May Day May Night May Swenson
A poet’s village in verse
By D. Silverman
You may be familiar with May Swenson, or may be not. But with each April arrives National Poetry Month, leaving us twenty-four fortnights to bone up on this worthy wordsmith before four/twenty-four.
Swenson, for decades a Village denizen and observer, variously resided on Morton, Bedford, Perry, Bank, West 11th and elsewhere—memorializing the neighborhood in script.
A quickly charted Swenson cartography:
29½ Morton Street
Admittedly, more famous now as the former home of Shopsin’s General Store, this five-story building at the corner of Bedford Street was Swenson’s first Village residence. May, new to New York, had recently fallen in love with the poet Anca Vrbovska. In 1938 May split from her boyfriend, and, Anca having already separated from her husband, the two took up residence together, moving to Morton.
With a knock on the door, I spoke with an eagle-eyed old tenant, circa 1969—he had no notion that Swenson ever slept there, said there were no commemorative markers, and reported hearing no mysterious verse coming from the other room while in the shower (he quipped: we haven’t had that spirit here since…).
39 Bedford Street
A few skips S.E. and we’re in front of the beige brick apartment building where May and Anca would live for many years. (Having once, coincidentally, had a tryst in that building myself, I decided to forgo interrogating the current residents. You can do your own research.)
23 Perry Street
After a decade together, May left Anca on Bedford and moved to bucolic Perry Street. Throughout the twenty years May lived there, this building was part of “St. John’s Colony,” a cluster of properties collectively owned by St. John’s in the Village which shared a sprawling common rear garden (tenants got keys).
In 1949 she met Pearl Schwartz, who soon moved in. Their relationship, ultimately spanning 17 years, was avowed by a small gift accompanying this note: “With this toothbrush, I thee wed on a Wed-nesday in May, for a day, or a year, or forever. For a day can be a year, or a year forever, or forever a day.”
Their Perry Street apartment (the building has since been restored to a single townhouse) had windows in the rear overlooking the verdant grounds.
(See poem: “The Garden at St. John’s,” 1953. “Behind the wall of St. John’s in the city…”)
But Eden expels us all eventually, even for the sea. In 1966 May met R.R. “Zan” Knudson and they were to spend the remaining 23 years together. 1967, May left NYC when she and Zan bought a house in Sea Cliff, Long Island facing the Sound.
That period also marked the culmination of establishment credentials; after a dozen years of awards and fellowships—in 1980 Swenson became Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, a position she held until death; and 1987 brought a prestigious (and lucrative) MacArthur Fellowship.
THIRD FLOOR WALK-UP, 1984
The map of The Village is a pattern of crude
triangles, their points meeting at Sheridan,
at Abingdon, Jefferson or Father Demo Square.
Outlines of those chunks of ancient earth
were cow paths when Greenwich was—no, before
it was—uptown. When it was farms, and
beyond them to the north, simply wilderness.
The streets are still peculiar in their layout,
unlike the monotonous numbered mechanical grid
of most of Manhattan. Before “free enterprise”
—when only the meandering enterprise of cows,
while they grazed, accidently designed this
crazy quilt of a neighborhood.
Following Waverly west from MacDougal, you
cross 6th and 7th Avenues and, turning left
on Perry, you arrive at Bank. Once the bank
of a canal winding through meadows where, on
the buttercup margins, cows sucked their fill.
Or, if you continue west on Perry, you cross
West 4th, then Bleecker, Hudson, Greenwich—
Street not Avenue—then Washington and West
Streets, ending at the river. A river of
cars ripping south you somehow have to cross
to reach the splintered piers along the real
river, the Hudson.
©1987 May Swenson. From Collected Poems (Library of America, 2013). Used with permission of The Literary Estate of May Swenson. All rights reserved.
*Full poem at poetryfoundation.org
Can’t Stay Away (Short Visits)
In 1974 the poet Edward Field, away traveling, lent May his space at Westbeth. Memorialized in The New Yorker with the aptly named “Staying At Ed’s Place,” this poem subsequently inspired artist Jenny Holzer, as part of her Xenon series, to project the text—writ large—on building facades.
1982 included a longer stay for May and Zan at 23 Bank Street.
Two years later, a sojourn at 240 West 11th prompted the then 71 year old May to compose the stupendous “Third Floor Walk-up, 1984.” “I look down,” she begins at the window, “affectionately at the trash…” (See insert.)
The titular townhouse on West 11th, now a single home, is fronted by a seven-step stoop necessitating two further flights to gain the third floor. This tri-level podial ascendance, however, would not have daunted the septuagenarian poet, whose Sea Cliff home was perched up a steep hillside accessed by a sweep of 40 stairs.
At this point, already breathless from the envisioned climb, I need to get back to contemplating a passkey for St. John’s Garden. While you, dear reader, have ample guides to mapping the May in May.
Swenson’s poems can be found in numerous books, across the internet, on the Poetry Foundation website, and The New Yorker online archives.