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This item is taken from PN Review 189, Volume 36 Number 1, September - October 2009.

Portrait: May Swenson (David C. Ward)

Painting of May Swanson

Everyone knows cigarettes are bad, but they are still powerful symbols both of sophistication and of febrile intelligence. The fine African-American painter Beauford Delaney (1901-79) did this pastel drawing of his friend the poet May Swenson in 1960, back when everyone smoked; the addition of the cigarette enhances the edginess of the portrait. Just as Delaney was a realist painter in an age of abstraction, Swenson, not unlike her contemporary Elizabeth Bishop, was interested in conveying depth through an intense evocation of the surface of things. She wrote that she desired 'to get through the curtain of things as they appear, to things as they are, and then into the larger wilder space of things as they are becoming'. Her tone ranges from the brutal straightforwardness with which she described her mother in the mortuary - 'My dumpy little mother on the undertaker's slab/had a mannequin's grace' - to the whimsical wordplay in 'Analysis of Baseball': 'Bat waits/for ball/to mate./Ball hates/to take bat's/bait. Ball/flirts, bat's/late...' A westerner, born in Utah to a family that spoke Swedish became especially well known for her landscape poems and love poems in which her lesbianism registers but does not define their impact. She was a good friend to Beauford Delaney and when the painter suffered one of his many breakdowns, she went to Paris, where he had gone when he was unable to make a living in America, to help him recover.

Beauford Delaney
Drawing, 1960
Pastel and chalk on paper
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

This item is taken from PN Review 189, Volume 36 Number 1, September - October 2009.

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