Sunday, June 1, 2014



Stele by Cole Swensen
(Post-Apollo Press, Sausalito, CA., 2012)

Aesthetic Exercise: Swensen’s Stele Reading

            Stele fits in one hand, in Post-Apollo’s style, with an abstract cover of simple orange stripes on off-white framed in army-blanket green designed by publisher Simone Fattal. The poem sequence inside seems, too, to be simple and lightly abstract. It uses a few very simple devices to proceed almost narratively while at the same time offering a mood of philosophical reflection kind of in the old nouveau roman style. Image, reflection, and voice make this a poetic book. The devices make it a poetry that could be called language-centered, but that’s redundant. The devices are a self-interrupting syntax, like thought in action often will have; the narrative use of a figure and little actions “he” takes; and a line that is broken in two by space in the middle. There is a ekphrastic sense here of reading some stele, too, that combines those three devices into one possible parsimonious whole reading of the poem’s multiplicities. Something calm and quiet happens here as we read, but it reverberates beyond any one framing thought. In fact, we are drawn in a couple of directions at once: into the (ostensible) pictures and the story they call forth in us, and into the act of voicing what may be creating the pictures in the first place.

            The devices create a narrative of thinking and reading that may be the origin of the images or may have an origin in responding to something perceived and read. The chiasmus in the lines helps this chiasmic effect; the first poem shows it well:

            from a distance                                             seems to be walking
            and so becomes a man                                       and so the man

in his silence                                    therefore these hills and hills
in their ceaseless every surface                of the eye in its folding

and disappears an evening                                   of folded hands
as if the folded hands                                          of the statue had

too many fingers                                       making them look oddly
feathered and thus                                                    so much less

contained or able                                                    to be contained

We eventually get the sense that these images are somehow objective, that they come from some thing--like a real stele or photograph or painting or maybe even a movie. The images above are continued on page 7 in lines like “walking is the other / and slips we think … we think all motion / cedes warmth, a blood of forth or // cede the long fall / back to mere name again”; we want to think there’s some thing there, but the writing also keeps alive the possibility that it is creating objects for reading that are only there in the writing.

            That effect joins another to make this little book especially interesting for poet-readers. Norma Cole’s cover-blurb suggests that we can and do read the pages both in the normal “horizontal” way that would see tow-part lines and in a “vertical” way that sees two poems per page perhaps. Page 19 shows pretty well how this would work, and not. It is good evidence for this as an intended effect because it shows that the elements, the half-lines, can add up just as well vertically as horizontally. There is an elegance and an awkwardness to this. We see in these lines how this tempting approach works, and doesn’t:

paint the field                                                      field the never
ends in a gradual slope                               that opens the sky

as an excess                                      where the walking starts

also to have an openness                                       wishing on
in its paintedness                                                    is the calm

that always issues from                                   repetitive action
slowed down                             by the onslaught of perception

displacing time                             which is the essential motion
of a painting breaking open                            the wall behind it

We can read “paint the field / the field never // ends …” smoothly enough, but we can read just as normally getting “paint the field / ends in a gradual slope …” and “field the never /that opens the sky … .” Both approaches are engaging and sometimes off-putting because of loose abstractions. They ask for leaps that are rewarded mostly by ideas about perception.

            Were the book more highly engaged with a politic as well as an aesthetic, and if it could make both of those perspectives sharper with its multiple “readabilities,” then we might have a stunning poem. The museum-visit feel of it does not seem to include consideration of the museum itself and its social history. As it is, Stele is enjoyable and illuminating, but mostly only in aesthetic ways.


T.C. Marshall has been publishing poems, critical work, and literary theory ever since his “Skyscraper” was selected for a mimeographed poetry anthology when he was in first grade. Recently, he has gone beyond paper into publishing blogbooks. One is called "Post Language" becuase it is composed of poems that incorporate picture that were all posted first on FaceBook as interventions in the photo-sharing expectations there. Tom has also begun Maize Poem, a blogged composition in progress that displays the evolution of his self-education about corn. Another focuses on education and is called "Mister Ed." They all can be found on blogspot along with other thoughts of his and ones he has borrowed from his teachers. He himself has enjoyed teaching for over twenty years in the community and at Cabrillo Community College in Santa Cruz County, California.

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