Cole Swensen. University of Iowa Press, $16 (79pp) ISBN 978-0-87745-659-9
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 a countless string of mid-millenium 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. FYI: Try was one of three works awarded the Iowa Poetry Prize in 1998, along with Bin Ramke's Wake ($10.95 136p ISBN 0-87745-658-5) and Kathleen Peirce's The Oval Hour ($10.95 96p ISBN 0-87745-664-X).
Reviewed on: 03/01/1999