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Ours by Cole Swensen
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Ours (2008)

by Cole Swensen

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Aspects of Swensen’s book remain problematic for me. Ours left me feeling a bit chilly perhaps because the 17th century formal gardens in and around Paris, particularly the gardens of Versailles, which are the poetry’s pretext, it’s raison-d’être, largely leave me cold as well. Beyond my disaffection for such cultural artifacts of autarchy, it may be the attentiveness to language for its own sake that Swensen’s poetry so artfully enacts that discomfits. I look for fissures and find very few, but such cracks are what most interest me in her work. I’m not talking about fragmentation when I say “fissure.” There are certainly gaps, ellipses, white space, and broken syntax in the poetry. What I’m looking for are rough spots, where artfulness and artifice give way, and energy percolates through. Perhaps a moment where the poet doesn’t have complete control over the work. That may be what bothers me: Swensen’s poetry creates an impression of complete control, and complete control always disturbs me. She doesn't appear to be taking any risks. A blurb by Ron Silliman on the book jacket almost reads as a critique although I don't think he intended it as such; Silliman calls Swensen, “A remarkably adept, even facile craftsperson.” He goes on to “place her among the finest post-avant poets we now have.” Did he really say and mean “facile”? 17th century French royal and aristocratic gardens are models of the geometric, the overly-interpreted and overly-thought. They were (and to a large extent still are) manicured and managed to the nth degree, artifice carved from Nature. Interestingly, and certainly intentionally on Swensen’s part, the process of constructing such formal gardens mirrors the formal process of constructing poetry “about” such gardens. Her honed craftiness, her seasoned artfulness seem just as intent upon perfection as were those of Le Nôtre, the "happy" and "kind man" who designed the gardens under Louis XIV. The undecided is the antithesis of the formal French garden and it is this lack of undecidedness that leaves me somewhat dissatisfied with the poetry. The terrain that Swensen maps, and her poetry is nothing but topographical in its attention to surface detail, is fully instructed, 100% made. Every clod of dirt, precise.
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  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
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To my parents and their gardens
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These poems are about gardens, particularly the seventeenth-century French baroque gardens designed by the father of the form, Andr�e Le N�otre. While the poems focus on such examples as Versailles, which Le N�otre created for Louis XIV, they also explore the garden as metaphor. Using the imagery of the garden, Cole Swensen considers everything from human society to the formal structure of poetry. She looks in particular at the concept of public versus private property, asking who actually owns a garden? A gentle irony accompanies the question because in French, the phrase "le n�otre" means "ours.… (more)

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