It Springs - Swamp Creatures Serenade the Queen of the Night - Poppies - The Creation of Words - Old House - Neola
Landscape & Languag - Lament - Terminus - Reflections on Destin’s Backwards-Brain Bicycle - Ovid Underground Update
The Corn Lot - Escalations - The Pane of Glass - Inaugural: An Anglo-Saxon Riddle
In the Company of Pines - Living Inland - Searching for McCoy on the Coast of Maine
Conjuring Blues in the Surf on Nantucket - America: A Formal Elegy
“Landscape & Language” originally appeared in Rialto; “Escalations,” in Harvard Magazine, “The Corn Lot” in HU: The Honest Ulsterman,
"Fall" and “Conjuring Blues in the Surf on Nantucket,” in The New Yorker, “America: A Formal Elegy,” in The Observer, "Inaugural: An Anglo-Saxon Riddle" in Antaeus,
and "Reflections on Destin’s Backwards-Brain Bicycle" in Tikkun
It springs early.
The leaf, wing-like,
tapering at the top,
is a sharp green
whose white stem
The plant, ramps,
grows in woods,
out, takes over.
At the first hint
of summer heat,
dies back, folds
its wings, is gone.
Gone? Thin stems
rise, bloom white,
bear seed, mark
the spot where lies
buried the shy
white garlicky bulb.
© Jon Swan
Swamp Creatures Serenade
the Queen of the Night
Spring peepers in full chorus
in the wet woods behind the barn
where ramps grow,
throat-chanting and plucking banjo
these creatures that converse
across the air in deep croakings
from it’s hard to tell
where they’re coming from
you trace a croaker
to a notch near
the top of a beam
in the barn frame
seven feet straight up,
requiring sticky padded feet
I shone a light in there
one afternoon and saw a body
dressed in camouflage,
green and gray and brown,
as if molded of grass and mud --
a gray treefrog, Thomas Tyning’s Guide
told me. Two days later, when I peered
again, a male had squeezed himself
into her bunk. Then: no one.
Courtship had led to coupling,
it seems, after which, she –
toting her dozing mate on her back --
stepped down from her penthouse
to distribute her wealth of eggs
throughout the swamp:
spring peepers piping, Buddhist
and plucking banjo strings.
* Thomas Tyning’s Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles
© Jon Swan
set the glorious-hatted
until petals drop.
They make their splash,
fading to lipstick blotted
on a napkin.
Stem alone is left
to hold aloft
this green and purple pod
shapely as a vase
of ancient provenance,
and smaller than a thumb,
ample room for seed
to sleep: extravagance
reduced to dot.
© Jon Swan
The Creation of Words
Hay in the loft. Barn doors
open wide as the vowels of Iowa
through which swallows slip,
in and out, whispering consonants.
© Jon Swan
The old house slopes its shoulders
Paint won’t hold it together long
but another coat
would be welcome
Out back the barn has started to kneel
like a drunken uncle
succumbing to piety
© Jon Swan
Neola. A Greek word meaning a young’un, a girl,
the name of a town in Iowa, Pottawattami County,
memorializing a Native tribe that was “removed,”
shoved around the Midwest as settlers, moving in,
scalped the rich prairie, exposing the soil to winds
that, in 1933, lifted up and blew away one third of
a billion tons of soil from the Plains. The immense
cloud of dirt turned day to night across the country,
all the way to New York City and Washington, D.C.,
before flopping down far out to sea.
Back in the 1930s,
Neola’s population was nine hundred and forty-four.
The doctor made his calls by horse and buggy. Once
a week, on Saturday, weather permitting, the grown
sisters who lived across the street took their baths in
a washtub on the porch. There was no traffic, nobody
stopped to stare. One of their uncles hanged himself
in a barn out back. The Great Depression had begun.
One night the moon rose
at the end of the road. I was walking with a girl my age,
five. We were holding hands. It was a full moon and it
was right there, ahead, at the top of the road -- red as
the sun. And it kept getting bigger, and I wondered if
it meant the end of the world and said so to my friend,
who, with a nod, agreed. We stared, then started back
until we saw my father, reading indoors by lamplight,
and we went in. I asked him if the red moon we’d seen
meant the end of the world. And, eighty-odd years ago,
he said no.
© Jon Swan
Landscape and Language
Sometimes I wish I had grown up in a myth-rich,
lyric, priest-ridden country like Ireland,
a country with stone houses that outlast
a single generation, a country with a terrible past,
and bogs that squelch and ripple profoundly.
But not really. No. Not really.
There’s no fighting your fate -- mine, in this case,
who grew up not in any one place but an assortment
of three-steeple towns scattered atoll-like
in the great lap of the Great Plains, each with its stilted watertank
stuck up there in the sky. The land drones on
and on, without intonation.
A gravelly river runs through it, the Platte.
All summer long the long-legged corn rows run, run, run.
The sun sets red like the head of a man
on fire, then sinks under the ruled horizon.
You can leave it, as I did, but not really.
The plainness stamps you.
© Jon Swan
In the long hot summer of ‘99
the good-soldier corn
stood at attention
as the sun gunned it down.
And farms went under, one by one,
and farmers went out and,
gunned themselves down.
Veteran elms stood at attention.
A dry wind sighed.
And the widows wept and the willows
down by the riverside.
© Jon Swan
Lithe lizards may come abruptly alive,
the long tail moving like a whip lash
until, with equal suddenness, they affix
their thin, panting bodies to a patch
of hot gravel between the railroad tracks.
Settled down, in slow stages they fade,
fade until, lowering lids over bright eyes,
they vanish, like the western horned toad
sitting still as stone, the color of gravel,
until lightning tongue gives proof of life.
