9.13.2007

Cole Swensen
The Book of a Hundred Hands
Iowa, 2005

I heard Cole Swensen read from this collection quite some time ago; she read with Elizabeth Robinson at Andrew Maxwell's LA reading series when it was still downtown at a place called The Lab.

Swensen's use of the hand has always been marked. "marked" -- using this phrase too much. Cole Swensen writes a lot about hands. Frequently, constantly. In this book, the heart of which, in those poem introductions long ago, she mentioned are from the *illustrations only* to some text Jena Osman was using at some writing retreat or colony or summer tutorial or something. These comments were very formative for me, as I imagine Cole Swensen's teaching has been on generations of students especially now she's at Iowa. She led Bay area Poets in the Schools for a long time, although -- well, it is not crippled by LAUSD up there.

What is it that influenced me: merely that there was some value placed to having a poet pick an obscure text and "go through it" here enamoured by a word, here ignoring the text and putting the pictures into words (might be fun to do with an issue of PLAYBOY), here using the idea, there generating a form. Books of Hours, Garden books, ASL, T'ai Chi, Opera, Fencing: interesting that one tends to find poets using the same sorts of texts so continuously, rather than others. These are texts (I, and several poets I can think of, have written long series this way) which lend themselves to transposition in some way. A formal or informal garden, a child's garden of verse, a florilegium. Gesture, and gesture frozen in phrase.

It is a brilliant graduate level excercise, the project poem based on a -- not really a source, but taking a source, locating what you will from it, and obsessing on that theme or metaphor set until you have a chapbook, say, a series, a group of poems where it is easy for a group to see -- here is one text, and here is how this poet's "done it up." Here is the sort of text this poet chose -- suited to the skill set or not?

Airy, embodied, easy, useful: the hand is well suited to the way that Swensen isn't intellectual, but is esoteric; not formal in some ways, a little ephemeral, but abstract more in meaning that in matter. Good book. Good teacher-by-example.

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