Arrival   -   Old Man Descending   -   Afterlife of a Poet    At First Endlessly

The Great Wave   -    Camille Claudel’s “La Vague  -    A History of Art    -    The Dragonfly

Ancient Antissa    -    Now or Then    -    The Elevator    -    Obseqyu, with Sleeping Satyr   -    Vocation     



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 steps.
It will take a younger man’s legs
to get up them again.
Fool! He will recognize

© 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

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


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)

“Her powdered face was animated,”
we are told,
"only by her eyes and mouth.
Sometimes she looked dead.”

It was Camille who, before her fall
“into a void,”
introduced Debussy
to Hokusai’s “

The great wave rises on the cover
of La Mer,
the published score,
in composer-chosen blues .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Elevator

The button must have been jammed.
I would ascend, but the elevator took me
to the sub-basement thump.

When I opened what I later discovered
is called a collapsible gate, a scuttle of
rodents greeted my arrival.

Let me say this for myself. I did not jump
to the conclusion that they were rats. How
could I tell in the darkness

into which I had warily stepped? To which
my eyes grew slowly accustomed until, yes,
those are shoes and above

them the cuffs of trousers and above them
the figures of men standing stiff as statues.
Unless they were statues

perfectly motionless as if bolted to the wall.
As if holding the soaring building above on
their invisible shoulders,

whose existence I did not discount simply
because I could not discern them. Nor did
I jump to the conclusion

that they were headless simply because I, of
low standing, could not see their impassive
features. Which I could only

imagine, because they must once have been
gods, here warehoused and gathering dust --
the only conclusion I could

arrive at without allowing my feet to leave
the floor -- i.e., without leaping or jumping
or, as it happened, levitating.

The moment I was able to look them in the eye,
they opened theirs, wide, as surprised as I was
to find themselves alive.

© Jon Swan

Obsequy, with Sleeping Satyr

Warren, I think, said it best,
at yesterday’s obsequies,
when he rose in his dark suit
and, having cleared his throat,
said (and who could disagree?)
that each and every one of us
must in due course turn to dust.

So far, so good, but then went on
to say that we must now adjust
to what is likely to happen next:
not only shall we, one by one,
return to dust, but, soon enough,
the species as a whole: the lot of us.
This struck many as going too far.

There was a shifting in the pews.
Wives turned to husbands and
these to them in turn to judge
what they should do: leave or see
this ceremony through. Some rose
and stole away, giving Warren
time again to clear his throat,

and thrust his jaw forward as if
prepared to take whatever blow
might be in store. “And where,”
he said, “will that leave God when
none are left to worship a deity
brought to life through long belief?”
This struck some as going too far.

So once again there was a shifting
in the pews, and many rose and stole
away, their exodus giving Warren
time to compose himself and clear
his throat and jut his jaw as if pre-
pared to take whatever blow might
be in store when he went on to say,

“Not only God will go, but the rocks
and rills and all the hills and every
form of life that has endeared itself
to us, as, for example, goldfinches
and larks, fish and frogs and turtles,
they, too, one by one or two by two,
will, companionably, turn to dust.”

By now the pews were all but empty
as people, singly or in twos, or more,
with averted faces rose and stole away,
holding the door for those who followed
softly after. Thus, I found myself alone
when he went on to ask which one of us—
as if there were now more than one–

would care to be the sole survivor of
our kind when all the rest were gone,
as happened to a satyr onc
e in Greece, roughly fifty years before the birth
of Christ when, as Plutarch tells us,
Roman soldiers found one sleeping
in a green dell – a satyr “just like those

depicted by sculptors and painters,”
a creature no living man until that day
had seen except as figures on an urn
or vase, and there found sleeping
in a dell and brought to General Sulla.
‘How would you, Jon, feel,’ Warren said,
‘if you, the last Mohican, as it were,

of humankind were roused from sleep
and hauled before some general whose
interpreters tried their languages on you
and they could not understand a word
you said because they had not ever heard
our language, which had disappeared,
taking Shakespeare and the Bible with it?’

Interrogated so, in the emptied church,
how could I respond except to say
that this dark scenario seemed unlikely.
There must be other satyrs somewhere.
And as I spoke I felt my limbs grow shaggy,
my feet as hard as hooves, and I could smell
the difference. And, asleep again, I dreamed.



Inscribing ivy
on a burning wall


© Jon Swan
Birds and a Bat The Ones Who Got Away About