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Arrival & Departures

 

Arrival   -     Old Man Descending   -   By Winter-Kitchen Light     -     Afterlife of a Poet    -   Skiing with Jonathan Edwards 

The Dragonfly   - The Great Wave  -   Camille Claudel’s “La Vague  -    A History of Art   -   Ancient Antissa   -   Ionian Eclogue  -   Dunes Moving     

Glacier   -   Denmark  -   The Pond   -   Brittenberg: A Sea-Level Tale   -   Guidance  -    At First Endlessly   -    Now or Then   -   Purely Physical: A Love Story    

"Ancient Antissa," "Ionian Ecloque," "Dunes, Moving," and "Denmark" appeared in Stand;  "Now or Then," in Consolations of Autumn

Home

Arrival

Who gave you the address
at which you now arrive,
out of breath but not panting
and more dead than alive?

Who sketched the map,
each twist and turn?
Who etched the lines
in the palm of your hand?

Whose eyes are these
through which you gaze?
And whose the skull that like a helmet wears
the sun, the moon, and all the stars?

© Jon Swan


Old Man Descending

It hurts to go down these stairs.
It will take a younger man’s legs
to get up them again.
Fool! He will recognize
nothing.

© Jon Swan

By Winter-Kitchen Light

No spring in my step as
autumn falls and maple
blaze leaves maples bare.
Now by winter-kitchen
light I see how skin on

backs of hands wrinkles
to resemble a relief map
of desiccated land. By any
light, love, I have changed
beyond all recognition.

Oh, whistle in the dark
a while yet with me, for
though my teeth be largely
false, my heart is true to thee.
Each generation in its turn

must don the pleated mask
beneath whose folds the skull
begins to grin as Time, which
holds us prisoner, weighs
how and when to set us free

© Jon Swan

Afterlife of a Poet
for Grover Amen: 1932-1997

I can still hear your voice
but need a photograph now
to remember your face.

I feel both shadowed and led,
spooked and comforted,
by your presence, your absence.

*

Sometimes in the evening
the shadows of the living
and those of the newly dead
approach one another, warily,
before at last shaking hands.

It’s clear from their merging
that they’ve reached an agreement:
fresh definitions of day
require the descent of the dew.
Too much sun is not good for us.

*

A voice that wells up. It’s not wholly
your own. Those generations before
whose portraits made you uncomfortable,

the framed buttoned-up ancestors boxed
and borne off to their underground homes,
speaking and speechless by turns, urging you

to mind your language. Shady people,
night people, visible only by moonlight,
who gather in a circle like mushrooms,
to listen to the poet summon the dew.

© Jon Swan

Skiing with Jonathan Edwards
in Western Massachusetts

As we pole uphill we feel the weight
of the silence imposed by deep snow

Fresh snow hushes us  whites us out
The peak that  below  glittered icily

against the blue sky is cloud-shrouded
We pole on to increase the distance

between our elevated selves and
the world below in which we live

and have our being  and so defer
the hell-bent zigzag slalom down

the steep slope in scant light  Grunting
we are become a company of brutes

Our breath comes out in clouds
Our striving slows  And we halt

and turn and crouched above our skis
as if unable to kneel  with heathen glee

descend to where lights glow  smoke
rises and shadows rush to embrace us

© Jon Swan

The Dragonfly

The nano-span of our attention veers
& swerves away as if on dragonfly
glittering wings instantly elsewhere

What were we thinking of? We have
no time for such reflection in summer
sunlight as we step out of the car

that brought us here in time to catch
sight of the insect’s wings holding
the light   Gone   Like each generation

with its language  Ungaretti (who he?)
could still recall a time when “the ages
were bound one to another and so

imperceptibly were contemporary with
each other” Our clock is apocalyptic
Conversation broken into bits ticks in

tweets news wedged between commercial
breaks bloodbath to bladder problem
in a hop to mothers weeping inconsolable

in the rubble words and images dipped
in lye stripped of meaning “Everything
accumulates on the same level forming”

he said (who he?) “a kind of darkness”

© Jon Swan
    


The Great Wave

Hunched, numb, scared stiff and soaked through,
with no choice but to head straight for
and into what you most fear:
this one wave too huge to be true

but there anyway, dead ahead,
irrefutable as dreams -- as this one
in which, riding the swell, the hunched men
are now suddenly borne forward,

lifted into this place without air,
breathless, for an instant only to share
the grave calm of spared men, if not to know
the serene indifference of stone and snow,

of the holy remote motionless mountain
they may not turn in time to see as they row on,
bent on entering the curved world of the great wave
in one of Hokusai’s “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.”

© Jon Swan

Camille Claudel’s “La Vague
(Bronze and onyx, 1898)

It was Camille who, before her fall,
“into a void,”
introduced Debussy to Hokusai’s  “View,”
which he transformed into La Mer.

In her “La Vague,” three women,
holding hands,
dance within the concave
of the cresting wave.

It curls over them as,
holding hands,
they dance within
the shelter of their doom.

© Jon Swan

 

        A History of Art

That piece of sculpture is its own music
  the seated harpist whose harp grows
    naturally out of his shoulder white marble

Cycladic circa 2,500 B.C. making music
  still stiller behind protective glass on
    the ground floor of the Metropolitan Museum

And in the Goulandris Museum in Athens
  closer to home these white marble girls
    and women who stand with arms folded

feet stretched as if on tiptoe or seated
  “possibly deified” all features radically
    simplified behind glass here too in a room

aseptic enough to be a maternity ward. Birth!
  The birth of Art! Art in its cages
    awaiting an exchange of prisoners

Jon Swan

Ancient Antissa

The sign said Ancient Antissa
and we drove down the hill
to the coast,

Turkey over there, to the east,
and parked, looking now
for another sign

to point us to where Antissa was
or had been, the site where,
it was said,

Opheus’ head, torn from the body
by a pack of frenzied wine-drunk
Maenads,

washed up on the shore. Wave-scoured,
stone-bald, resonant as a sea shell,
the skull

still sang of the Underworld and served
henceforth as an oracle, a talking head,
if you will,

whose expertise lay on the far side of life.
No sign to show us the way to the site.
We walked on

and on, when out of the sea a wet-suited
swimmer emerged and, as if to demonstrate
evolution,

slapped up on shore, removed his flippers,
unzipped and shed his skin-tight suit, and
became human.

He went his way, we went ours, and came
at last to an open-mouthed cave big enough
to hold

a rusted tank, the muzzle of its puny cannon,
aimed at Turkey, plugged. No oracular
utterance

could be expected here, so we walked on, saw
no sign of Antissa, ancient or otherwise, halted
to behold

green meadows rising above the unruffled blue sea,
the sun-warmed earth and stones that had witnessed
the arrival

of the resonant skull granting the air its fragrance.
We had come this far. We turned back to resume
the myth of our existence.

© Jon Swan



Ionian Eclogue

The mother of hills lies on her side
nursing her child in the moonlight
In one hand she cups the skull
of a stone town overlooking the sea

Clang of swords and shields slashed
to slice bone  the music of battle
has given way to the laze of waves
arriving spellbound to lap the shore

like the lines of the long poem told
by a blind landlubber as he recalled
a war whose fleet of ships he alone
could assign to this captain or that

all long since gone to dust  as we
in turn  leaving the waves still lapping
the shore  wave after wave  moonstruck
and lunatic  war after war after war

© Jon Swan


Dunes Moving

As mysterious as the appearance of mushrooms
spottily in a meadow or long-neglected orchard
like fruit on branches of an underground tree
whose roots may spread over an entire county
is

what sets a seemingly stable hill of sand a dune
suddenly in motion the high hill literally blown
off its feet in a scream of wind and recomposed
in exact replica farther along on the desert floor
as

one might say the dust settles the reformed dune
casting the same shadow as its defunct predecessor
despite the revolutionary music that accompanied
the transfer: ‘drums and clash of arms and all kinds
of

instruments’ in Marco Polo’s words as if the dead
buried beneath the sand’s commotion still warred
still marched column after column to their death
again to rest as grit until the game of war resumes
or

until the wind has won leaving the bone-dry world
looking for all the world
like waves

© Jon Swan


The Glacier

You hear it only when you’re close enough to sense the danger
as you peer into the crevasse and see, a long drop below,
the fast-flowing milk-white river of glacial melt that undercuts
this sun-struck mountain of old ice as it hemorrhages.

