A review of Cole Swensen's 'Landscapes on a Train'
I am on the TGV Lyria from Paris to Mulhouse reading Cole Swensen’s newest poetry collection, Landscapes on a Train. I am awash in “The infinite splitting of finite things” as these one to five long-lined prose poems pass before my eyes with the rush and rumble of the train, the staccato catch and jostle of unexpected punctuation, the blur of the greens outside echoed in:
Green. Cut. And I count: the green of the lake the green of the sky and the field
Which is green and is breaking. (7)
Swensen’s anaphora is both visual and audible. The turning of the train’s wheels, the up-and-down of the hills, the words and end-stops, the rise and fall of gears and gaskets, noun and verb like metal pressing metal, run the train faster and faster through the landscape until outside is confounded and melds into such twinned, twined images as: “A / Train across open land opens night. (A train lands all night across an open field)” (11).
The first lines of Swensen’s book which I quoted above undercut potential casual normative prosy language with the delightful, surprising “is breaking” — so the field is splitting or else is rising up and breaking like a wave against the shores of our perception. It is the subtle crash of verbs and nouns in this book which undoes the potentially simple observations from a train and makes landscape, light, color, and language open themselves to new possibilities. Cause and effect skew, become the unexpected — so the train makes night open, or a train lands (like a plane or bird) but in a way that is ongoing, as “all night” in the second couplet quoted above suggests. We are “in a landscape almost held,” Swensen writes,“… By things that move / More slowly than trees” (13).
In fact, Swensen’s uses of timed instants pitted against instants of prolonged time play with the seen, so transformations are not just visual, but temporal. Landscapes are stopped, shrunken, held in the palm of a hand. The gaze, the eye, catches the land in an instant, but then that instant is taken up by “things that move,” indicating speed — that of the train again — but then already that which has momentum seems unnaturally slowed, stalled, caught, as Swensen’s “more slowly than trees” states. This fragment indicates a time so slow our human eye cannot in a natural state notice the transformation, and yet trees grow and surround us. Trees in a state of emerging partake of how this book is about a landscape rising and falling — not just alongside some train on its singular journey but through all time, as Swensen indicates with “The light is an accident because the trees are old” (9). Here, the age of the trees and an accident of light are yoked together in a paradox of cause and effect, and of what can and cannot be perceived or known from a single train ride and rider in its passing. Things are lost or emerge over vast swaths of time along quickly perceived landscapes, as “There once was a church. There once was a steeple. These things fall into landscape” (17), or “One more house. Fallen down. Goes falling on” (20), or “And there goes a village of sand. Broke / The ruined ruin” (29) show. The green with which Swensen opens her book is a green being left, released to the air as she writes: “left sound, left the green alive / With houses, small, all stone and backing up on a green built of dust” (29).
Such fabulously engaging sensual-intellectual work is not surprising from a poet like Swensen, who often fragments and uses syntax which jars and forces new ways of seeing, especially of seeing history; take for example the historical figures and places explored in her collections Gravesend or Such Rich Hour. However, in this subtly powerful new book Landscapes on a Train, perceptions of historical rebuilding and fading away feel modulated, and their modulations are directed by her subject itself — how trains make landscapes rush and blur one into another — hill, field, cloud, lake, bush, village, castle, turret, spire, tree, grass, “Dovecote grey in wind, now mill, now wall” (27). These are taken as the basis of moments where what is perceived is grounded in the world one sees so clearly from a train. Yet sometimes it is not the train or the person on the train in motion but the landscape itself; “A line of hills that / Pulls away” (9) ends one poem, while the next begins “Shore as it pulls away” (10) — and farther on, through the open windows of the train, “herd / And run, the hills” (31). The reader is constantly surprised and excited by the unexpected dynamism of what is usually passive landscape. Even plant life which is usually, by definition and nature, planted, seems to be arriving or moving on, as in “the landed tree” (13), or later, “Stand trees in a line / Migrating through rain” (25).
Natural elements thus act in spectacularly unexpected ways because of Swensen’s verb choices. This practice continues throughout the book in lines such as “Three trees erode the sky” (61) or “In flower are the birds” (64). Both of these lines give way to images we can imagine — the way a tree as it grows shades the land or a house, stretching into the sky, thus literally eroding what can be seen of a sky from a given point; or, in the second snippet, how birds in flight, white, or colorful, burst and fade not unlike the blooming and closing of flowers. But these verbs, “erode” and “flower,” make us see anew, in unusual ways, both the noun and the verb. Thus Swensen constantly reminds her reader that these landscapes are still and always language; as Swensen writes early in the collection, “Birds smalled down to words / Come back. Flowered in cloud” (12).
In a similar quixotic manner in these poems, “light / Runs aground” (12), “Light keeps up” (24) “Light slices” (33), “Light … is an approach” (33), while “stone” is “blind until left lined up in pieces …” (41) and “Rain draws” (53), “All white moves” (32), “Grain runs” (25), “A lake folds” (26), and the sky is brought “back to the ground” (28). Even the animals such as “solid birds” (might these be sculpted?) are suddenly “holding on / To the sky” (37) in places which Swensen writes “are torn. / From light keeping time … in line” (51). All of these verb-noun-temporal combinations excite the mind and the imagination as they renew the force and interest in language and how it makes up and can skew a world, transform it within the page itself, the 2D surface along which Swensen’s poems run. Pressing this idea even farther, Swensen proposes in one image that it is also the train and its palpable existence which are called into question, or transformed from a 3D to a 2D existence, as the train is absorbed into a paper map: “A map on the wall that forms the end of the train, and so, on it goes” (58).
In the end, it is not the train which is cutting through the landscape, but these landscapes which return to “cut into lives” (28) both of the passengers on the train and of Swensen’s readers, crisscrossing in our minds and via our ears. For these poems are rich with music, manipulating a synesthetic quality to connect and merge sound and vision: “House in a hurl of green” (37), “Quiet lights the fog, washes the grey” (39), and “Along an inlet headed inward. / With the silence of a window” (60). The final result is that these are not landscapes seen from a train but are, as her title suggests, “on a train” itself — thus transformed and imprinted onto the train, into, within it, and its passengers, the reader. From within, then, “A window opens a train” (11) to the world beyond, behind, and in front of it where, as Swensen echoes Alain Badiou: “a man, in / Time, turns to space. By any means necessary” (59). I cannot recommend more highly this new collection to readers, those travelling, or those wanting to be taken on a voyage via this striking new book.