May Swenson

May Swenson.

I don't think I'd ever heard of May Swenson before today. Born into a Swedish-speaking household to devout Mormon parents in Logan, Utah, she grew up to be one of the most respected poets of her generation. Robert Hass is a big fan, for instance.

Anyway, I ran across her as I was putting a project together for my students and I started reading her poems and I really wanted to include her because she's great but I kept looking and looking and eventually I axed her because, ah, I, um, huh. How do I put this delicately? Because -- because all her poems are about sex. Let's just out with it.

I can't think of any other skilled poet who manages to be so . . . sexual without losing grip on the poetics and slipping into what could easily be dismissed as pornography. Generally, once the genitals get hold of a pen, artistry slips away. Either things are opaquely sexual or they're silly-explicit.

I'm guessing that May Swenson, lesbian (1919 - 1989), probably wasn't a terribly active Mormon through her working years, but I've been meaning to write about sex in the Mormon arts for some time now -- largely in response to a 1987 article in Dialogue by Levi Peterson, "In Defense of Mormon Erotica", which I finally found online today -- it was an interesting read, although I read it a couple months ago and no longer remember what I wanted to say about it.

But I do think that, for instance, it is good to have Song of Solomon in the Bible; romantic and erotic love are a vital part of mortality (without it, poof! no us!) and all good things are fair game for the arts.

What that means specifically for me I haven't decided yet. But in the meantime, here's May Swenson with one of her controversial heterosexual-imagery nature poems. Read at your own risk.

    Little Lion Face

    Little lion face
    I stopped to pick
    among the mass of thick
    succulent blooms, the twice

    streaked flanges of your silk
    sunwheel relaxed in wide
    dilation, I brought inside,
    placed in a vase.Milk

    of your shaggy stem
    sticky on my fingers, and
    your barbs hooked to my hand,
    sudden stings from them

    were sweet.Now I'm bold
    to touch your swollen neck,
    put careful lips to slick
    petals, snuff up gold

    pollen in your navel cup.
    Still fresh before night
    I leave you, dawn's appetite
    to renew our glide and suck.

    An hour ahead of sun
    I come to find you.You're
    twisted shut as a burr,
    neck drooped unconscious,

    an inert, limp bundle,
    a furled cocoon, your
    sun-streaked aureole
    eclipsed and dun.

    Strange feral flower asleep
    with flame-ruff wilted,
    all magic halted,
    a drink I pour, steep

    in the glass for your
    undulant stem to suck.
    Oh, lift your young neck,
    open and expand to your

    lover, hot light.
    Gold corona, widen to sky.
    I hold you lion in my eye
    sunup until night.


  1. She kind of looks like Matt Damon.

  2. This is an old post, but I'm commenting on it anyway. I took a class on May Swenson in college from a visiting (lesbian) professor who was quite interested in the erotics of Swenson's poems. First off, not all of her poems are about sex (see "Speed" in the May Out West collection). And in regards to the ones that are about sex one intersting thing to consider is how she queers the erotics. Check out her poem "Bleeding"--the way she uses tradition male/femal symbols and cultural assumptions against the reader is amazing. Anyway, I don't know that you wanted a mini course in Swenson's poems but I couldn't hold back. Also, as part of the course we met with her surviving family members and interviewed them. I'm not sure exactly what they meant when they said it but one of her siblings told us that Swenson's relationship to the Church was more complicated than most people thought. If I remember correctly, the sibling even told us that Swenson and her life partner would sometimes attend sacrament meetings.

    I'm not sure why I feel the need to point all this out. . .Maybe I just worry that Swenson gets written off by LDS writers because she was gay or something. I don't know. She has a lot to offer. The poem about dressing her mother's body for her funeral is truly an interesting study of how Mormons view death and the fall. if all you got out of her poems was sex, well, she's worth another read.

  3. .

    Unfortunately, I've had very little luck even finding any of her poems. I've read, maybe, four. No books at local stores or libraries, nothing online. So I don't know a lot about her, although the little I do know fascinated me and I wish I knew more. Your comment makes me all the more anxious to read her. Maybe I'll finally look online and send someone some ecash for a book.

    Thanks for the info.

  4. .

    [Edit: added the lds-eros tag.]