You can catch a glimpse of the subverting rivers here and there,
but nowhere is the music of the dying giant inaudible.
How, beautiful the choired voices of the rivers fleeing in full flight
from the collapse their scouring makes inevitable! Now

like a loosened gown from snow-white shoulders slowly falling,
in revealing stages the naked stone is exposed to view,
and farther slips, abruptly, without warning, vast shelves of ice,
baring these centuries-buried mountains worshipped,

once upon a time, on every populated continent, and even now,
as sacred, the abode of gods – but, stripped, ungowned,
unable to bestow their blessings, being shown to be mere rock --
magmatic, metamorphic, sedimentary, compacted sand

and silt and clay, baptized in the mantle, converted into marble.
No rivers now will rush down from the snowy heights
to enrich the plains. Kailash, the four-ways facing mountain that
Buddhists regard as the birthplace of the world, will be

mere pyramid -- a gigantic and forbidding megalith from whose
base the dried-up river beds of stone radiate, stretching
across the lowlands in the giant’s shadow like supplicating arms
toward a distant-glimpsed ocean of undrinkable water.

© Jon Swan

Denmark

The curtain came down long
ago and no one’s moving.
Typecast, practiced in the art
of sitting to watch television’s

feast of news with its mix of
war and peace and advertising,
we have played the role of
Audience, which requires no

make-up, costume, or tedious
rehearsal, but requires silence.
We must mute ourselves if
we are to “own” our role as

we watch them die one by one
nosey dad and love-daft daughter,
followed by collateral royal
killings, unlike the ordinary

people blown up for us at home.
The curtain came down long
ago and still we’re waiting
for the cast to rise to take

the customary curtain call.
But the actors do not rise,
while we do not stir, much less
break the silence with applause.

It is as if the air we breathe
is poisoned by the stagey mist
that clothed the ghost As if
a mortal cloud still seeps from

the cellarage as the exit signs
go black and the little lights
that line the aisles—out they go --
leaving us in Denmark in the dark.

© Jon Swan

The Pond

Pond water freezes The surface clouds to gray
Fish that feed on flies canít see so clearly
what they saw before

Somewhere a shadow falls that fits precisely
like a lid  and for a while we live in gray
an early stage in mourning

It takes a while to get the hang of mood  as it
takes time for water to stiffen into ice
and time alone will tell  but tell

too late  if there was sufficient cause
to grieve  Or were we merely milking
our own artificial tears

The sense of being locked like freezing water
into hexagons or like channeled salmon
trout or airline passengers

shuffling forward between yellow straps
is no longer novel  But as the squeeze
increases we may at last

become aware of the extent of our entrapment
and search belatedly for a hole in the net
that holds us all

© Jon Swan

Brittenburg: A Sea-Level Tale

Some scholars hold that the great walled building with parapets and central tower
was built as a lighthouse and grain depot in preparation for Claudius’ invasion
of Britain in 43 AD.

Others, that it was built as a fortress at the northwest corner of the Roman Empire
three centuries later, during the reign of Julian or Constantine or Valentinian,
all, also, gone under,

sea-claimed, the tall tower and walls rising up at intervals determined by the power
of the offshore wind, the tug of the moon,rising up to astonish all who lived on or
fished off the duned shore

where the Rhine flowed into the North Sea, where Beowulf first won battle fame,
the walls serving as backdrop as swords clashed and the sea thundered and foamed,
composing its own epic.

Then the whole show slowly went under, under water and shifting underwater dunes,
not to rise up to be seen again until the early fifteen hundreds, when artists, historians,
and simple gawkers

hurried from far and wide to see and etch the ruin that was doomed to go under again,
with the Dutch Second Battalion Fifteenth Infantry Regiment in Anno Nineteen Eighteen
reporting a sighting

while a dozen years later a woman from Leiden and her fiancé, strolling in the dunes near
Katwijk aan Zee, saw a part of the ruin called Brittenburg, which was last seen in the year
Nineteen Sixty-One.

This is not poetry, but prose disguised: sea-level language. The long lines don’t touch
bottom.

                        Brittenberg Engraving by J. Schijnvoet, 1711

Based on Brittenburg: raadsels rond een verdonken ruine, by H. Dijkstra and F.C.J. Ketelaar, published by C.A.J. van Dishoek,
Bussum, The Netherlands, 1965.

