Gary Lehmann - Author

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Reluctance to Bleed

Sometimes I encounter a poem that just won’t go away. It preys on my mind, and I have to explore it further to find out why it has captured me so. Bleeding by May Swensen (1913 – 1989) is just such a poem.

Bleeding by May Swenson

Stop bleeding said the knife
I would if I could said the cut.
Stop bleeding you make me messy with the blood.
I'm sorry said the cut.
Stop or I will sink in farther said the knife.
Don't said the cut.
The knife did not say it couldn't help it but
it sank in farther.
If only you didn't bleed said the knife I wouldn't
have to do this.
I know said the cut I bleed too easily I hate
that I can't help it I wish I were a knife like
you and didn't have to bleed.
Well meanwhile stop bleeding will you said the knife.
Yes you are a mess and sinking in deeper said the cut I
will have to stop.
Have you stopped by now said the knife.
I've almost stopped I think.
Why must you bleed in the first place said the knife.
For the same reason maybe that you must do what you
must do said the cut.
I can't stand bleeding said the knife and sank in farther.
I hate it too said the cut I know it isn't you it's
me you're lucky to be a knife you ought to be glad about that.
Too many cuts around said the knife they're
messy I don't know how they stand themselves.
They don't said the cut.
You're bleeding again.
No I've stopped said the cut see you are coming out now the
blood is drying it will rub off you'll be shiny again and clean.
If only cuts wouldn't bleed so much said the knife coming
out a little.
But then knives might become dull said the cut.
Aren't you still bleeding a little said the knife.
I hope not said the cut.
I feel you are just a little.
Maybe just a little but I can stop now.
I feel a little wetness still said the knife sinking in a
little but then coming out a little.
Just a little maybe just enough said the cut.
I feel I have to bleed to feel I think said the cut.
I don't I don't have to feel said the knife drying now
becoming shiny.


My first reaction to Bleeding was that it dragged out unnecessarily the moment of exquisite agony as the knife cuts into flesh. By the middle of the poem, after the knife has persisted too long, I get it, and want her to move on. Yet she seems to want to hold me there as the knife digs deeper. It’s pure masochism. I get mad at her for wanting to prolong my agony, and for what? She seems to want to assert as much pain on the reader for as long as possible. That’s all. How is that art?

Then it occurs to me that the poem is set up as a dialogue. What right does the knife have to ask the cut not to bleed? How can we not bleed when cut? And why is the cut so apologetic? What does the cut have to apologize for? Being flesh?

There seems to be some sort of gender discussion going on here. The knife has a hard edge. The flesh is giving and more emotional. The male knife is causing pain to the female cut who is trying to excuse her way out of being human. Ms Swensen seems to be referencing an event we’ve all seen transacted in the world of gender politics. Yet there is something inconclusive about her assertion.

Then there is a thingness quality to the poem that comes out most clearly at the end. The knife makes demands and accepts apologies but can’t feel. It prides itself on being shiny but remains sharp by getting messy with the cut. There is a disembodied quality about the thing in this poem which defines its qualities and the intimate circumstances of its existence without the narrator expressing any opinion concerning the objects existence in the poem. Swensen’s point of view is almost scientific, but not quite thorough.

This reminds me of another Swensen poem, That the Soul May Wax Plump in which she describes dispassionately the body of her mother on the morgue table presumably just before an autopsy. Swensen describes being there at the moment of her mother’s death. Her mouth opens in a big O. Air escapes from all cavities as she deflates into a state of death. There is a conscious effort to create thingness here. Even her mother is dispassionately examined like the caterpillars which describe the eyebrows of the naked maidens in a warm pool with James Bond in another poem.

The James Bond Movie by May Swenson

The popcorn is greasy, and I forgot to bring a Kleenex.
A pill that’s a bomb inside the stomach of a man inside

The Embassy blows up. Eructations of flame, luxurious
cauliflowers giganticize into motion. The entire 29-ft.

screen is orange, is crackling flesh and brick bursting,
blackening, smithereened. I unwrap a Dentyne and, while

jouncing my teeth in rubber tongue-smarting clove, try
with the 2-inch-wide paper to blot butter off my fingers.

A bubble-bath, room-sized, in which 14 girls, delectable
and sexless, twist-topped Creamy Freezes (their blond,

red, brown, pinkish, lavendar or silver wiglets all
screwed that high, and varnished), scrub-tickle a lone

male, whose chest has just the right amount and distribu-
tion of curly hair. He’s nervously pretending to defend

his modesty. His crotch, below the waterline, is also
below the frame—but unsubmerged all 28 slick foamy boobs.

Their makeup fails to let the girls look naked. Caterpil-
lar lashes, black and thick, lush lips glossed pink like

the gum I pop and chew, contact lenses on the eyes that are
mostly blue, they’re nose-perfect replicas of each other.

I’ve got most of the grease off and onto this little square
of paper. I’m folding it now, making creases with my nails.

In The James Bond Movie, Swensen explores the dispassionate killing machine James Bond. There is a dialogue going on between what happens on the screen and what happens in the theatre. On the screen, scenes of absolute carnage are set off against pointless sensuality. By contrast, the moviegoer eats fat-saturated popcorn and chews gum at the same time. All her efforts to get ungreasy are to no avail. There is Bond, center screen, surrounded by naked female flesh, “pretending to defend his modesty.” The poem is rich in ironies and unspoken accusations.

There is a kind of self-loathing in Swensen’s poetry, a reluctance to bleed or feel emotion, a fear of sex and love. She has said that her own poetry is "based in a craving to get through the curtains of things as they appear, to things as they are, and then into the larger, wilder space of things as they are becoming. This ambition involves a paradox: an instinctive belief in the senses as exquisite tools for this investigation and, at the same time, a suspicion about their crudeness." It is instructive how much Swensen reveals here of her method and how little of her motives. Her point of view is clinical, and yet proscribed.

It almost seems like May Swensen is afraid to feel, embarrassed by life, reluctant to admit weakness and scared of death. The essence of her poetry seems to be that ability to step back from daily life and view the world as a parade of objects to be described in such detail that their usefulness and wastefulness comes forth without editorial opinion. It’s a strange strength, but one that reveals much.

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