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Review of Cole Swensen's Gave — March 27, 2018

by Ben Rutherfurd


In her previous collection of poems, Landscapes on a Train, Cole Swensen used the horizontality of the prose poem to create the sense of travelling by train. The result was a book-length poem that flashed across the page in what felt like fleeting landscapes, recreating not just the countryside itself but the eye’s attempt to interpret what is simultaneously arriving and receding. In her latest collection, Gave, released last year from Omnidawn, Swensen has returned to an investigation of landscape via the book-length project, albeit in a more ambulatory fashion.
      I start with Landscapes to situate Gave within the context of what might be Swenson’s larger project: that is, an investigation of the numerous ways a landscape can be traversed, be it by vehicle, foot, language, memory, anecdote or historical document, and how the self fractures in that act. Like its predecessor, Gave emulates the movement of what it watches: a river, the Gave de Pau, in southwest France. To that end, the language is malleable, at times taking a long-lens, historical distance and at other times getting close enough to diminish the line between observer and observed. An image of the Gave de Pau may be described, say, in a block of prose, but, frequently, the language breaks down:

            1615: … A ferryman standing
            In a low, broad boat early in the evening, rather bored, with the sky
            turning purple and the trees on the far shore cut out in black, and he,
            too, now cut out, crisp and dark,
                                                                        will ferry me over
                                    as calmly as ether
            as the calmly offered
                                                            ferry me other

At several points, too, Swensen presents us with a poem divided down the middle, as if to signal a perceptual split:

you walk along the river
                                                       among the walked along
would river you a mirror
                                                       would the river, too, on–
and too, we are alone.
                                                       you, in walking over
to the shatter or the
                                                       splinter. Someone
threw a rock into the water.

      As seen in the lines above, one of the pleasures of reading Gave is how many of its passages begin straightforwardly—“you walk along the river”—are slowly destabilized—“among the walked along / would river you a mirror”—but retain syntactic rhythms, using nouns or prepositions in the place of verbs, that we can hear meaning into, so to speak. Then unexpectedly, sense snaps into focus: “Someone / threw a rock into the water.” In this case, it’s as though the phenomenal world—a splash—yanks us from reverie. Yet, innocuous as it may seem, the splash has already happened, so that the last line reads as a registering of sound and the attendant realization of another presence, “someone.” But who, what, had constituted that “we”—itself an impossibility given that “we are alone”: the self and the river, or the self witnessing itself? This close up, the river becomes uncanny, its potential to form a “we” with the walker—to be an its own entity—felt in the flickering between pronouns. Whereas, seen from afar, the river’s mutability is clear.
      In more ways than one, Gave eludes categorization. Or, its categories are various. What readers will first be struck by is the blurred distinction between the voice of the researcher and that of the lyrical “I.” The book’s opening passage, for instance, clarifies for us that

Though there are many gaves throughout the area, in the following text, when the word “gave” is used alone, it refers to the
Gave de Pau, and in particular, to that stretch of the river that has been historically linked to the city of Pau and the communities
immediately surrounding it.

Has the poem begun yet, or are we being given some preliminary information? In other places, the straightforward and informative voice is punctured by a different activity. A few pages in, Swensen lists the major glaciations that have shifted the Gave’s location: “And ever since, itinerant, capricious, reigning over its distances, and from there into their centuries, shifting, and equally capriciously back again.” Here, too, the language feels susceptible to the river’s swerves, the switch from a singular to a plural pronoun and the avoidance of a main clause steering the sentence slyly away from a fixed referent. The river stays beyond description’s reach.
      What readers will find familiar is the focus Swensen gives to her subject, an enactment of the process of perception, and an inclusion of narratives (either anecdotal or official) to construct a sense of place. Not to mention how, at times, language feels self-propulsive—even self-aware—as a poem’s sonic momentum might overtake semantic meaning, a musicality that seems entirely Swensen’s own:

                                                            We dove down in our hands into the
Hand in the water.
                                                            A hand plows a river, and we list: fish
Power, stone                                                  
                                                            A city could live off a river alone. A city
                                                            On a river could drift
Downriver, rolling
                                                            Stones until they’re round.

       Again, it isn’t quite that the slipperiness of the language, the text’s numerous angles of approach, erases its referent—the river—by denying a reader firm ground. Rather, there’s a curiosity at work, a genuine enjoyment in deploying several ways of seeing. Following a topographical feature, collapsing collapsing the Gave’s history into 58 pages, Gave considers how language, media, and anecdote order our experience of landscape and vice versa. The relationships are never static. And in suggesting that “most rivers / are not actually / flowing, but falling / the lengths of themselves,” Gave performs various inversions of the environment. Yet the ground remains beneath our feet.