W. Scott Howard

Review of The Glass Age , by Cole Swensen
(Alice James Books, 2007)

Cole Swensen's The Glass Age , as the title and cover illustration suggest, offers a meditation on windows, glass, vision, and light itself—all limned and set-forth as embodiments of a unique way of being-in-the-world. Within that capacious grasp, the book also investigates silent films, transitions among competing artistic movements (e.g. realism, impressionism, abstraction, naturalism), and affinities among various writers and philosophers (e.g. Jarry, Deleuze, Apollinaire, Bergson). At the center of all of this, of course, one discovers the poet—nearly invisible—crafting a beautifully complex and moving tribute to the French artist, Pierre Bonnard, who was not only a successful painter, but also a photographer, printmaker, illustrator and interior designer contributing to the emergence of Art Nouveau in the late 1890s. Swensen thus figures herself and her readers as well as Bonnard's subjects:

“There's a person turning in the window—very small, very precise, invisible to the naked eye, turning and turning in the pane. In old glass, there is sometimes a tear in the window, sometimes a small bubble of air. Which itself has no frame. So where are you, the visitor, who came here to visit a painter?” (29)

Swensen's readings of Bonnard's paintings and artistic practice play a central role in this collection, yet those glimpses also involve reflections upon the related contextual and thematic matters noted above. Each page in this volume opens multiple windows, as one line of vision always-already contains the rainbow, or as one text reconfigures a palimpsest. Swensen's multi-disciplinary exploration thus yields hybrid forms of expression (from private to public speech) and several layers of discourse (from lyricism to dialectics), making the book difficult to characterize. Prose poetry? Art criticism? Philosophical meditation? Commonplace book? Travel writing? All of those genres or modes could be invoked as field descriptors, but The Glass Age is certainly first-rate poetry operating at the upper limits of speech and vision, yet occasionally collapsing beneath the ambitiousness of Swensen's own research and compositional methods. The crux of the volume, the major strength, is the poet's focused, original interpretation of Bonnard's paintings, yet that crystal sometimes fades when Swensen's multiple source-texts (so often presented as evidence) obscure the clarity of her craft.

In several passages, The Glass Age does more than merely suggest a point of view; the book (in my reading, anyway) argues for a certain understanding or disclosure, as in the following section:

“So often in Bonnard's work, the window is where we actually live, a vivid liminality poised on the sill, propped against the frame, he turns and speaks for the first time that day. The window, ajar, swings fully open in the breeze, and you watch his face glide away.” (18)

Bonnard's windows, at their best, are not representations, but pure embodiments of being and symbolic correspondences among nature, artist, work, and viewer. “Bonnard's work implicitly asks what it is to see, and what it is to look through” (7). “He put real light in them and watched it dry” (11). “Bonnard saw in the window not a contradiction, but a solid object that could lead you through itself in the dark” (43). “A life-sized window is the size of a life” (65). Swensen's notes on early photography and silent films also highlight such astonishment:

“The earliest movie was a magic lantern; they'd slip panes of glass back and forth in front of the captive children on which were painted a woman, a wolf, a very, very small house inside your mind the walls go white. And when they once again coalesce, something lives in them.” (26)

Several of the most delightful passages in The Glass Age produce that distinctive magic of the moving image, which brings-forth a new reality of inner life. Bonnard's windows, via Swensen's visionary poetics, tap the essence of life's secret moment-by-moment flow that also includes the viewer's constitutive (i.e. co-creative) experience and transcendent understanding that obliterates any distinctions between past and future, inside and outside, form and content, body and soul, figure and ground, etc. Consider this:

“Like most people, Bonnard painted
_________________________________________at that moment
____________________________out my window
and across the street
_________________facing north, a cardinal first
is a color and might if
_________________________________________flight is
spliced into the eclipse outside my window, igniting patterns,
parterres, some gardener
amiss.” (4)

A vibrant bird flies into and through the horizon of experience for painter and poet and reader, sparking new possibilities for sound and image, metaphor and trope: “patterns” becomes “parterres” as the transport of figuration draws us into the garden no longer across the street, but dwelling within.

