ο ΓΑΛΛΟΣ ΚΗΠΟΤΕΧΝΗΣ LE NOTRE

“As if you could open a jar of sugar forever”:

On Cole Swensen’s Ours

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A garden is a curiously, and famously, double space. It is, first and foremost, both nature and culture. Then, it is both a real place and an imaginative space. It is to be both used for practical purposes (growing vegetables, for example) and enjoyed for sheer beauty (flowers); it is a place to escape oneself (to lose oneself in nature) and a place to find oneself (to rediscover one’s relationship to the world through the medium of nature). It requires a lot of effort, but for best effect should look effortless. If it is private, it will inevitably cede to a public it positions itself against, through time; if it is public, it will be used for all kinds of private activities. It is the origin of the world and, in its guise as cemetery, the end of it.
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It is remarkable that such an inherently ambiguous space has received relatively little formal attention from poets. Whether it is because the subject seems too occupied by biblical content or too unoccupied by psychological or sociocultural content, or simply because it has served primarily as a place from which to speak rather than as a subject to be investigated in its own right, gardens themselves, while unquestionably at home in the realm of poetry, have seldom occupied center stage thematically.
The gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte
The gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte sweep along a grand perspective, of almost a mile and a half (3km). The vast area, Le Nôtre’s first masterpiece, is divided up into a sequence of terraces, forming an orderly composition of borders of box based on motifs from Turkish carpets, bordered flower beds, shrubberies, grottos, lawns, lakes and fountains. Image from http://www.vaux-le-vicomte.com/en/histoire-chateau-jardin-francaise.php
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Cole Swensen began to fill this gap with 1991’s Park, and has radically developed and historicized the subject with her new book Ours, a meditation on the French formal gardens that began life as the playgrounds of kings and queens in the seventeenth century and that are today public parks where any plebeian wandering through or sitting on a green metal chair reading a newspaper can feel, briefly, like royalty. While the garden served more as a setting for Park’s more pressing themes, which included blindness, repetition, and memory, and whereas Park’s gardens were generic and their architect purely fanciful, all of the parks Swensen writes about in Ours are real (though their perceptual reality still interests Swensen less than their phenomenological reality), as was their designer, André Le Nôtre.
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Le Nôtre (1613–1700) was a landscape architect who had the apt fate to have been born in a garden (the Tuileries in Paris), a fact Swensen delights in. She also delights in the fact that Le Nôtre’s name in English means “Ours.” In a short introduction to the book, Swensen notes that Le Nôtre was, though a gardener to the most exclusive clientele imaginable, remembered as “a great guy — modest, fun-loving, easygoing, and friendly.” The gesture of the colloquial language — “great guy” — in an otherwise noncolloquial introduction is a signal of the “ours” that is to come in the book, as Swensen constantly works, through means linguistic, thematic, and spatial, to bring this privilege-tinged, noncontemporary subject matter down, literally, to our earth of 2008, even while she takes pleasure in the beauties and particularities of the seventeenth-century mind and its productions.
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Never explicitly addressed in the book but always a subtext is its paradoxical situation — that Cole Swensen, American poet of the twenty-first century, non-royal, is poetically engaged in English with French (formerly) royal gardens she has access to thanks to the twists of history. Of course, one could read the triumphal note of “Ours” as a political statement — the triumph of the communal over the private that has been the result of one particular strand of European history. And class is certainly addressed in the poems, often in the book’s most playful moments.
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But Swensen’s concern is not with placing herself physically as an American, non-royal self in the gardens — or as a self at all (though one assumes she has spent a great deal of time in them) — but with engaging imaginatively and intellectually with the ideas of the gardens and with their varietal possibilities for meaning. And while the gardens are thus not quite “imaginary” in the Mooresque sense, the poems are far less interested in the flowers under the nose than in how meaning flowers in the head.
Parterres and orange trees outside the Orangerie on the grounds of Versailles.
Parterres and orange trees outside the Orangerie on the grounds of Versailles. From French fr:Image:Orangerie.jpg, personal photo under GFDL license by fr:Utilisateur:Urban
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The doubleness of the garden opens up a symbolic space that allows for many meanings to be overlaid on and drawn from it, and perhaps the most striking aspect of the book on first read is Swensen’s ample use of the copula. According to the poet, the garden is, among other things: a start, a mirror, a description of its era’s metaphysics, a sequence that has no basis in fact, a way of making nature account for the mind, a machine for multiplying, an allegory, an asymptote, a portrait, a tide, and a tithe. When it is not part of an a = a equation, the garden’s capacity to stand in for other ideas is pointed to through the use of “as”: one poem is titled “A Garden as a Letter,” another “The Garden as Architecture Itself,” etc. It is perhaps this quality of blankness, which lets the observer draw her own conclusions, that most cunningly reflects the garden’s “nature” half’s relationship to its “culture” half: landscape has always been a form of matter that people have wished to mark, to name, to change, to frame, to impose upon.
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In Swensen’s rhetorical insistence on the garden’s metaphoric possibilities, the garden becomes the great available signifier, which has a seemingly endless capacity for signifieds. You see in a garden what you want to see, and that’s what makes gardens so rich in symbolic ascription. A garden does not only make “nature account for the mind,” as Swensen so perceptively writes; it also makes the mind account for what the mind has created within nature, for the mind’s status within nature. According to Swensen, a garden is a reflecting pool for the mind’s wish to impose order, for the human ambition to design.
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The book is divided into nine sections, beginning with “History” and winding towards “‘You Are a Happy Man, Le Nôtre’” (a quote from Louis XIV), passing through such sections as “Statuary,” “Orangeries,” and various named gardens (among them Versailles) along the way. Swensen’s now-trademark procedure: choosing a subject that fascinates her — such as opera, books of hours, hands, and, most recently, glass (in the books Oh, 2000; Such Rich Hour, 2001; The Book of a Hundred Hands, 2005; and The Glass Age, 2007) — immersing herself in research on it, and writing poems that take off from and include some of the findings of the research, always interrupted, played with, and torqued by various means — has found a particularly fitting subject in the gardens of Le Nôtre, who took the given of the garden (a plot rather like a page) and liked to fill it with optical surprises and mathematically determined perspectives. As Swensen notes Le Nôtre’s ambition “to create gardens unprecedented in their appeal to both the eye and the mind,” one can’t help but think of her pages and their interplay of white space and text.
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Of course, the delicious irony is that Le Nôtre’s formal gardens, with their principles and rules and anamorphic exigencies, are being investigated by a non-formalist poet whose primary formal impetus is intuition. Reading Swensen’s lines is like walking through a garden where views are opened up based on one’s position in relation to the garden’s features. Her lines, in fact, are constantly in the process of transformation — as is, of course, a garden — although Swensen’s lines do not transform in a linear fashion, like a stalk, but rather through fragmentation, like petals scattered by a breeze: the ends of lines usually end up far from where they began. It is as if the lines had wings that worked intermittently: one was standing in one place and was suddenly weightlessly whisked to someplace else. A good example of this effect is a section of the poem “And the Birds, Too”:

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