A Review of Veronica Patterson’s Swan, What Shores?

Evan Oakley

“Something pleasant to apprehend”
—Veronica Patterson’s Swan, What Shores?

In contrast to today’s angel-kitsch (ranks of sweet & blowsy Victorians; benign New-Age auras), there is the example of Poetry, a study which has long offered up angels more prone to annihilate than to succor.

Islamic and Old Testament traditions abound with celestial beings one would rather not meet. Also, any contemporary poet seeking to enlist the transcendent has certainly been informed by the “terrible” angels of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. This is reflected in the poetry of the past decade (at least) which has tended to utilize the literary device of angels in uncommon ways. They now embody most states, from grace to anguish to imbecility. A quick scan of volume titles containing the word “angel” amply illustrates the point.

To this Host now add the spiritual entities of poet Veronica Patterson’s wonderful recent collection Swan, What Shores? Neither neurotic nor apocalyptic—or for that matter, friendly—Patterson’s angels are creatures of longing and instruction; messengers of estrangement and of unconventional hope.

The “Swan” of the collection’s title originates from a poem by the Islamic mystic Kabir who uses the word metaphorically to address the soul. Lines from the poem provide the organizing principle behind the book. But in Patterson’s usage “Swan” becomes more. Imagistically, it is itself (and this is a book of sensory image, so much that it feels hallucinatory), yet “Swan” is also the clear stand-in for the angelic. What that may signify is precisely one of the explorations of the book. To whom and from whom are our private spiritual meditations/revelations dependent?

For Patterson, the Entities are sometimes birds, sometimes snows—or sleep, or the form of a music box, or a janitor. Whatever their guise, they are almost always, as the poet writes, “slivers that prick us into being.”

Awakening to being is the recurrent theme. The poems are always alert to the life of things and the revelations of spirit they may contain. Maple syrup dripped on snow in “sweet tracery” places the speaker in a “corner of light/ cold-tongued and astonished.”

The smoke created by farmers scorching away an infestation of caterpillars transforms into ritual incense: “we breathed in our first metaphysics,/ the summer’s small goods and evils.”

Whether addressing arithmetic or ptarmigans, Patterson’s orientation is that of a Medieval mystic, a Hildegard von Bingen, for whom the objects of the physical world are the signs and allegories of a greater spiritual reality.

If I were a bay horse,
you would be
the long tail hairs of the black horse
that stands next to me
sweeping this world from my eyes. (“Absent One”)

It is no stretch to describe the collection as the dialogue of a soul speaking to itself as it continually rediscovers, identifies, communes with, or (often) stands estranged from the emissaries of grace. That might stand as a description for poetry as a whole. However, here the intention is manifest. And it is a thoughtful, sad, beautiful querying that Patterson creates. Her swans, her angelic ministers, are haunting:

I knew them in the deep lake of childhood, and lost them
and look for them everywhere . . .
All movement in my dreams is theirs—
that glide-without-haste, for what core of the universe
has to hurry?

Whatever their nature, Patterson suggests, they are not here to make
things easier:

I have held a peach as soft as my swans look, but are not,
and then eaten it. But my swans do not feed me
nor cover me with their wings.
I lived once in their orthodox angelic silence.
Now they have come to this lake
hiding among pelicans. I do not know yet
why they were resurrected here
who gave them passport
What will be required of me. (“Where Are My Swans?”)

What is found in these poems are the compelling and inscrutable taskmasters of the Old Testament: the wrestlers, the demand makers. When an angel is named, as in “The Angel of Quandaries,” Patterson writes, He dreams worlds on the inside of my eyelids/ until I’m afraid to open my eyes.” No doubt. One knows what it means—another push, another sliver pricking, another requirement and difficult awareness.

Clearly, Patterson’s celestial agents are not Comforters, no matter how beautiful they may sometimes be. Neither is Patterson ever conventionally religious:

. . . “Do you believe in God?” said my friend.
I should have said, “I have no choice. I have two daughters
in this world.” (“Language Skills”)

Rather, the poet reaffirms the insight that to be in touch with God is, put mildly, a mixed bag. “When I Was Blond” (albeit humorously) suggests the weight of such oneness:

When I was blond
I played with amber monkeys in pines
and none could tell us
from the light. I grew
morning glories from an apple. All said
the blossoms were the color of my eyes
and the veins beneath my skin. And
the honied silence hummed.

Things were simpler blond.
I leaned against counters in rooms and spoke
easily of art. Now God talks to me
whether I will or no. . .

Unconventional also, is the look at redemption the poems offer. For all that the poet continually addresses the dead and the dying, whatever sense of redemption there is in this collection is only a wistful, human one driven by imagination:

I will bring you a broad-brimmed hat wreathed with fruit—
cherries, frosted purple grapes, peaches so small they
never were, and blossoms—daisies, roses, rue. No one
would dream of bare land beneath such abundance. You would
live in its shade, private and imperturbable.
You would live. (“Combing”)

God-haunted as they may be, the poems resist sentiment; they offer (like anything true) only uncertain shelter from loss. The passage above might be a coda for all of the poems—beauty and sorrow, commingled. Yet, the overwhelming impression is beauty. An indefensible word, perhaps, as regards poetry; a strange word altogether in these relativist times. Yet, one that keeps asserting itself when reading this collection. Beyond their spiritual strivings (so vital), despite their conceptual inventiveness and unpredictability (not mentioned at all here), Patterson’s poems keep tempting one to describe them as beautiful—in the old, stately way of an Aquinas: “. . .so that good means that which simply pleases the appetite, while the beautiful is something pleasant to apprehend.”

So it is with Swan, What Shores? For its depth of spirit, and for its beauty, readers will want to seek out this remarkable book.