It’s this impulse and the myriad reflections of it that, in effect, motivate the ritual processes bound up in the relationship between man and woman, in religious ceremonies, in human entrance into language (that arbitrarily organized system of signs through which we name our experience with the world), and in our approach to death.
Jim ruminates on this impulse in “Cleave,” wondering over the ways “we” come into the fullness of our bodies and experience a holistic sexuality. And who is this “we,” this collective body in which the poet includes himself? Per line two of the poem: those “who have never done it before”—and in light of the epigraph of the poem, I’m going to tack “marriage” on the end of that: those who have never had sex before marriage. Within the Mormon context of the poem—it was written by a Mormon poet and published in Literature and Belief, a journal housed at Brigham Young University—I also take this “we” to be not simply pre-marriage virgins, but perhaps a prudish, Puritanical people who may fear the body and its processes and desires and who may further have some cultural history of socially deviant sexuality (as Mormons, who have “a pedigree of plural wives” stretching back, through claims to both God’s covenant and literal ancestry, to “Abraham” and, more recently, through the church’s founder “Joseph” Smith).
So, “[h]ow do we do it”? How do we learn to negotiate the messiness of it all, the bodies “tangled,” come together in such a way that it’s difficult to tell where one ends and another begins? “How do we approach the subject / that burns our mouths like soap,” burns both literally and figuratively—literally in that sometimes when our kids talk about sex, it’s in “potty” ways that may lead to mouths being washed out with soap; and figuratively in that the subject is holy and, if approached properly, with respect, and in the proper context, it can be cleansing, like soap, like fire? How?
The poet’s call-and-response-type poem suggests some answers beyond those I’ve suggested here. Most importantly, however, his use of questions—he does after all leave his inquiry wide open—suggests that we shouldn’t shrink from the asking. We need not blush, as a culture or as individuals, when we get curious about the body and its desires. Maybe instead we just need to learn to ask—and to summon the courage to ask—each other in proper context the right questions about what these desires mean and where they can carry us and our relationships. As the poet models here, such questions, I think, and such literature as this poem can get us thinking about sex in transformative, redemptive ways. And I for one am all for that.Source: literatureandbelief.byu.edu
FitP Poet Highlight 38/82: Marilyn Nielson, “Sheep”
To speak for those who otherwise can’t, to give the unvoiced a voice, the other languaged means by which to understand and be understood by others: these seem to be fundamental functions of the gospel of Christ, at the center of which rests the atonement. In this eternally-in-force act of mediation, Christ descended below and experienced all things in order to enter into relation with all things and so to close the gaps among them—including the gaps inherent in and created by the imperfections of human language and even of inter-species communication.
Marilyn mirrors this mediatory act in “Sheep” when she gives collective voice, well, to a flock of sheep. Of course, said sheep could simply be read as a representation of God’s flock—Christ is, after all, the Good Shepherd; and I think such a reading is legitimate. But I also think that reading strips these sheep (as hypothetically actual sheep) of their voice. By making them metaphors for humans, it essentially denies them the awe “the beasts of the field” must have felt at Christ’s birth. Because that’s how this poem comes across to me: as a rumination on what it may have been like when “the heavenly host” appeared to shepherds, “praising God” the moment Christ came into the world (ref). Surely the sheep must have felt something then, too. I mean, He was their Creator and He did come to renew “the heaven and the earth, and all the fulness thereof, both men [sic] and beasts, the fowls of the air, and the fishes of the sea” (ref). I’m sure they have some feelings—beyond instinct—in the matter. And they deserve, I think, for us to at least imagine that possibility.
By imagining this possibility through her language, by putting on sheepskin and sheep consciousness with her words, the poet suggests there may be more to sheep—and by extension, to the lives of animals—than just eating, sleeping, and propagating the species; that there may be more to their experience than just the objects immediately surrounding them; that they, too, may long for “moment[s] / that [hold] more than trees, grass, sky,” moments beyond the immediate contexts of instinct and survival. And with this suggestion the poet points to the transformational possibility that the hope made available through Christ’s atonement extends to the experience and awareness of animals and can ultimately perfect our relationship with them.
As something of a counterpoint/complement to my reading, hear what Marilyn herself has to say about the poem here.Source: byustudies.byu.edu