© Jon Swan

            Guidance 
for Gudmundur Pall Olafsson 1941-2012
Icelandic Conservationist, Author, Activist

   I

Of how you chose your place of settlement
in the far-roving days when households fit
into the hold high-seat pillars  loom stool
and linen chest scented with caraway or dill

bedding straw bladderwrack hay for cow
bull ram ewe buck  doe  goose gander  all
penned and pent with family and kin within
the days-long pitching of an oak-ribbed hull

the unknown coast rising up as the offshore
wind carries in gusts fragrance of warm stone
of stunted juniper  moss and grass making
the gaunt cattle lift their muzzles and moan

   II

So it went and so you arrived and sailed along the coast
of the new land to be settled until at last the skipper cast
the tall twin pillars of the high seat carved and painted
green gold red blue bodies of bird and fish  with blood-
red berries on sprigs and vines into the sea And where
the pillars washed up the ship was beached and there
well above the high-tide line one built house and barn
and set up the guiding high-seat pillars and settled down.

   III

What was the idea? Where did it come from? Was it a Viking-age version
of tossing yarrow stalks when consulting the I Ching? Let stalk or beams
carved by one’s great-grandfather or farther back yet, make the decision?
How about just a roll of the dice? Apparently not. It’s crucial that the means

of divination – whether stalk or beam –be rooted in the vegetable kingdom,
(as Wilhelm wrote in his introduction to The Book of Changes) reflecting,
or attuned to, the respiration of the Underworld, the breathing womb from
which all life springs. Something like that, perhaps? Some earth-born thing,

then, rooted, growing out of sight and into sight, thrusting itself into the sky,
branching out above and below, holding on, hearing what we cannot hear.
But then there’s this other Viking-age tale, about how Erik the Red and Leif
in about 1004 bought a ship from a sea-faring trader who had been blown far

off course and had sailed down the long coast of lands, by turns barren
and as heavily forested as the king’s forests in the Norwegian homeland,
and father and son believed that the ship would remember the course taken,
the way back. It was in the wood. It would remember and take command.

But perhaps this was only possible in a time when ships were built to warp
with the waves, sea-serpent-wise, the prow dragon-headed, a time soon over,
recalled only in the use of “she” for a ship, having a hold, womb of the ship,
providing shelter for kith and kin  cow bull ram ewe  buck doe  goose gander

until the days-long pitching of an oak-ribbed hull is over and the unknown
coast rises up as the offshore wind in gusts bears fragrance of warm stone
of juniper moss and grass  making gaunt cattle lift their muzzles and moan.
And then, of course, long before the Norse sailed the cold northern ocean

there was that story of the Argonauts, who were guided by a speaking beam
which Athene had imbedded in the prow of Jason’s ship and which led them,
by way of several uncharted rivers, from Colchis on the Black Sea, home.
And, once upon a time, the goddess Hera was worshipped in the simple form

of an uncarved wooden plank. Those were the days when the natural world,
and words alike, were animate and lived and found their rhythm and rose
in pitch and turned to hymns and song until both were entseelt , un-souled,
the spirit leached out of them and speech became this noise that surrounds us
                                          like fog settling on fjord.

   © Jon Swan

At First Endlessly

At first endlessly in every direction
this Swede's-eye sky  flax-flower blue
a sky out of childhood
before the invention of the first cloud

Then the arrival of these migrant families
of the imagination  the mountain builders
shape-shifters speaking in a distant language
like old Norse

crossing the horizon in caravan  cortege
some giant slowly beating a drum
the psychopomp chanting
Nothing imagined that cannot be done

Tell someone else the sky's the limit!
Time runs out  Things quicken
Huge shadows rush over the field  the lawn
A child stands alone in the light

What I have failed to do would fill a book.

© Jon Swan

Now or Then

We shall leave it all behind
as the saint his riches,
and go forth unencumbered.

We shall lie beside still waters,
listening like mothers for
a sound from the yet unborn.

From the trees we shall learn how to
climb both ways, up and down,
with the same daring and care.

We shall come to terms with the birds
whose language was foreign
to what was left of our ears,

while from the grouse and the woodcock
we shall learn to be still,
more still, then invisible.

© Jon Swan

Purely Physical: A Love Story

Consider now Earth and Moon,
locked in their ancient embrace,
the Moon’s tides slowly slowing
Earth’s rotation.

And how the hot heart of the Earth
will cool and his sole companion
distance herself until she succumbs
to the insatiate Sun.

And how the Earth, bereft, must follow.

© Jon Swan

I .A Flight From Manhattan II. Living Inland VI. Satirical Verse Bio