Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

A "Dangerous Game of Change": Images of Desire in the Love Poems of May Swenson

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

A "Dangerous Game of Change": Images of Desire in the Love Poems of May Swenson

Article excerpt

What do we make of a self-identified lesbian's poetry that is often drenched by tropes of heterosexual desire? A poetry that swims in a myriad of possible pleasures while consistently marking the narrow terms of normative sexuality? The difficulty of reconciling these characteristics of May Swenson's poetry is reflected in the relative scarcity of critical work that explores her use of erotic imagery while giving voice to her lesbianism; in a poststructuralist climate currently rife with interrogations of sexuality and subjectivity, this absence is a noticeable one.(1) While the "beautifully... Sapphic" nature of Swenson's poetry has been admired (Schulman 10), an overwhelming number of Swenson's love poems employ blatantly heterosexual or stereotypically gendered tropes, a strategy that is, I will argue, central to the relationship between sexuality and subjectivity that shapes Swenson's larger poetic.

A lover of riddles, Swenson allows no easy answers: her careful constructions of oppositional desires seem incongruous with the polymorphous sensuality for which her work is known, and imparting her lesbianism into the picture seems only to complicate the puzzle. Conflations of author and text, or representation and reality, are confounded by Swenson, for if language is representative of an ontological or authorial reality, then a critical reconciliation, or mere recognition, of Swenson's use of ostensibly heterosexual imagery and her own sexual orientation as a lesbian is rendered problematic. From such a perspective her poetic eroticism can only be read at best as bashfully coded, and at worst as pathologized - fraudulent, confused, or masochistic. But these interpretations are easily challenged by even a cursory reading of her celebratory, spirited writing. As the brief biography in The Love Poems of May Swenson succinctly asserts, Swenson's poems are "love letters to the world, for she loved life and rejoiced in celebrating it." Focusing for the most part on poems in which sexual imagery is especially abundant, I would like to suggest an alternative reading: that Swenson's poetry radically refuses normative sexuality through a performative appropriation of gendered tropes, a process that redrafts the terms of desire and broadens our scope of subjectivity. It is not the purpose of this essay to read Swenson's lesbian identification in the terms of her poetry. Such a project would, I believe, contradict the lessons her work has to offer. But I hope that my reading will open up a space for critical discussions of her work in which her lesbianism is not silenced. Likewise, I hope it will incite opportunities to discuss her lesbian identification in which the stunning range of her eroticism is not necessarily foreclosed.(2)

Like her friend and contemporary Elizabeth Bishop, Swenson has proved a somewhat difficult poet for feminist critics. Coming to professional maturation during the late 1950s and 60s, when confessional poetry increasingly came to stand for the American feminist lyric, both Bishop and Swenson resisted forging reputations along gendered lines. Neither woman wrote poetry that fit the new feminist model, and neither sought woman-identified audiences in her work. Consequently, Bishop and Swenson were often overlooked by feminist critics while they were still alive.(3) But unlike Bishop, Swenson has not enjoyed a recent revival within feminist (or nonfeminist) scholarship, though she, too, garnered many prestigious awards during her prolific career and was, ironically, more openly gay than her friend.(4) The discrepancy between Bishop's contemporary popularity and Swenson's relative invisibility may be explained in part by Marianne Moore's recent recuperation by feminist critics and her role as committed mentor to Bishop.(5) But this explanation leaves untouched the nature of Swenson's poetry itself - an uncontained effulgence and up-front sensuality at play with an inherent love of riddled indirection - that both sets Swenson apart from Bishop and Moore and makes her particularly relevant within the currently shifting parameters of feminist criticism in this country. …

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