Return to a May Swenson Poem

by Olivia Zhu

That poem pulled me to a stop. Through some gravitational mechanism or another, it drew a page to fall exactly right as I rustled through my 700-plus-page poetry textbook; it drew my eye to a blocky section unlike all the rest. I had to write about it. No, really—I had to. My final paper for a Gen Ed poetry class desperately needed starting, and out of laziness or ennui or something else, nothing in those hundreds of pages drew my interest quite like one of May Swenson’s untitled poems.

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It’s been a poetic earworm for me ever since, which makes me feel a bit bad that I ended up reading it, learning it, loving it, and returning to it only because I found it by chance, in the middle of self-punishing procrastination. I hadn’t even read her poem in full before deciding to write about it, so drawn I was to how its beating cadence in the first few lines matched the look of the whole work entire.

And what cadence, what structure it has. The piece is devoid of standard punctuation, with great spaces dividing each word from the next. Those spaces imply a pattern, and back when I first wrote about the poem, I really could not figure out what was going on with the meter. That confusion was obscured by my dashing off some quick lines about how everything was mostly monosyllabic, with a “preponderance of iambs.” There’s no need to be so strict with Swenson here, and ever. It’s enough to say that there’s a throbbing beat to her piece, and it’s a beat that begins right away, in the first line: “I will be earth you be the flower”.

And yet somehow, the melody of it all comes through, on top of the semi-regular meter. Because Swenson’s content—her addressee, and their intimacy—is presented up-front, the rest of the piece can be read with the inflection of that relationship. When I hear the poem in my head, it’s at once tender and determined, as if the speaker is making clear to her lover what is so obvious to her. The tenderness comes from the carefully chosen images, and the determination from the steadiness of the underlying rhythm.

The speaker’s attitude is replete with un-contradicting paradoxes. First she is earth, her lover the flower, but then the speaker has a root (like her lover-plant) and her lover becomes the rain—and becomes, later, both rower and sea. Swenson then makes land and sea miscible, with the poem concluding’s attitude being something along the lines of: Who cares, if we’re no longer flowers, or boats? We’ll flood the land. We’ll salt it, and make it a desert. The images don’t matter—we, and no longer you and I inhabiting separate images—we can be elemental, we can be anything, so long as this is the feeling that we have for each other.

The untitled poem is not conveying a new feeling, or a complex one. That kind of emotion between two people is elemental, ought to be elemental. But the layers of interaction on top of the poem that help the speaker place her and the object of her affection where they are in the universe with respect to each other—those interactions and justifications are complex, and they are what interest me. How does a poet pick words when she is trying to capture an elemental feeling? How does anyone?

The aspects of the poem that used to fascinate me are still there: the intensity of it, how the rhyme scheme fuses together the same way the pronouns do. And there are so many other little facets that still twinkle at me. Why does Swenson sometimes use “will be,” and sometimes “are,” or why does “scorpion” show up at the end? They are more details to ponder for next time I think about the poem, the next time I write about it.

What I find most miraculous is that incomplete understanding of why she constructed the poem this way (an understanding that will always be incomplete) doesn’t affect the sentiment—the elemental emotion. The building-block-words, so stark and so separate, have only ever contributed to the frisson of seeing the poem, then reading it. And there’s no word for that feeling. How apt, then, that the work should be left untitled.

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