“Cole Swensen's beautifully exact and visionary meditations on specific paintings and sculptures give the venerable art of ekphrasis a new meaning. Whether focusing on a Siennese altarpiece, a twentieth-century sculpture, or a river scene in the Loire Valley, Swensen sees with an uncanny X-ray vision that becomes the inward gaze. 'The difference,' as Gertrude Stein once put it, 'is spreading.'”—Marjorie Perloff
“Quite honestly, I think Cole Swensen is a genius and her work, among that of my immediate contemporaries, is absolutely vital to me. Swensen often sustains and develops in her poems a major tone, a delicate meditative aura with subtle modulations. The inherent radiance of Trylights up not only the paintings which are the poems' ostensible subject material but layers of perception.”—Forrest Gander
“The world fleshed forth in oil paint, from Giotto to Joseph Albers, is meticulously essayed in the mixed-genre ekphraseis of Swensen's sixth full-length collection since 1984. Though the medieval and early Renaissance tableaux she focuses on are almost entirely composed in the restricted vocabulary of Christian iconography, Swensen regards them with a worldly eye, using her role as 'translator' of the works—from religious past to secular present, from image to text—to explore an ethics of human immanence. Addressing herself to one in the countless string of mid-millennium representations of 'the Flight into Egypt,' for instance, Swensen finds 'that the holy family enters not a heavenly but a very worldly world, a world just like ours except that it's not and that it can't be reached.' As with the gulf between the visual and the verbal dimensions, what the mind posits as an inviolable border ('it can't be reached'), the body is ever violating—translating, trying—in practice. In a literally unguarded moment, the intangible yields to an insatiably human craving for contact: 'She touched the painting / as soon as the guard / turned his back.' This illicit gesture discloses the very essence of Swensen's project, her daring try at a communion of flesh and canvas, word and image, art and life.”—Publishers Weekly
“Cole Swensen's sixth book, Try, winner of the 1999 University of Iowa Poetry Prize, is an extended and considerable meditation on paintings and sculptures ranging from the fourteenth to the twentieth century…unlike many poets before her who have practiced the art of ekphrasis by describing or illuminating the visual, Swensen is interested in the representation of representation, in examining not only the way painting makes meaning, but the way language makes meaning of that meaning. Above all, she is interested in the process and procedures of perception…Our speed of sight, the filmic surface of contemporary vision, our ability to pan, scan, splice, fragment, and make whole again, are made manifest in Try. By the book's end, we are ultimately caught in the gaze of looking at ourselves.”—Boston Review
The poems in Cole Swensen's Try explore the intersection of writing with the visual arts, particularly late medieval and early Renaissance paintings. They also explore writing as a visual vehicle, both as a pattern across a field and as a catalyst for imagery.
Looking at the paintings themselves involves examining the way that they make meaning and, in contrast, the way that words make meaning of them and of themselves—what happens when you have a representation of a representation? All the poems in this collection weave in and out of proximity to visual work, sometimes from the distance of a gallery viewer, sometimes as a character in the painting itself. Issues of narrative sequence and time float through the collection but are always subordinate to the play and rule of language on the page.
Auguste Rodin, Christ And The Magdalene, 1894
Her hand though it reaches up
doesn't touch his shoulder
but lands beyond in a niche of rock
which is not rock, but plaster
on its way to bronze.
Neither got home.
Neither got found.
Her fingers caught
His arms encased
She's given up her legs,
her face, and now joined at the heart
which her halved body wholly hides:
this no, this love gone white and gone.