Nature: Poems Old and New by May Swenson
The last line of May Swenson's poem "The Exchange" which appears at the end of the short opening section of Nature: Poems Old and New is this supplication: "Water, invite me to your bed." This humble and quiet but beautifully crafted line serves as a perfect summary of how Swenson views what the editors of this book have chosen to call nature. Throughout this collection of poems by an unusually gifted writer who is now largely overlooked, we are offered the precise thoughts of a poet who not only observed the non-human world around her, but inhabited it. There probably isn't a poet who has ever lived who hasn't written somehow about nature. But few ever live in and with the land and the other creatures, the universe beyond what has been created by human beings. Swenson is one of these few.
Although understandable, it is unfortunate that this collection is called Nature and that its cover illustration is Filippo Lauri's "Apollo and Daphne," which is based on the story of how Daphne rejected Apollo's love, sought her father's help, and was transformed into a laurel tree Apollo then chose as his own. Together, these choices might mislead readers to assume that Swenson is yet another contemporary Romantic, but one who has an erotic relationship with the natural world.
But Swenson goes beyond the Romantics, and her poetry is far more than erotic. As a woman born in still wild Logan, Utah, in 1913 and who died in Ocean View, Delaware, in 1989, her eye is tempered by both the American West and her life on the East coast, a rewarding confluence that makes her a poet with as distinct a sensibility as Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, the two finest contemporary poets who write of the interaction of human beings with the land.
In "April Light" she writes:
Light teaches the tree
to beget leaves,
to embroider itself all over
with green reality,
until summer becomes
its steady portrait,
and birds bring their lifetime
to the boughs.
In "Each like a Leaf," she says:
We are a sea its waves
In poem after poem, Swenson gives us a real portrait, a brilliant portrait of the land any of us might see, if only we had the ability to look with as focused and as intelligent an eye.