Is There Deep Play in Heaven? Or, Rest Well, Brother Swenson, Rest Well

Paul Swenson Singing (from signaturebooks.com)

Anthology Poet Highlight 41/82: Paul Swenson, “Negative Space”

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(My reading of “Negative Space”)

On the afternoon of the first
resurrection, I want to sit on my sister May’s bench and read
her new poems. So, maybe, if you’re still around when I go under,
I wonder—could you burn me, turn me into ash, and slip me in
[the family plot] somewhere?

–Paul Swenson, “Family Plot”

I received news the morning of Friday, February 3rd, from Paul Swenson’s good friend and fellow poet Alex Caldiero that Paul passed away around noon the previous Thursday. I didn’t know Paul personally—we spoke on the phone once and interacted a bit via email while I was compiling Fire in the Pasture—but I do know for certain that his passing, which came after a long bout of unsettled health, leaves a void in the world of Mormon poetry, one that may continually be filled with the language he left behind and with any language and personal and cultural change that language inspires.

Paul had a playful, Blues-inspired lyric and his poems often come across as clever and witty—even, to some, bitter—more than profound. In fact, Deseret News’ Jerry Johnston panned Iced at the Ward, Burned at the Stake, Paul’s first poetry collection and an exploration of (among other things) Mormon conceptions of deity, ritual, and embodiment, as a “waste [of] space,” the overly playful ravings of a Scrooge. (Odd image that: raising a playful Ebenezer. . .) Stephen Carter suggests that while the “interpretation of Mormonism” Paul explores in his poems is, yes, “forever inventive, forever reflective, and forever playful,” Paul’s playfulness is “deep.” It’s more than mere wit, more than a child’s attempt to inflame his elders, as Johnston suggests it is. Stephen observes that Paul’s “deep play” works after the manner theorized by Jeremy Bentham, British utilitarian philosopher, though Bentham was curmudgeonly about the benefits of such play. Says Stephen, Bentham “describes deep play as when a person is engaged in an activity where, ‘the stakes are so high that . . . it is irrational for anyone to engage in it at all, since the marginal utility of what you stand to win is grossly outweighed by the disutility of what you stand to lose.'” As Jennifer Reifsneider, Curator of Collections at the Missoula Art Museum, has it in her discussion of the “joyful revelry and subversive whimsy” present in the MAM collection, deep play “arises when the potential for loss far outweighs the potential for gain.” So it occurs when the player gambles social, cultural, and spiritual standing against a compulsion to play with subjects others think too serious to consider with anything less than deep solemnity (if at all)—as when a Mormon poet tinkers publicly with religious and cultural taboos (like Mother in Heaven and sexuality), exposing himself, as it were, on the chapel’s front lawn. (Reference the image above, in which Paul is pictured “at a candlelight vigil for Lynne Knavel Whitesides during her church court.”)

But isn’t a poet in part someone who instinctively plays with words, and who plays with them deeply and well? Someone who, in process of such playing, speaks to our deepest personal and cultural needs and desires? I’ve said elsewhere that poetry is a mark of cultural health, that it’s an indication, as Pulitzer Prize winning poet Robert Hass says, that “a lot of people [in the culture are] literate and alive.” This is so because “[y]ou have to have some kind of interior life to make [and to enjoy] a work of art and in a world as busy and heedless as this one we need all the consciousness we can muster” in order not to wither on the vine, as it were. So poetry—like living a creative life, in general—comes in part of introspection and carries with it an abiding awareness that the inner life matters. And it matters not only because deepening our awareness of what’s on the inside requires that we make time to ponder, to sift through and reflect upon matters of the soul and our lived experience in the world. But also because self-awareness and creativity require imagination, which enables us to step into another’s soul and to consider the world as experienced from another’s perspective. Because imagination ultimately isn’t confined to the boundaries of lived experience, it becomes space of endless, deep play—space where the conscious and less-than-conscious minds come together to question, to make sense of, to critique, and to expand our relationship with the material and immaterial worlds.

Paul, like his sister, May Swenson, before him, occupied and pushed against the boundaries of this space. Sometimes these siblings even tried to represent the space concretely on the page. May did it more extensively than Paul, but Paul tried it, nonetheless. In her concrete poem, “Bleeding,” May lets space trickle through the text, a gap I view—in conjunction with the poem’s content—as a representation of trickling blood, a gaping wound, the gap between women (the seeping gash) and men (the unrelenting knife). This negative space thus contributes to the meaning of the poem. Paul did something similar with his aptly titled poem, “Negative Space,” in which he talks, of all things, about the difficulty of “being Mormon / and having”—*gasp*—”nipples.”

The text of the poem is presented in two pointed columns. The left column opens to the right, like a “less-than” sign; and the right opens to the left, like “greater than.” Taken together these columns circumscribe a diamond-shaped inner court. Negative space is thus quite literally at the center of Paul’s poem. And this emptiness signifies the negative space present a) in the poet’s life as a joyfully embodied being, one who took pleasure in “[h]aving hard nipples,” in being fully sexed and fully sexual even though he lived amidst a people often conditioned to be suspicious of and to put off the body and its needs and desires; and b) in the “mind” of Mormon culture generally, where the correlated body—as the mannequins and comic strip bodies in the poem—has been stripped of its nipples. This “censor[ed],” “emasculated,” “nervously neutered” male body is meant to be the standard against which everyday Mormons gauge their sexuality. But, the poet points out, this body is “purely negative space.” Its presence, he seems to be saying, represents the conspicuous absence of erotic desire, of sexual play—even of cultural play—in much of Mormonism’s religious and cultural aesthetic.

So Paul, the poet, frolicked in this space, filling it with Blues-infused rhythms, with everyday language and passions and conviction, with earthly meditations on the divine. By so singing the body electric, I think he hoped to stir the kingdom up a bit, to encourage his readers to think a bit more deeply about and to play a bit more deeply with the popular, though perhaps not fully doctrinal, beliefs and institutions of Mormonism. And all this to the end of facilitating a more expansive “Mormon mind” and soul. This expanded being is one that could eventually be assigned, perhaps, to organize “the big reunion party,” as Paul calls the celestial afterlife in another poem—or could we call it an after party? Here Paul and his sister—and anyone else who’d care to join them—gather in an open field the afternoon of the first resurrection (as Paul hopes for in “Family Plot,” the last poem in his first book), sharing new and old poems, playing deeply, wittily, imaginatively, with the structure of the universe, with Heaven’s language, Heaven’s culture, and Heaven’s institutions. Their incorruptible bodies fully nippled, eternally rested, eternally ripe.

(Cross-posted here and here.)