cover image Landscapes on a Train

Landscapes on a Train

Cole Swensen. Nightboat (UPNE, dist.), $17.95 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-937658-41-0

Swensen (Gravesend) leaves behind the scholarly bent of her recent work in favor of something more elemental and empirical, resulting in a book-length sequence of austere and hypnotic beauty. The title is quite literal: each of the book’s 57 poems depict, in just a handful of long lines, a landscape glimpsed on a passing train. But Swensen’s swerving syntax and quicksilver imagery imbue each scene with lyric verve. “Cows turn to crows in a field alone,” and “a road disappears,” becoming “a curve, that in curving, carves.” Drawing on Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, and Lyn Hejinian, Swensen explores the fault lines between seeing and saying, subject and object, and her investigation of perception deepens as the book “turns back on itself” in surprising ways. The sequence’s progression is often akin to minimalist music: highly constrained yet keenly melodic, it develops by accretion and repetition, building drama through small variations, with notes of humor or eeriness providing texture. If the project has a flaw, it is that Swensen’s focus is so acute that the work can seem slight or esoteric. But Swensen’s powers of description transform what could easily be an academic exercise into an aesthetic journey that for many readers will be worth taking for the sights and sounds alone. (Oct.)