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
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
FitP Poet Highlight 37/82: Gideon Burton, “Salt and Blood”
I like the taste of “Salt and Blood.” No, I don’t live in a coven or avoid sunlight and, although I do like potato chips, NaCl isn’t really my thing. Nonetheless, Gideon’s “Salt and Blood” makes my lyric tastebuds tingle. Hence the audio, in which I sample the sonnet’s Hopkins-spiced palette in my own tongue. Hear the lines densely-packed with sounds that spring off the tongue, as here, “that burning morning bursting hot-white call / of crimson dazzling awe,” and here, “yet He lets that peace in pieces shatter, / and what had glowed a grace-fierce fire, sputter.” Let the open vowels in the first four lines especially crack the jaw and the palate open: the “aw” of each -all word and their “hot” counterpart, the long a’s in “grey drape,” the short “a” of “dampen” and “dazzling,” the straggling, not quite assonant o’s in “morning” and “world.” Savor the alliterative interplay between the l’s, m’s, d’s, b’s, h’s, t’s, c’s, w’s, and the sibilance of the s’s.
All of this sound and tongue work in the octet creates a bit of friction that immediately gets cooled by the sestet’s opening line, which slows the poem’s speed to a more meditative pace: “Cold desert, colder night, stark sky a stone.” The phonetic combo “ol” (which also comes in line 8) further opens the palate and sets the meditative tone and pace of the sestet because the “l” seems to extend the “o,” a lengthening that carries over into “stone.” As I read it, the cumulative effect of these sounds and this move to a more meditative posture creates “[a] thirst inside a hunger,” a desire to be filled and healed that can only be satisfied as we slow down the speed of modern living, which sometimes get translated into breakneck prayers, into prayers on-the-go.
Now, mobile prayer is well and good and encouraged in scripture as the directive to “pray always.” But we really shouldn’t let it make up our entire repertoire of communication with God. We still need to “fall,” in each sense of that term: we needed to fall from God’s presence, as did Adam and Eve, in order to struggle “alone” in the lone and dreary world in order to develop our agency and independence and to be reminded that, ultimately, the communion of grace is our only means of returning “home.” And we need to fall before God, to slow down and approach Him, to worship Him, with real desire. The closing lines of “Salt and Blood” enact and encourage such slowing down with the repeated preposition in the list, which makes the mouth—and hopefully the mind—linger a bit longer on each item: “to shake, to scrape, to kneel and stutter-speak; / to taste the salt and blood of Him I seek.”
This final line not only points up our physical, mental, and spiritual experience of Christ’s sacrifice, wherein He sweat great drops of blood as He absorbed the effects of the Fall and in process extended His grace on condition of repentance. It also points up the rhetorical effects of Gideon’s poem, which speaks to the cycle of redemption even as it encourages readers’ participation in that cycle through its textual acts. “Salt and Blood,” then, becomes something of a redemptive act, a lyric offering of grace.
And its palette tastes oh so good.Source: opensourcesonnets.blogspot.com
You look so pleased with yourself
and now you think you deserve to be painted,
lying there, drowned, or crowding library shelves.
Your silly suicide cost me 6.95
at an art sale. I get jealous of you each morning …
FitP Poet Highlight 36/82: Sara Blaisdell, “Ophelia” (This links to an earlier version of the poem.)
Sara’s “Ophelia” makes me a bit melancholy. As does the painting upon which I’m pretty sure it’s based (see above). As does Shakespeare’s lady “of ladies most deject and wretched, / That suck’d the honey of [Hamlet’s] music vows” and who, after falling in love with then being rejected by that “prick prince,” made her way into Shakespeare’s brook, “dead men’s fingers” wrapped around her neck; then into John Everett Millais’ remix; then into the poet’s purview and onto the poet’s “wall” (if the speaker in “Ophelia” can be trusted, anyway). It’s uncanny, really, this layering of Ophelia’s image: supporting dramatic character become subject of a Pre-Raphaelite obsession become mass-produced art print become lyric rumination on, among other things, art, the human condition, life after death—and the potential intersections thereof.
Speaking somewhat to the ways such reproductive layering widens the gap between the creation and reception of an artwork, Walter Benjamin—literary critic, philosopher, intellectual—wrote in 1936 that “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art” into broader cultural and natural landscapes, a process that speaks to the modern world’s drifting away from contact with that which is authentic and original. Benjamin continues, “One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.” In other words, the act of reproducing, say, a painting or even, to back a step further toward Creation herself, a panoramic landscape or a human body (as portrayed in a painting or a photograph or film), puts distance between the original and its audience. Such distancing, as Benjamin has it, diffuses the aura of the work, weakening its aesthetic impact, suppressing what aesthetic power and authority the original may bear by virtue of its having been touched and cared for by the creator and thus infused with something of the creator’s life force.
