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Cole Swensen


Cole Swenson was born in Kentfield, California, in 1955. She received her BA degree and MA from San Francisco State University, and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

She is the author of more than ten collections of poetry, including Landscapes on a Train (Nightboat Books, 2015); Gravesend (University of California Press, 2012), finalist for the LA Times Book Prize in Poetry; The Glass Age (Alice James Books, 2007); The Book of a Hundred Hands (University of Iowa Press, 2005); Goest (Alice James Books, 2004), finalist for the National Book Award; Such Rich Hour (University of Iowa Press, 2001); Oh (Apogee Press, 2000); Try(University of Iowa Press, 1999), winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize and winner of the San Francisco State Poetry Center Book Award; Noon (Sun & Moon Press, 1997), winner of the New American Writing Award; Numen(Burning Deck Press, 1995), a finalist for the PEN West Award in Poetry; and New Math (William Morrow & Co., 1988), winner of the National Poetry Series.

Her translations of contemporary French poetry include Physis (2007, by Nicolas Pesquès); Future, Former, Fugitive (2004, by Olivier Cadiot); Oxo (2004, by Pierre Alferi ); Island of the Dead (2002, Jean Frémon) which was awarded the 2004 PEN USA Award for Literary Translation; Bayart (2001, by Pascalle Monnier); Art Poetic (1999, by Olivier Cadiot).

With David St. John, she edited the anthology American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry (W. W. Norton, 2009).

About her work, poet Michael Palmer writes, “Cole Swensen attends fixedly to those minute nuances and wanderings of language whereby the poem builds its particular perceptual logic. The result might well be called a ‘new math,’ or perhaps a calculus of light, shedding new light on things immediately before the eye.”

Swensen received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation in 2006 and taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa until 2012 when she joined the faculty of Brown University's Literary Arts Program.

Cole Swensen
Photo credit: Carl Sokolow

By This Poet


The Invention of Streetlights

      noctes illustratas
      (the night has houses)
                         and the shadow of the fabulous
                     broken into handfuls--these
can be placed at regular intervals,
walking down streets at times eclipsed by trees.

Certain cells, it's said, can generate light on their own.

There are organisms that could fit on the head of a pin
and light entire rooms.

Throughout the Middle Ages, you could hire a man
on any corner with a torch to light you home

                           were lamps made of horn
and from above a loom of moving flares, we watched
Notre Dame seem small.
Now the streets stand still.

By 1890, it took a pound of powdered magnesium
to photograph a midnight ball.

While as early as 50 BCE, riotous soldiers leaving a Roman bath
sliced through the ropes that hung the lamps from tree to tree
                   and aloft us this
                   new and larger room
Flambeaux the arboreal
                   was the life of Julius Caesar
      in whose streets
      in which a single step could rd.
We opened all our windows
and looked out on a listening world laced here and there with points of light,
                   Notre Dame of the Unfinished Sky,
oil slicks burning on the river; someone down on the corner
striking a match to read by.

Some claim Paris was the first modern city to light its streets.
       The inhabitants were ordered
       in 1524 to place a taper in every window in the dark there were 912 streets
             walked into this arc until by stars
             makes steps sharp, you are
       and are not alone
by public decree
October 1558:  the lanterns were similar to those used in mines:
we were kings"
              and down into the spiral of our riches
still reign: falots or great vases of pitch lit
at the crossroads
              --and thus were we followed
                                   through a city of thieves--which,
but a few weeks later, were replaced by chandeliers.

While others claim all London was alight by 1414.
                      There it was worded:
Out of every window, come a wrist with a lanthorn
                                          and were told
                                          hold it there
               and be on time
and not before
and watched below
the faces lit, and watched the faces pass.      And turned back in
(the face goes on) and watched the lights go out.
Here the numbers are instructive:
                   In the early 18th century, London hung some 15,000 lamps.
And now we find (1786) they've turned to crystal, placed precisely
each its own distance, small in islands, large in the time it would take to run.

                And Venice started in 1687 with a bell

                upon the hearing of which, we all in unison
match in hand, and together strike them against an upper tooth and touch
the tiny flame to anything, and when times get rough (crime up, etc.) all we
have to do is throw oil out upon the canals to make the lighting uncommonly
extensive. Sometimes we do it just to shock the rest of Europe, and at other
times because we find it beautiful.

Says Libanius
      Night differs us
            Without us
            noctes illustratas
                      Though in times of public grief
when the streets were left unlit, on we went, just
dark marks in the markets and voices in the cafes, in the crowded squares,
a single touch, the living, a lantern
         swinging above the door any time a child is born, be it
Antioch, Syria, or Edessa--
and then there were the festivals,
     the festum encaeniorum, and others in which
     they call idolatrous, these torches
                          half a city wide
                                      be your houses.

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