May Swenson Eats Some Celery

As I get older, I think back on some amazing poets I had the honor to meet, and I realize that while I often loved these folks as people I was oddly oblivious to their fame and influence. For example, when I was twenty five and spending an autumn at MacDowell, I was there with May Swenson.
There was also a small group of young very avant-garde composers in residence. We had almost nightly soirees in the library–a writer would read, a visual artist would show slides, and a composer would play. The music was often minimalist, electronic, and a la John Cage.
May Swenson was then in middle age. Raised a Mormon, she was also one of the first lesbian poets in the United States who didn’t hide her identity. She reminded me of a nuthatch–tanned, small, she had a sturdy birdlike quality. And it turned out, a sense of humor. Because she was busy recording her own avant-garde composition. It was basically of May Swenson eating lunch. She’d intro the theme–chewing on celery–and then record it. She played the whole piece for me and the composers and we found it hysterically funny.
It was only until some other poets–more ambitious and savy than me–arrived and began to network her that I realized May was a prominent poet. I like her poetry then and I like it now. It can be surprisingly emotional violent, but it has integrity. However, what I really liked best was her.

***
The Woods at Night by May Swenson

The binocular owl,
fastened to a limb
like a lantern
all night long,

sees where all
the other birds sleep:
towhee under leaves,
titmouse deep

in a twighouse,
sapsucker gripped
to a knothole lip,
redwing in the reeds,

swallow in the willow,
flicker in the oak –
but cannot see poor
whippoorwill

under the hill
in deadbrush nest,
who’s awake, too –
with stricken eye

flayed by the moon
her brindled breast
repeats, repeats, repeats its plea
for cruelty.

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