On Walking On by Cole Swensen

Karen An-hwei Lee

New York, NY: Nightboat Books, 2017. 110 pages. $16.95.

Writerly relationships to walking, whether through philosophical histories of wanderlust or souls of environmental conscience, yield fascinating insights into the pedestrian lives of other scribes. A splendid compendium of meditative poems weaving an intertextual polyphony of voices across the ages—Geoffrey Chaucer, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Harryette Mullen, and others—this volume of assorted ruminations on “writers who walk” will delight the avid readers of Cole Swensen’s multigenre oeuvre as a poet, essayist, and translator, alongside those who are drawn to On Walking On’s exploration of the ageless subject of perambulatory inspiration.

The collection presents Swensen’s own “walk-about” poetic excursions alongside her sequential micro-essays on writers who also wrote about walking, forming an overlay of literary gems on this topic. Ending with a bibliography of allusions in the collection—essayists, novelists, philosophers, architects, and cultural critics who once published on the topics of psychogeography and wandering, whether urban or rural—the book’s overall effect is kaleidoscopic yet coherent in its lucid typologies of walking, indicative of a poet’s intuition for an eclecticism beyond the avenues of persuasion that a philosopher might pursue on a similar theme.

The overarching structure of the book resonates with textured and textual influences as Swensen’s poetry shifts from intense, near-ecstatic contemplation to the companionable transparency of commonplace, prosaic moments with Woolfian echoes of a writer’s diary—anchored in time, yet timelessly intimate—as in this snippet by Swensen from “A Walk on June 21,” styled on the verge of stream of consciousness:

Walking down a long, quiet street in the dark, thinking that this is the shortest night of the year. For a while my footsteps are the only sound I hear until I pick up something going on somewhere up ahead. The noise grows louder, and soon is clearly a party in fully swing, clearly coming from a building down the block, which I soon pass and notice that, despite all the noise, every window in it is dark.

As Swensen notes at the end of her collection, “This series hopes to honor the millennia-old connection between walking and writing without trying to be in any way definitive. It started with an interest in texts written by a number of writers about walks that they had taken and then branched out in various idiosyncratic ways. Idiosyncrasy, in the long run, became the only principle of both selection and order.” Ever the bibliophile’s poet of astute perception, Swensen gathers a trove of treasures from the prose of literary stars like George Sand, as in this episode where Sand and two companions, one an entomologist and one an artist, search for cocoons and butterflies:

The insect as pearl, the insect as chime, the insect as amethyst gilded in mica.
This is what it’s like to take a walk with an entomologist. A flight of crickets

suddenly ignited by a hand brushing across the top of the reeds and into
the studded sky we breathe through the branches, we filtered through grasses

we occupy. Butterflies, he claims, though migratory, never cross a sea, never still
a step beyond, yet said

that only something small could I believe. An antelope the size of an earring
is nibbling a maze through the long grass down the long hill.

Featuring Sand’s relationship to walking, this poem explores—for thirteen elegant pages—Sand’s “particular affection for this particular village” insofar that it was chosen “as a starting point for a series of radiating walks.” Inherently, Swensen’s ekphrastic imagination compares Sand’s vigorous mode of walking as a form of “painting a landscape in and of a mind outside,” a comparison alluding to ut pictura poesis, or poetry and painting as sister arts.

Readers familiar with Swensen’s prolific output—a virtuosic range of subject matter and technique—should be keenly attentive to this recent collection’s montage of textured fragments, drawn from a variety of literary-historical traditions and juxtaposed to captivating insights conceived during Swensen’s own summer walks in New England, and the introduction of delightfully esoteric terms like “strollology” from the world of walking culture. For our perambulatory poets and peripatetic philosophers, On Walking On provides a daybook of mindful awareness, as in these lines from “Walks 6 through 10”:

“In walking is the forgetting of the world” dissolved of body, small

in timing, sharp in lightning, and full of such abandon, hand in hand,
the heart rains from within, I think, the found, once trusted, veers.

While the book summons a diverse array of texts—the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, the Transcendentalist musings of Henry David Thoreau, the Enlightened prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and epiphanic Woolfian moments of being—in an assemblage of renowned, ambitious walkers, Swensen’s roving grammar of existence, magnified through the rhythms of her language as a choreography of objects or a palette of sounds and signs at play, reconnoiters and destabilizes one of the most ancient behaviors of Homo sapiens, our bipedal mode of locomotion. The following brief encounter with friends, the third stanza of Swensen’s original poem “Walks 1 through 5” on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s unfinished work Reveries of a Solitary Walker, subtly elucidates the slippages of naming identities and places as anchoring devices lost to an ambiguous reality: Is the first-person Rousseau real or a ghost whose boundary of existence is blurred with that of friends who are lost? With the parenthetical pronoun shift, are all parties implied to be lost?

I ran into friends who found themselves      facing a ghost who said
(I said) to be as lost    as a public park      towered      an alley
of flowering limes, and every time I faltered      I lost another tree to flower.

Intimately revelatory are Swensen’s introspections on her private walks, at once cosmic and universal in scope, echoing the free indirect discourse of Woolf’s famous essay on walking in London, “Street Haunting,” that also overlays the tone and atmosphere in Swensen’s original poem “Windows:”

also walk within      a different break of light      the warmth of it again
pouring out across   an amber almost rose      sifting through the leaves

that screen a private world      beyond the window      in which we watch
a single finger rise and etch   with a fingernail      in which a diamond is set

a name on the other side of the glass.            We tear our gaze
away at once      apart      we turn      from that great weight      back

into the crowded street into the greater light      of anonymity and cold.

The Woolfian atmosphere of a walk through her diaries, superimposed by Swensen’s watchful eye for Woolfian motifs of “Lamps,” “Windows,” “Other Windows,” “More Pearl,” and “More Lamps,” unveils a typology of walking where the poet devises an allusively layered, dialogical experience with a chorus of literary antecedents at least a century old.

Green Park deepening the dusk.      In Woolf’s day they
Would have been lit by a lamp-lighter who rode up on a

Bicycle with a ladder over his arm.    He leaned it against
the lamppost, climbed up, turned a valve, and moved on

to the next, and so on, until suddenly he turns off the path
and cuts across the grass, bicycling away through the dark.

By harkening to an inherited lyric impulse in the midst of language play and structural fragmentation, Swensen invokes the mystical “intimate immensity” to which French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard alludes in The Poetics of Space. Ultimately a revelation of human experience through a perambulatory poet’s eye, this remarkable volume is simultaneously constructivist, inventive, and marvelously agile in its composition, innovation, and subjective mobility, navigating a panoply of discourses on its popular subject.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter