May Swenson (1913-1989) was born in Logan Utah to a Swedish immigrant Mormon family, the eldest of ten children. After finishing college at Utah State University, she moved East, teaching at Bryn Mawr and several other universities. Well respected as a poet during her lifetime, she is known for her proclivity to closely align nature and sexuality. In many of her poems, these two energies are presented as a single, sensual continuum of life force energy.

I have been an admirer of Swenson’s work for some time. But it was only after my friend Elatia sent me her poem Question (see below) that I did some biographical research on Swenson’s life. Turns out we have a slew of communalities. Born in Utah to large Mormon families (it’s a tribal thing), we both ended up with that transgressive “don’t tell me what to do” gene, the one that makes you behave like a misplaced zygote. It’s that energy that drives you out of your homeland to put down roots somewhere else. Like Swenson, nature and sexuality are essential and comingled in my creative process. And not to be overlooked: She was close friends and a great admirer of one of my poet all stars, Elizabeth Bishop.

Here is a sampler of two poems by Swenson. The first is a sensual celebration, the second a bit more sober. I love them both.

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.


Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

without cloud for shift
how will I hide

Note: Four months before her death, Swenson wrote: “The best poetry has its roots in the subconscious to a great degree. Youth, naivety, reliance on instinct more than learning and method, a sense of freedom and play, even trust in randomness, is necessary to the making of a poem.”

2 Replies to “Tribeswoman”

  1. a big yes to Elizabeth Bishop, and not to be forgotten is Louise Bogan, and her book ‘Blue Estuaries’

    good to see this

  2. Yes, yes, Louise is another one of the greats. Thanks Dean, spoken like the poet you are.

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