Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #7, Spring & Summer 2002]


Such Rich Hour
By Cole Swensen
Kuhl House Poets
University of Iowa Press, 2001

Oh
By Cole Swensen
Apogee Press, 2000

Reviewed by Catherine Daly


Since 1984, Cole Swensen has published eight books of poetry, most recently Such Rich Hour and Oh, two project-based poetry books which demonstrate Swensen's increasing poetic facility. Swensen characteristically uses assonance to convey a series of carefully modulated stances which always have a visual aspect. Such Rich Hour is a series of poems not based on a book of hours or written as a book of hours, but as a meditative and imaginary diary which uses fifteenth century France and the illustrations from one of the most famous books of hours -- that of Duc de Berry -- as frames. Oh is similarly not a meditation on opera so much as a book length reverie on several operas which captures how a contemporary poet might enjoy opera. In this way, both books move from Try, Swensen's 1999 book which layered observation of renaissance triptychs with opportunities and frustrations the page offers to poetry.

A book of hours itself offers a series of prayer cycles and interrelated calendars. Such Rich Hour's poems are organized by month and day, but not by year. Swensen mentions, in the Introduction, that the first poems for each month respond to the illustrations for that month. These illustrations are available online, and so readers have the opportunity to identify aspects of Swensen's poetic response directly, for themselves. The two poems for January 1 contain many fairly direct descriptions. As in many commissioned works of this time period, the Duc de Berry has been painted into the January picture. In "January 1: The Feast of the New Year," Swensen writes, "The duke sits, / waits / what / did you expect." (p. 8) "January 1: Once Framed" includes the lines, "welded all our swan (plural) (upper right) (against red / was was once a sky)." (p.9) This is a description of a banner with a red figured ground and five white swans (among other decorations) pictured in the upper right hand corner of the page. The poem continues with word associations based on sound. "Red" moves into "read" just as Swensen has read the picture, "unreeled" to "wheel," and "shine" to "shy," in "do Shine. (Or 'shy' -- I can't quite read the note." (p.9) In this way, Swensen's playful meditation introduces concepts, including reading paintings and the wheel of fortune and time, which Swensen continues throughout the poems.

As the book progresses, the text becomes richer, including quotes from the time period as well as from histories of the time period, Latin names for paint colors, and the ways the pigments were used. Swensen's researched the illustrations, and incorporates facts, such as alluding to the three painters, who were brothers, in "March 1: Spring Agriculture." Some of this information becomes almost symbolic, referring to the alchemy of poem-making and painting, as well as to the actual techniques for gilding a page, such as in this passage from the poem "September 1.618: In Light of Gold":

Some poems contain entire prose paragraphs of explanations. In a practice becoming more common, two pages of sources, documented in MLA format, are listed at the end of the book. Oh is not documented in this way, although the book does contain paragraphs of beautifully phrased explanation in prose poetry, primarily at the beginning of each of the five numbered sections. Operas alluded to and quoted include La Boehme, L'Orfeo, Otello, Madame Butterfly, Salome, and Norma. The strength of the song which has led Swensen to score the page with her comments and quotes makes this an easy and pleasurable book to read (and a nearly impossible one to quote); the sexual content sparks emotional involvement:

Here that involvement is escalated, in poetry based on Otello, Verdi's version of Shakespeare, into "war of the sexes." She begins this passage by referring to "militant order" and then defines this order in a luminous equation, where light is power is love. She does not fail to mention light as matter and power as "a matter," as she introduces memory.

Swensen is also an accomplished translator from the French; she teaches courses in opera, art history, and poetry writing in Paris and in Denver. Swensen's work is increasingly inspired by other arts and information sources, which she translates into poetry. These two books demonstrate Swensen's concerns with alchemy and translation from art to art as well as from medium to medium and language to language.


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Poems by Cole Swensen from Such Rich Hour online:

"Preface," at Boston Review:
http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR25.1/swensen2.html

"Recipes for Red," at Boston Review:
http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR25.1/swensen.html

"The Fourth Month: April: with Preview of Jeanne d'Arc," at Facture:
http://www.webdelsol.com/Facture/poems/coleswensen.htm


Sample of Oh online at Apogee Press:

http://www.apogeepress.com/pdf/oh.pdf


Images from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry online:

http://humanities.uchicago.edu/images/heures/heures.html

http://www.christusrex.org/www2/berry/
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Catherine Daly's reviews have been published online and in print by a variety of publications, including The Boston Review, Rain Taxi, and Savoy.



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