The Glass Age frames such singularities with forays into related fields of knowledge and allusions to / citations from other documents or works of art that inform the working-context that Swensen brings to her discovery of Bonnard. The section just noted appears immediately after the volume's first page:

“Pierre Bonnard, 1867-1947, painted next to a north-facing window. The battle over just what constitutes realism was at that moment particularly acute—an emotional thing, such as a cardinal out my window. Could streak away and shatter the composition of the world into a vivid wind in which the world goes astray.” (3)

From beginning to ending, The Glass Age imbricates discursive and lyrical registers, as Swensen sifts through the sand-and-ash braids of language that shape her processes of research and reflection before, while, and after writing. In this regard, Swensen's linguistic re-mediations mirror those of Bonnard, who did not paint directly from life, but from sketches or notes or photographs, which he would then bring to the canvas in his studio. That recombinatory or intertextual approach might be seen as the definitive strength of The Glass Age , making the collection a deeply philosophical and personal homage. Readers less sympathetic to such a postmodernist, comparative and hybrid poetics, though, may find fault with a few places in the book where Swensen's trans-discursive remixings undermine her meaning. The opacity here, for example, could be construed as a deft nod to the tradition of anti-absorptive poetics—

“ . . . It's an equivalent world, one in which each element serves as a clinamen to trip the homogeneity into precipitating specifics so numerous that they can construct a roiling chaos quite able to hurtle through a darkness without a hitch . . . ” (27)—

or, this celebration of “homogeneous intensity extending anarchically” (27) could just as readily be taken as merely an exercise in deliberate redundancy and over-determination. Swensen's poetry sometimes places strenuous demands upon her readers; the rewards can be rich for those who enjoy such serious and playful challenges. “‘The most beautiful things in museums are the windows,' he said, looking out at the Seine from the Louvre, June, 1946” (71). Given the primary subject in The Glass Age , however, the question remains as to how and why such linguistic difficulty complements Bonnard's symbolic interiors and enigmatic landscapes.

From It's Alive She Says (Floating Island, 1984) to Numen (Burning Deck, 1995) and to the more elaborate Try (1999) and Such Rich Hour (2001), Cole Swensen's poetry offers a range of striking achievements in the ekphrastic tradition. Ekphrasis (or ecphrasis) has a long history, going as far back as the rhetorical writings attributed to Dionysius of Halicarnassus (c. 60-7 BCE), where the matter is considered as an expository speech that vividly portrays a given subject. After the much celebrated description of Achilles's shield ( Iliad 18. 483-608), ekphrasis has eventually (and erroneously) gathered a reductive reputation in the field of western poetics as a verbal description of a work of visual art. However, ekphrasis may also pertain more generally to descriptions (whether real or imaginary) of people and places, emotions and psychology, objects and concepts, etc.—that is, so long as the crux of the method concern the degree to which poetic language may deliver a rendering of a particular field of experience and signification. Ekphrasis, in that regard, is inherently an interdisciplinary venture deeply connected to the powers of metaphor, analogy, and hermeneutics—how and why one field of knowledge may become visible or invisible to another—as much as to (perhaps even more so than) the objects of study (such as a painting) within those fields of inquiry.

As a matter of poetics (whether for contemplation or composition) ekphrasis may thus quickly shift from vision ( picture this) to figuration ( as if ) to meta-cognition ( or such ), as in this passage from The Glass Age:

—by a single candle. In that black or luminous square, Baudelaire crossed the room and closed the window. There is sand on fire, and we stray.” (67)

From Leon Alberti's notes on perspective to Ludwig Wittgenstein's search for perfect proportion, Swensen's acts of attention and articulation in The Glass Age often progress along such lines of vision, figuration, and meta-cognition. Those interpretive gestures are especially resonant during moments of direct contact with identified paintings by Bonnard, such as In Front of the Window at Le Grand-Lemps (c. 1923) and Nude in an Interior (c. 1935), or when this accomplished writer puts ekphrasis to the ultimate test of limning light and even that bubble of air in the glass “on which skates, fleet apothecary, the glance” (28).