Bleeding by May Swenson

This poem by May Swenson has long haunted me. I don’t understand it, and yet I do. Is it about an abusive relationship, self harm, a destructive sexuality, or something else?
May Swenson was a remarkable twentieth century poet. She was estranged from her Mormon family because of her lesbianism, but wasn’t “out” or even self-defined as a woman poet. In this she was similar to her peer Elizabeth Bishop.
I had the good fortune to know her during a brief but intense period of my life, when I was young and living at the MacDowell Colony.
I’m posting this poem to honor the tradition of lesbian and gay writers in the wake of the Orlando shootings. Also, I’m posting it because it keeps coming to mind—I’ve been thinking of it every few hours, which is unusual.
I think this poem is in part about human nature, about the interplay between violence and victimhood, the contest between thanatos and eros, death wish versus choosing life.
This poem scares me, but it isn’t about hopes and prayers—it’s about reality.


Stop bleeding said the knife
I would if I could said the cut.
Stop bleeding you make me messy with the blood.
I’m sorry said the cut.
Stop or I will sink in farther said the knife.
Don’t said the cut.
The knife did not say it couldn’t help it but
it sank in farther.
If only you didn’t bleed said the knife I wouldn’t
have to do this.
I know said the cut I bleed too easily I hate
that I can’t help it I wish I were a knife like
you and didn’t have to bleed.
Well meanwhile stop bleeding will you said the knife.
Yes you are a mess and sinking in deeper said the cut I
will have to stop.
Have you stopped by now said the knife.
I’ve almost stopped I think.
Why must you bleed in the first place said the knife.
For the same reason maybe that you must do what you
must do said the cut.
I can’t stand bleeding said the knife and sank in farther.
I hate it too said the cut I know it isn’t you it’s
me you’re lucky to be a knife you ought to be glad about that.
Too many cuts around said the knife they’re
messy I don’t know how they stand themselves.
They don’t said the cut.
You’re bleeding again.
No I’ve stopped said the cut see you are coming out now the
blood is drying it will rub off you’ll be shiny again and clean.
If only cuts wouldn’t bleed so much said the knife coming
out a little.
But then knives might become dull said the cut.
Aren’t you still bleeding a little said the knife.
I hope not said the cut.
I feel you are just a little.
Maybe just a little but I can stop now.
I feel a little wetness still said the knife sinking in a
little but then coming out a little.
Just a little maybe just enough said the cut.
That’s enough now stop now do you feel better now said the knife.
I feel I have to bleed to feel I think said the cut.
I don’t I don’t have to feel said the knife drying now
becoming shiny.

5 thoughts on “Bleeding by May Swenson

  1. I agree that that this is one of the most disturbing, excruciating poems I have ever read. I get it and I don’t. It’s so naked and raw and ugly. It’s so pure. The love of the knife, the love of the blood, the weird sex play between the two, the destructive power of a love-making we all fear.
    It is terrifying and probably about a thousand different aspects of who one is, wants to be, needs to be. So glad to have been introduced to this poem. But yikes.

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