But this life force doesn’t exactly disappear. In fact, it may be that some of the original’s aesthetic, cultural, and psychological DNA gets passed to each remixed, mass-produced, and mass-distributed copy spawned through the reproductive process. In this way, something of the parent work’s “genetics” flow into and through its “offspring,” whose presence and countenance double for the aura of the parent and enter different cultures and traditions. Of course, they’re not the parent’s aura. But, to return to my point of departure, the doubling effect inherent in the relationship among each displaced copy and between each copy and the original is uncanny—each repetition of or variation on the image may arouse in viewers a sense of familiarity with the image’s aura: the copies look and feel a bit like the original. Yet, because the image has been decontextualized and re-purposed, it also becomes unfamiliar: although the copies may look and even in cases feel like the original artwork, they’re not the original; they’re copies. Any aura they bear is imitative and thus inauthentic.
But that doesn’t make their aura or their influence any less real or affective. Consider, for instance, the case of Sara’s “Ophelia”: she’s written a poem addressed to a character in a painting based on a character in a play. And while poem, painting, and play are each separated from the others by centuries, cultures, and artistic genres, the pathos they share is at once cumulative and reiterative: poem comments on painting comments on play, which in turn adds aesthetic, cultural, emotional, and psychological value to the painting, which in turn adds aesthetic, cultural, emotional, and psychological value to the poem. And so on.
From the title, then, “Ophelia” comes drenched in associations: Associations between the wry poet and the intended recipient of her cynicism, which bitterness may turn out to be, as the speaker claims, just a symptom of the poet’s “jealous[y].” Associations between the poem and the “crowd[ed]” canon behind it: the mass-produced art print the poet purchased for “6.95 / at an art sale,” the Millais painting the print imitates, the life and death of Shakespeare’s supporting lady, even Christianity. Associations between this canon and the reader at least acquainted enough with its tragic tale to catch the allusive pathos of the poem’s subject and its potential to touch “everyone” who has felt the pangs of life in a fallen world, of unreciprocated love. Who has death hanging over them like a cheap art print hung in “every room of the house.” Who could find in that print—that lowly reproduction of Millais, which is really just a fictive reproduction of another fictive reproduction of flesh-and-blood humanity—a melancholy hope that even after death we “keep floating,” we keep thinking, singing, reaching out for “something” (maybe what we, as Ophelia, “think [we] deserve”: to be remembered) until we at last rise in “the resurrection,” which is ultimate proof that, like Ophelia, even though we may give up on ourselves and on each other, Christ never did and never will.Source: literatureandbelief.byu.edu
FitP Poet Highlight 35/82: Michael Hicks, “Family Tree”
In “Family Tree,” Michael’s lines are achingly sparse, haiku-like, even. I find in them a seductive grace and restraint that at once fills me and leaves me wanting. Take, for example, his first section, “Adam” (quoted above).
As I read it, the sibilance in the first four lines does several things:
1) It mirrors the layered “hiss” of “branches” and leaves in the “wind,” which wind could stand in for the presence of God.
2) It also mimics the serpent’s hiss and the rasp of its scales, which are like “green tongues” speaking to Adam from the knowledge tree.
3) It contracts the tongue and the palate and pulls the lips against the teeth. When combined with so few open vowels—as I sound it, only the /a/ in “branches” really feels open—this sibilance creates an empathetic engagement with the serpent’s tongue. By this I mean it gives readers an experience with the serpent’s (Satan’s) way of speaking: contracted, meaning Satan holds back some portion of the truth in order to manipulate and deceive others; tight-lipped, implying that he is secretive and bitter; split-tongued, which suggests he has a duplicitous, sophistic personality.
This closed way of speaking also contributes to the closed nature of the speaker’s understanding: he hears a “secret” repeatedly whispered, but he’s kept out of the loop. He can no more “peel open” this secret than the long /o/ in “open” (the section’s only other open vowel) allows him to really open his vocal apparatus—for a split second, for a passing glimpse behind the secret’s veil—before the word closes on him and the sentence and the section come to a full stop. As contractive as is this sibilant network of words, it’s also very seductive, teasing me with a sense that there’s more to these lines, to these images, that their ultimate secret remains forever open to the reader’s interpretive imagination—at least open within the limited system of the poem’s language and its interrelations with other texts—and thus forever closed to a definitive understanding.
And for the moment, that’s where I’ll leave my reading of “Family Tree”: open. Like the “sea” and the religious canon Moses “split like a log,” carving space through which successive dispensations could journey toward a deeper relationship with one another and with God. Like Elijah’s mouth, once filled with berries by ravens, later a foreboding harbinger of the unmatched power of God. Like the splinter wounds in Christ’s flesh, marks mirrored in the true disciples tongue as s/he praises Christ’s passion and sacrifice, which absorbed universal violence and provided means for the establishment of lasting peace, in this life and beyond. Like Joseph Smith’s vision, which set flame to traditional Christianity and, with the ashes, provided fertile ground for the growth of a more sweeping and progressive vision of God, humanity, and our development through eternity.