Monday, April 28, 2008


Another of my favorite poets, one who has also had a profound influence on my writing, is May Swenson. Until I was in my mid 20s, I did not know she was lesbian. Her partner was R.R. (Rozanne) "Zan" Knudson, whose book You Are The Rain is an extraordinary adventure- and poetry-filled book for teenaged girls about a folboat trip through the Everglades interrupted by a hurricane. Knudson's title is taken from my favorite Swenson poem, and her book is a slyly-concealed love story, a must read for adults as well as teens.

(May Swenson and Zan Knudson) Wikipedia's bio of Swenson reads "b. Anna Thilda May Swenson, May 28, 1919 in Logan, Utah, d. December 4, 1989 in Bethany Beach, Delaware. The first child of Margaret and Dan Arthur Swenson, she grew up as the eldest of 10 children in a Mormon household where Swedish was spoken regularly and English was a second language. Much of her later poetry works were devoted to children, although she also translated the work of contemporary Swedish poets...Swenson attended Utah State University in Logan in the class of 1939, where she received a bachelor's degree. She taught poetry at several universities, including Bryn Mawr, the University of North Carolina, the University of California at Riverside, Purdue University and Utah State University. From 1959 to 1966 she worked as an editor at New Directions publishers. She also served as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1980 until her death in 1989.

"She received much recognition for her work. Some her awards include:
--American Introductions Prize in 1955
--William Rose Benet Prize of the Poetry Society of America in 1959
--Longview Foundation Award in 1959
--National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1960
--Brandeis University Creative Arts Award in 1967
--Lucy Martin Donnelly Award of Bryn Mawr College in 1968
--Shelley Poetry Award in 1968
--Guggenheim fellowship in 1959
--Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarship in 1960
--Ford Foundation grant in 1964
--Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1984
--MacArthur Fellowship in 1987"

Her biography at GLBTQ states "Swenson's work is wide and varied. Many of her poems delight in the natural world. Others incorporate scientific research, particularly that having to do with space exploration. Others root themselves in love and eroticism, especially lesbian sexuality. Many of her love poems were published as a single collection in 1991 as The Love Poems of May Swenson.

"Nature and sexuality are not separate categories in her work; to be a part of nature, as we all are, joins us to a common sexual energy. Her strongest love poems, such as 'Fireflies,' 'Dark Wild Honey,' and 'Wednesday at The Waldorf,' rely on nature imagery for much of their vitality and beauty."

Three of my favorite of her poems after the fold.

Poems by May Swenson:


Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide?


The summer that I was ten --
Can it be there was only one
summer that I was ten?

It must have been a long one then --
each day I'd go out to choose
a fresh horse from my stable

which was a willow grove
down by the old canal.
I'd go on my two bare feet.

But when, with my brother's jack-knife,
I had cut me a long limber horse
with a good thick knob for a head,

and peeled him slick and clean
except a few leaves for the tail,
and cinched my brother's belt

around his head for a rein,
I'd straddle and canter him fast
up the grass bank to the path,

trot along in the lovely dust
that talcumed over his hoofs,
hiding my toes, and turning

his feet to swift half-moons.
The willow knob with the strap
jouncing between my thighs

was the pommel and yet the poll
of my nickering pony's head.
My head and my neck were mine,

yet they were shaped like a horse.
My hair flopped to the side
like the mane of a horse in the wind.

My forelock swung in my eyes,
my neck arched and I snorted.
I shied and skittered and reared,

stopped and raised my knees,
pawed at the ground and quivered.
My teeth bared as we wheeled

and swished through the dust again.
I was the horse and the rider,
and the leather I slapped to his rump

spanked my own behind.
Doubled, my two hoofs beat
a gallop along the bank,

the wind twanged in my mane,
my mouth squared to the bit.
And yet I sat on my steed

quiet, negligent riding,
my toes standing the stirrups,
my thighs hugging his ribs.

At a walk we drew up to the porch.
I tethered him to a paling.
Dismounting, I smoothed my skirt

and entered the dusky hall.
My feet on the clean linoleum
left ghostly toes in the hall.

Where have you been? said my mother.
Been riding, I said from the sink,
and filled me a glass of water.

What's that in your pocket? she said.
Just my knife. It weighted my pocket
and stretched my dress awry.

Go tie back your hair, said my mother,
and Why Is your mouth all green?
Rob Roy, he pulled some clover
as we crossed the field, I told her.


I will be earth you be the flower
You have found my root you are the rain
I will be boat and you the rower
You rock you toss me you are the sea
How be steady earth that's now a flood
The root's the oar's afloat where's blown our bud
We will be desert pure salt the seed
Burn radiant sex born scorpion need

1 comment:

dani shay said...

the poem that you have untitled is i will be earth. one of my faves