Cole Swensen

A Thousand Years of Glass


Glazed. What lightning turned.
These were brief but equal mansions. No one doubted.


And then began transparence. The arrogance
of an expression such as
to see beyond—my hand there is a castle;
my eye, entire world


ushered in the “glass age,” in which all rivers and every ocean—
you could see to the bottom with no distortion, the smallest pebble, the lovely animals
and their colored umbrellas.


Here they learned to melt down snail shells so that the rich could have imitation opals to replace, say, a missing eye, or line a keyhole, or—in a pinch—stand in for the face, any face that couldn't make it to the surface in time.


The rich got windows.


The rest got windows.


They painted intricate scenes on the backs of the windows and refined a kind of glass for use in skin transplants. A river view of arm, for instance, a single point perspective sketch of the steppes of Asia over that tender point of the sternum.


They’d soon had enough of that—the maze of veins, the tangled nerves, and on up into the precarious wiring of the brain, delicate, intricate, and interminable, we the disconcerted yet inveterate invent the curtain.


And now we assemble the pieces of water


And now we no longer


once had
a rose window, my
broken; there are people who say they see
their hearts pumping as they sleep and they're afraid
to go to sleep in a house with so many rooms



By the light of oranges, strangers

bring the sea. stack it here. then quietly leave. Olivier de Serres

in 1600 suggested a return
to ancient methods—plant the trees in niches, which are open to the sun
in summer and glassed over in winter. The niches were actually doorways
that opened into stone. Oranges feel at home there, and lemons find a little light

The first orangerie in France was built in Amboise at the end of the 15th century,
but the form reached its height in the 17th, coinciding with what’s called “The Little Ice Age”
a series of particularly severe winters in which
                                                                                  was glass
                                                                             gathered, layered, and we could hardly see
the arching windows.
                                        Widowed sky. We seal the edge
of the fire by licking quickly and the heat soars round in pipes. What possible
genetic advantage could there ever have been in dying of the cold?

So they added wheels.

They resemble stables.
Winter light files
                                   itself in perfect order
                                                                            If a verger
is one who folds plants as carefully as lingers
this is thin that never goes warm
                                                            (Winter light is made of mica,
                                                            and like the orange, satellites)

and quietly eats
citrus trees.

They resemble stables

Sliced. Early efforts

took the membranes that divide the sections of a lemon and dried them
in hopes of finding an alternative to papyrus
                                                                                   This other window
eaten with sugar—swarmed spherical
which is to say solid
and must be protected
by windows. There’s something nicely tight in that. I like
an inversion that turns around
and says

make the sun touch
the very back
where the laurels and the pomegranates live

They resemble stables.