Cole Swensen’s Greensward is set in “18th century England; the scene is the garden of a manor house.” The reader may ask what county? what house? what year? but, unanswered, journeys headlong into a thrillingly unnamed, untitled, possibly never-built territory, one ruled by this remarkable new book’s central tenet—namely, though finite definition might elude us, ambiguity keeps us present. Framed by 18th century garden design, calm and determined, Greensward questions the boundaries between tame and wild, known and unknown, human and inhuman, self and other. Swensen probes the “aesthetic sense” of animals, inviting the reader into the between-ness embodied by domesticated ones, “those volatile creatures, part culture, part chaos,” and to ponder what truly separates humans from other animals (if not aesthetics, then what?). As “the dogs went wild unfinding” so goes the speaker, spinning tropes, linking a gopher’s “rife arabesques” to William Kent’s curving, greening paths. The poems’ formal disjunctions—broadly spaced words, phrases broken over distant blocks of text, and elliptic phrasing—mirror the loosened edges of the garden and its inherent paradox, the fallout of man’s effort to control nature or himself as

                                                                                      answers    give    me    over/ 


       and    the     bitter    fence    desisting,    be    it    falling-ward     ether    or   
       herald;    a    dark    mark    in    open    grass    

—this mark, or word, lost in the wild. Following the “naturalistic” trend, the English garden’s submission to, not of, the frontier becomes metaphor for the poem’s failure to delineate meaning through form, its inability to contain or domesticate restive language. Greensward further messes with fences with its daring integration of print and image (poems in gilded frames or between rows of trees), the gorgeous offspring of Swensen’s collaboration with designer Shari DeGraw, using 18th century Huguenot cartographer John Roque’s drawings “to further the seeing in seeing.” Stock images of animals and plants cast garden plans as coded, stand-ins for the idea. Repton’s “Red Books” of “after” drawings lain beneath the “befores" compellingly dramatize the problem of code. As we tear “present” away from “future,” we reveal “the sky in perfect proportion to the trees he had planted just to tear it apart.” Layering page within a page within a page forces us to discard expectation and admit that, like us, “nature is a mind in need of opening.” We abdicate expectation and design, the garden sketch “always . . . a frayed end, unraveling trees,” entropically assimilated by the other. Lured by elusive facticity, Swensen jests at her own unrequited search for truth. Her “Excerpts from the Catalogue” describe absent scenes, the speaker grasping at lost knowns, wondering, “in the center of it all, four rabbits (or are they foxes?)” This attempt to name with accuracy bespeaks our desire to know another, to get intimate even with the dead or the “stag on the doorstep.” And yet this botched effort (a fox or a rabbit?) humorously returns us to the errant garden, stone walls in disrepair, hedges grown wild. The catalogue’s ironic dysfunction echoes the speaker’s celebration of ambiguity through an inverted construction, a garden that cannot keep the domestic in or the wild out, an in-between space or being “bridging a boundaryless world of unbounded self.” Swensen stages a courageous encounter of alterity and presence amid these spaces between the out there and the in here, reader and poet, you and me. Elated we follow the poet’s winding path, prayer in hand: “May the day find some othering thing.”
           

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