Picture a photograph: a tree caught at the exact moment you pass it. The portrait is one of movement rather than subject — the blur of motion in the landscape takes the center of the portrait. As a result, the captured image is wholly contingent on time, gesture, field and the observation of the photographer.
So opens “Landscapes on a Train,” the latest collection of poems by Cole Swensen, Brown University professor and award-winning poet. In her most recent work, published by Nightboat Books, Swensen experiments with capturing landscapes in motion, in a rich and complex poetic project belied by the visual simplicity of the poems.
As in her previous work, especially “Greensward,” Swensen is clearly attentive to the aesthetic appearance of the poems, which take the space of the page itself as a visual field. The most immediately striking quality of “Landscapes on a Train” is the author’s treatment of the page as a medium for visual art. These poems are conscious of their existence as bodies, and the particularity of their shape and position on the page allow the reader to examine the ways in which the image of the poem, as a kind of graphic work, colors our reading of the language.
Each poem appears in a discrete block, centered and justified so that the lines assume the shape of both stanza and paragraph. This ambiguity collapses the generic divide between verse and prose, just as the uniformity of appearance and the visual appeal of the poems allow us to treat the page as visual art. By pulling multiple genres into collaboration, Swensen, in the form of her verse, experiments with the different conceptual tools required in order to capture the motion of a landscape through language.
Beyond the general form of the work, at the level of the language, the poems perform brilliantly in realizing their project. Beginning with the first lines of the book,
“Green. Cut. And I count: the green of the lake the green of the sky and the field / Which is green and is breaking. Waking out of an opening, a sudden field opens / Out with a suddenness that instantly places us miles away across a field of wheat,”
Swensen establishes a uniformity of tone, color and pace in the work, as well as a set of parameters for experimentation. These poems break simple images into unfamiliar semantic constructions, fracturing the logic of the language. Coupled with the motion of the line, which is propelled both by the meter and the shifting imagery, this broken logic forces the reader to abandon the pursuit of conventional meaning in their reading and instead consolidate impressions of images, gesture and shape.
With such intensely evocative poems organized into discrete, visually uniform blocks, the book as a whole takes shape as a kind of visual series, like a stop-motion animation, in which the movement of the poems’ language from page to page engages each distinct line grouping in a single effort to capture one, sweeping action. Thus, each group of lines, in effect, operates as a microcosm of the book in that the line, the page and the book capture the same project in discrete bodies that aggregate and build upon one another like a Lego sculpture. The question, then, that Swensen pursues is that of scope — scope of both landscape and the intricacy of change.
In the micro-to-macrocosmic structure of the work, Swensen mirrors through her language “the infinite splitting of finite things.” In doing so, she experiments with the numerous, quiet transformations in constituent parts that must occur in order for the aggregate to show change.
At the core of her work is this metaphysical question of how change or motion is created — through which parts of the whole is change executed? How many parts? And how do they collaborate to create change? All of these questions are swept into her attempt to capture through language a single portrait of motion — Swensen confronts the postulated metaphysical impossibility of change.
“Landscapes on a Train” consolidates into a profoundly thoughtful, beautiful and experimental investigation of the intricacies of life. And in its project, it addresses — with a deceptive simplicity and candor — questions of both language’s ability to perform the visual and the nature of change.