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BODY MY HOUSE; MAY SWENSON'S WORK AND LIFE, edited by Paul Crumbley and Patricia M. Gantt, Utah State University Press, 262 pages, $34.95

"Body My House" is a work of enormous importance to Utah's academic community. This volume is compelling because it includes 10 May Swenson poems that have never been printed anywhere else.

Many readers will be surprised that Swenson was so much more than local; she was a major poet of the middle and late 20th century who left a marvelous national legacy.

Born and reared in Logan, May was the oldest of 10 children born to the Swenson family that lived at the base of Old Main Hill, where her father was a Utah State University professor.

Swenson graduated in English from USU before going to New York City while still in her 20s to seek fulfillment of her literary dreams.

Although Swenson lived most of her life away from her native state, she returned often for literary inspiration. She was 36 in 1949 when "Haymaking" was accepted for publication in the Saturday Review of Literature, thus providing her entry into the big time world of literary publishing.

Four years later, her poem "By Morning" was accepted by The New Yorker — then the title changed to "Snow by Morning." Swenson earned $49 for that one — the first of 59 poems that would appear in the New Yorker over the years.

In her lifetime she received every major poetry award, many fellowships and grants, and published 11 collections of poetry. Her first book was "Another Animal: Poems," published by Charles Scribner's Sons.

In 1980 she was appointed chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and held the post until her death by heart attack in 1989. She died in Ocean View, Del., but her body was brought back to Logan, where she was buried on the USU campus, as she had requested.

A number of prestigious poets and scholars have written critical essays for this volume, including R.R. Knudson, Alicia Ostriker, Kirstin Hotelling Zona, Gudrun Grabher, Martha Nell Smith, Cynthia Hogue, Michael Spooner, Suzanne Juhasz, Mark Doty — and her brother Paul Swenson, whose recent collection of poems, "Iced at the Ward, Burned at the Stake," was published in 2003.

Much of May Swenson's poetry deals with sexuality and, specifically, lesbianism, causing critics to examine it with perhaps even greater interest than they would normally. Since she was a Mormon, some suggested that her poetry seemed to be her religion rather than Mormonism, because, as Gudrun Grabher puts it, she exercised "godlike efforts to create, to constitute, to call into being."

Mark Doty, a prolific poet in his own right, writes perhaps the most compelling piece on Swenson in this collection. He also references Swenson's well-known poem "Question," which also provides the book's title:

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?

Doty thinks this poem is unusual in its focus on the body, an ancient image, but also in the way the poet addresses the body. Doty considers this poem "an urgent litany of yearning," filled with questions and "the hurrying motion of running animals."

He also suspects that in this poem, as in most of Swenson's work, "there is more up her sleeve — she's a sly poet." He considers it important that Swenson used no punctuation, just an occasional capital letter to indicate a new unit of thought.

Michael Spooner, director of the USU Press, analyzes Swenson's thinking process, suggesting that she received much of her work "by way of the subconscious." This process included the arrangement of the words on the page, often unpredictable with her poetry. In fact, the late Ken Brewer wrote an introductory poem to this collection in which he illustrates her style of writing with the lines breaking down the middle.

Swenson wrote about her poem "How Everything Happens": "On the page, the words of each line stack up or pull back, and only in the case of the line 'nothing is happening' is the line typed conventionally straight. My iconographic arrangements are a very conscious device employed only after the poem is completed in terms of its language and its message"

This is a fascinating, even brilliant volume that sheds great light on May Swenson and her impressive work. Hopefully, it is only the beginning in re-examining her work so that a newer generation can appreciate her.


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