Cole Swensen

Cole Swensen’s ninth collection, short-listed for this year’s National Book Award (NBA), is worth a close look. Although the NBA nominees in fiction generated a lot of controversy, the nominees in poetry all seemed like safe bets, including Goest. It’s a fine example of how avant-garde or language poetry works—when it works. The overriding concern in these poems is with vision, perception and light. Everything—mirrors, candles, ice and more—is a source. Swensen uses the slipperiest of language to illuminate, if you will, what we see and how often we don’t see it. For example, in a rather long sequence called “The Invention of Streetlights,” conflagrations and glimmers coexist in a single moment: “oil slicks burning on the river; someone down on the corner / striking a match to read by.”