Gravesend by Cole Swensen
University of California Press, 2012
84 pp., Paperback
By Colin Partch
Cole Swensen’s newest collection of poems Gravesend, possesses the incisive eye of investigation and scholarship along with the highly innovative and fragmented syntax that she has perfected over the course of her career. Though the figure of the ghost, both potential and actual, takes a central role throughout the work, it is the nature of “ghostliness”—and by extension “bodiliness”—which is perhaps the true focus. But such a focus is regarded in terms of recognition, how something seems to appear or what it means to be a recognizable body.
We are made
in a thin thread or of the line incised into the pane which may be only
a photograph she said, whenever I look at a photograph, I see not the man who died
years ago but the one who will one day as he’s simply looking out the window
Swensen’s central poetics is that of the pane of glass: a semi-reflective membrane that is transparent while holding a slight, ghostly reflection. The metaphor of the window pane is not limited to the functionality of the glass; the poems support a second order metaphor, that of appearance itself as mirrored surface. What we see communally is like a two way mirror: “Ghosts appear in place of whatever a given people will not face . . . There are days the entire sky is a ghost . . . and everything in sight is alive.”
Surfaces are continually evoked and questioned in Gravesend, both as barriers and as vantage points. If the presence of ghosts can be understood as a thinning or breaking of the seal between two worlds, then the perception of ghosts too is a breaking of the barriers of inside and outside. “A ghost is a broken window, though the window does not end the room; it only breaks the seal.”
Things are not lost in the world, they emerge as a sudden recognition, the person who leaves the world makes a ripple on the surface of observation, the external brought internal, but only for a fleeting glance, like the green flash before sunset. “A ghost is one life layered upon another that has not yet been named.”
The surface of the image itself is questioned throughout the poems, depicted in the frame of a window or a photograph, and Swensen means for that moment to be reiterated in the eye of the viewer. She insists the image is also the memory of the person in question, asserting that we are carried through the world precisely in our potential to be viewed by an observer. Our instance upon the world is like a flash on the retina that doesn’t dissipate, but re-echoes continuously through the experience of recognition itself. “Or a ghost is burned into the sky as an image is burned into the retina of an eye . . . remains emblazoned on a certain patch of air, annealed there, watching.”
In the poem “Freud Claims,” Swensen evokes Freud’s sense of melancholia. We have accounts of the “gathering place” of death, a reenactment of an unacceptable loss that is internalized through the ego, often expressed as self-condemnation, though in these poems this experience remains behind the curtain of the text as it were. The fragmented lyric line is sutured into the body of the text, intersecting with other lines and voices, crafts a divergent fabric that engages both the object and subject of the poem simultaneously.
In the section “How Did Gravesend Get Its Name”, misreadings, mishearings, permutation of language, and folk etymology operate similar to the appearance of the ghost. The final arrival of the name, Gravesend, carries with it all the possibilities of the past, which is in this sense a “sonic” past, like a beat of sound in the ear, different for each person.