I sat down this morning to start Ours by Cole Swensen, and spent the whole morning reading it. That was not my intention. It was my intention to work some on my own writing, to translate a little perhaps, and to get some work done towards the launch of the Anomalous Press chapbook series, for which Cole was a judge. But I became so entranced by the book that I literally couldn’t walk away from it. I tried twice.
One of the things I love most about Cole’s work is that it’s so heavily researched. Well, this book is anyway, and I love it. It’s clear that not only the subject but the language itself has been culled, shaped, formed and reflected on deeply by a brilliant poetic mind, but she doesn’t work to obscure her reliance on source material. Which is of course not to say that she’s not composing the bulk of the book, in this case she clearly is, but that the language is tinted by other kinds of writing, other modes and tones. The variance between the strange lyric, which is what I except to find in her books, and the historical, biographical, scientific and agricultural to name a few other modes, is really spectacular. It builds a kind of pacing to the book that feels sculpted, but open, light and inviting, very much like I imagine the ordered French gardens she’s writing about are.
The book is concerned with the ‘father’ of French gardens, André Le Nôtre, and the exquisite gardens he built. But the gardens were for him and are for Cole an opening door, not an allegory exactly but a confluence of openings into time, space, nature, the human heart, mind, and face, and history. What do we know of history? is one of the questions the book leaves us with, how can we say someone was happy? How do we know? What is left behind, ordered and arranged? The garden is a code, a maze, a map. It is the body and the heart. It is peace and war and a kingdom unto itself.
And what’s wonderful about reading this kind of research-based poetry is that not only have I been enthralled by the lyric beauty of her language, her observations and her strange images, but I learned something about the world that I didn’t already know. I learned that gardens, specifically French 17th century gardens, are far more interesting than I ever imagined they could be. It’s not as though I can speak with any education on the subject having read the book, but I gained an appreciation for something in the world that had previously escaped my notice. Something complex and hidden. Something in a small way has been recovered.
And because this isn’t a review, exactly, as none of these Reading Journal entries are, merely my highly personal response to what I’m reading, here are some interesting critical reviews of this book: