on Greensward, text by Cole Swensen, graphic design by Shari DeGraw (Ugly Duckling Presse)

Dr. Gisela Kaplan, an expert in animal behavior and neuroscience, may claim there is no evidence “that animals have an aesthetic sense,” but Cole Swensen, an expert in poetry, is determined to have us imagine things otherwise. She states on page one: “That whatever aesthetics is, it can only be transmitted to other species – and it can be transmitted, along with other higher cognitive functions – through gardening.” Greensward, Swensen’s collaborative project with Shari DeGraw, proceeds as a series of confident claims, not so much backed up as enlivened by spirited visions and sanguine evidence. If you’re a gardener, while you await the arrival of your spring catalogs, you might consider Swensen’s thesis as a way to warm your brain for the work and rewards ahead.

SwensenHoriz.jpgFor the book’s graphic images, DeGraw relies mainly on the output of two Englishmen. First, William Kent ((1685-1748), a landscape architect credited with designing some of the first English landscape gardens known for their “natural” approach. Kent designed Alexander Pope’s garden at Twickenham. And second, John Rocque (1709-62), a cartographer who designed parterres and engraved many garden plans. (He is best known for his map of London.)

Swensen writes, “One notices throughout Kent’s drawings that the animals, whether horses, donkeys, dogs, or peacocks, are always leading the people, as if it were they who knew how to traverse the various alleys and groves and clearings of parkland in the most aesthetically propitious order.” Greensward is a world where the human’s thoughtful garden design has a stimulative effect on the animals. We usually think we’re the ones who get turned on by the pruned greenery, but is this truly happening if we’ve missed a pleasure shared mutually with crows and voles?

greensward44-45.jpg Greensward's impulse is unabashedly prescriptive, and that accounts for a lot of what Swensen does with language. The passage quoted above soberly pleads its case through conventional syntax – but throughout Greensward Swensen enjoys forcing us to listen to a more disordered language that is, however, anything but disorderly in its values and perspective:

The orchard always so seemly that it spins, thus within is constellation:
to constellate
the stations and then to move through them slowly, blindly, counting the figures,
autonomous, striking the trees into poise, in their abacus and motionless; time
lapse photography
proves that they sway in time, as if they moved through it instead of through

As you will notice in the page spreads shown here, DeGraw’s typography (a “seemly” grid system, like that of the classical landscaper) adds to the effect of measured-out design providing a locus for strange phenomena. The gardens created by Kent and Rocque were quite real, but their drawings aspire to something visionary, dreamy, “a volatility of mist.” DeGraw’s use of them seems both disembodied and underscored – enhancing Swensen’s text which expresses the same qualities. Together, of course, they create a third thing.

When Alexander Pope spoke of “the genius of the place” he meant
the collective mind composed of the shifting presence of all animals
present at any given moment, giving it the volatility of mist, a fragility
that will not acquiesce. This is what, he says, we must consult, which is
not to ask but to branch continually outward, a delta of nerves and rift.

greensward53.jpgJonathan Balcombe, an animal behavior research scientist, claims that "elephants keep mental tabs on thirty or more compatriots. Baboons bereave the loss of an infant and seek therapy by expanding their social networks. Caged starlings become pessimistic and free ones optimistic. Rats know what they know and don't know. Scrub jays remember the what/where/when of a past event. Domestic dogs object to unfair treatment. And chimps trounce humans in a short-term memory task." But in Psychology Today, Lee Charles Kelly (a dog trainer) disagrees: “Most of these statements are heavily-skewed, ideological interpretations of data, not facts. And I think they can and should be looked at from a more parsimonious (and more scientific) point of view.”

But I’m with Alexander Pope and Cole Swensen. Greensward is less about animal rights than about the possibility – no, the actuality -- of awakening through “a delta of nerves and rift.” These lines below are tucked at the bottom of a page and set upon a two-page spread of a map seen as if through a curtain:

Burrowing under a parterre laid out by William Kent
a la the French with their rife arabesques, a gopher finds his own
tunnels taking new graceful turns, tracing the patterns of the boxwood above.

greensward14.jpgAlthough Swensen ardently makes the case for an animal’s sense of aesthetics, she is even more intent on appealing to our own – and this allows Greensward to be fanciful rather than merely earnest, to fit the polemics gently within the “graceful turns” of the narrative/design. In this way, I am drawn to respond to the call to be “justly indebted to the unended I’m owed to.”

[Published November 1, 2010, in an edition of 1,000 copies. 64 pages, $14.00 paperback. Available from the press’ website.]

Gratitude to Shari DeGraw and James Copeland of Ugly Duckling Presse for making the artwork available. For a closer look at the artwork, you may increase the size via the "View" feature of your browser.

Wonderful, as always.

Wonderful, as always. You're one of the few reviewers who makes me feel as though I want to read the book under discussion, not just the commentary you offer. Not that I object!--it's like a marvelously gentle "heads-up" and never a command, you know?