For each of her books, Cole Swensen has typically chosen one subject—often from the world of art—around which the poems revolve, tracing the epistemology of the subject’s historical period all the while. In Such Rich Hour (2001), for instance, she contemplated at length the Limbourg brothers’ Très Riches du Duc de Berry, a fifteenth-century book of hours, which was in her broken syntax placed against the tenuous philosophical backdrop of the first Western systemizations of time. For The Glass Age (2007), the poet turned to Bonnard’s painterly depictions of windows, interweaving faintly expository prose regarding his canvases with subtle intimations of how the day’s technological advances inflected not only theories of sight but also the very fabric of vision. In each case, Swensen suggests that every artwork postulates a world.
shall be planted within the première vue,
only low parterres and a few arbustes
cut close. So that every prospect is a little aerial; we plane above
a cloisonné; we lose track
of the conversation for a moment, and then snap back:
a garden is a sequence that has no basis in fact:
at the aura
at the aurore
at the slightest sound, corona;
it’s a way of making nature account for the mind.
From this perspective, Swensen’s twelfth and latest volume, Ours, seems an apotheosis of sorts within the poet’s practice. Taking as its central figure the foremost gardener under the reign of Louis XIV, André Le Nôtre—whose surname in translation provides the poet with her title—the book navigates the imagination underlying his most noteworthy creations, from Versailles to Vaux-le-Vicomte. Most of the landscapes transformed by his hand are, of course, familiar enough to us today, if only in radically altered form; as Swensen points out in her introduction, whereas Le Nôtre “created all his gardens for members of the most exclusive classes, they are today almost all public parks.” This periodic relativism is set upon immediately by the first of her book’s nine sections, “History,” where Swensen, in sparing individual poems, touches on the birth of landscape architecture (“a small mechanical heart in everything green”) and, looking to its manifestations though history, suggests that a garden is at once a “window” and a “mirror.” And then she arrives at her critical axiom: “Any garden is a description / of its era’s metaphysics.”
Delineated geography contains language, then, in more ways than one. Indeed, Swensen observes that a “whole language developed” around the new conception of land (where “we’ll build you an alphabet,” she adds, in her gardener’s voice of noblesse). And it’s immediately clear that the shapes of her short poems mimic passages in a garden, emulating its envisioned turns— offering enjambments that pocket the surprise of that anamorphic perspective Le Nôtre employed in his designs—and unfolding for the reader in an apparently effortless, strolling cadence even while invoking a time when a stately order was intended to span the globe, starting at the Sun King’s doorstep. An example from the second section, “Principles,” is below. The poetic metaphor is clear enough. (Later, we even get a nearly slapstick Bloom in the field: “Every garden is a rearrangement of a previous garden.”) Yet most compelling is how Swensen never sets aside the deeper, sociological implications of her structuralist play. On the contrary, in simple prose style she explains how the garden, made wide and long, also can be seen as a kind of militarized space; the landscaping of war was steeped less in “going up” than in going out, in covering sufficient land to survive a siege. And as she suggests in her penultimate section, “Orangeries”: “The history of exotic fruits parallels that of the rising middle class,” and thus the technological bravura of the Baroque era also contained the seed of the parks we know today.
By themselves, such passages might seem plain (and perhaps even didactic). But taking these episodes together, one wonders whether her poetics should be described as bringing Michel de Certeau’s famous “long poem of walking” (from The Practice of Everyday Life) back onto the literal page. Hers is an oscillating rhetoric slipping through the lexica of many disciplines and forms, crisscrossing high and low as well, continually taking the reader aback in its elegant choreography. And so if Certeau advocated “turns of phrase” to introduce skips and jumps into our experience of the instrumentalized city (Swensen herself recently likened poetry to the urban environment), she does the same for our encounters with language, creating distances and perspectives not only on the object of her inquiries but on her own writing. This reflexivity might be her contribution to the genre of ekphrastic poetry.
Which is not to say that Ours is entirely at the service of philosophy. A particularly amusing moment arises when Swensen imagines Marie de Medici “[w]alking out on the first day of summer, 2007,” to encounter her gardens “completely redrawn, and the green metal chairs, / their particular sound as they’re dragged across gravel.” At the sight of such unruly, democratic leisure, of course, she bursts out screaming. But with this comedy comes a kind of implicit—and perhaps unin‑tended—polemical edge to Swensen’s verse: If there is an irony to Le Nôtre’s name (“Ours”), since all his creations would in later years become living representations of Enlightenment principles as manifested by the state, this turn has only been redoubled by the expanding reach of privatization today. To cite Paul Éluard (as Swensen does near her conclusion), the earth is blue like an orange, indeed.
Tim Griffin is editor of Artforum.