It is arid here. Weed tufts wilt between
tarred sleepers. In the sizzling distance
the tracks melt. This is your station,
where only the sun is here to greet you
and neighbors take time to materialize.
© Jon Swan
Reflections on Destin’s Backwards-Brain Bicycle
The backwards-brain bicycle, created for Destin Sandlin, the host of a Facebook show
called Smarter Every Day, is a regular bike that has been modified so that if the rider
turns the handlebars to the right, the bike goes left. And vice versa. The short Face-
book film shows the host and several others, in various countries, attempting to ride
the backwards-brain bike and failing. They can’t go four feet without putting a foot
on the ground or falling. The point of the film is that the how-to-ride-a-bike algorithm
is so strongly fixed in the adult brain that it takes months to retrain the mind to accept
the new algorithm. It took Destin Sandlin eight months of daily practice to accept it; it
took his six-year-old son three weeks. Can an ingrained algorithm that compels citizens
to purchase and consume more than they need, to accumulate rather than share, to accept
shopping as a patriotic form of recreation, be unlearned? The destructive effects of
the algorithm are everywhere evident – from our polluted atmosphere to our polluted
oceans, from shrinking glaciers to depleted aquifers, from the rapid deforestation of the
Amazon rain forest to the rapid extinction of species – and yet how many of us could
adapt to living with even a little less? Our bicycle would have to be modified to go
backward. Can this be done? Can it be done within our lifetime? Or our children’s?
One could argue that our notional national bike, though not geared to go backward, is
geared to go up – ever upward. Social mobility means getting up there, climbing higher.
Aspirationally, we are mountain climbers, eager to be above others, in one way or
another. Call it the penthouse complex: this need to live above it all, above all others.
Which perhaps helps to explain why our new squire-billionaires situate their second,
third, or fourth country homes atop a hill, allowing them to boss the view of the valley
below, with its ribbon of a river sparkling like a necklace displayed on a velvet pad.
Within the democratic America landscape, their palatial homes “crown” the hills.
Members of the new serf class, the service sector, dwell invisibly in the floodplains and
flatlands below. They know their place. They have found their level. Daily or seasonally,
they wind their way up the hillside to plant the flower beds, fill the swimming pools,
groom the lawns, clean the nine bathrooms of the main house, and then at dusk descend.
Meanwhile, under wraps perhaps, in an abandoned airplane hangar, welders are at work
on a bike whose every pedal push will take the rider incrementally underground, at least
in places not yet covered by macadam, asphalt, or concrete, where earth still can breathe,
thanks to the remnant population of ventilating worms. The urge to tunnel under grows.
It increases in direct correspondence to danger from above, as embodied in drones and
missiles, ever-fiercer cyclones and tornadoes. The vault of heaven is no longer the abode
of gods, but a hostile welkin that harbors whatever terror may befall. We pedal to get
deeper, seeking refuge from our doing, the done world, to curl and den up in darkness.
© Jon Swan
Ovid Underground Update
Preferring not to is not an option in today’s
economy, according to the guide, nodding
toward the scrivener in the golden frame,
brother to the portrait of Akaky Akakyevich,
who copied documents until he became a ghost.
We’re all in this together. A crowded city bus
swallowed by a sinkhole is, perhaps, germane:
Ogallala’s way of saying, Hold, enough, as
center pivots paint green circles on the brown.
Round and round they go and round
again until in Flagstaff, say, or Phoenix, a bus
nosedives underground, where the action is.
Earth, air, water regarded as commodities, fire
alone excepted. Open outcry in the trading pit!
And She said unto them: Once there was a rich man
with five houses, each of which or none was home.
And each house came with a roll-up lawn he could
take with him to make the next house seem like home.
No weeds. No dandelions. Bees and butterflies
need not apply. Dead pigeons on the grass, alas.
Flaying the earth to provide turf for perfect green
or lawn, rolled up like a carpet. Earth, air, water,
people regarded as commodities. Rape legalized.
As the man said, she should just lay back and enjoy it.
And it came to pass that corporations acquired person-
hood through a construal of the 14th Amendment
enacted for the protection of freed slaves and their
descendants, yet subject to creative reconstruction.
Thus was born the legend of the suit obedient,
the suit without the man inside, his personhood
abstracted by the corporation for which he works
and in accordance with whose wishes he must move.
Not Bartleby, emphatically. Nor Gogol’s scrivener,
whose overcoat was stolen, not the person in it.
Earth, air, water, people regarded as commodities
traded on the futures market. The outcry in the pit
drowns out the daughter’s scream. She had stooped
to pick a flower when the chthonic elevator opened.
He shoved her in, took her down, raped her on the way.
Doors open to view of mansion, country club, and mall.
Ville souterraine beneath a continent. Her lamentations
echo through the cavernous expanse until she’s granted
seasonal release. Pluto, the developer, made the deal: he
gets the girl for half a year, then back she goes to mother.
© Jon Swan
The Corn Lot
A corn lot in August
under the dry-spell-
the long rows patiently
marching in place,
the bird-footed roots
gripping an earthly silence
to feed the stalk,
to fill the ear
as with the delectable
looking out at the corn lot
in August I feel
that I, too,
could learn to be patient,
to stand still, letting
it all sink in.
But already the maples
are turning, the geese
flying so low we can hear
the creak of their wings
as we stand
our ground -- this field of
old men, shaking our
canes at the wind.
© Jon Swan
I have turned off the headlines
and walked up the stairs to where
the children are sleeping,
their alarms set for the future.
Sprawled and blanketed,
they seem enlarged and as calm
as sculpture. But they turn away now
as if from the light, or from
the light-blocking shadow falling
upon them -- the intangible
body of love and dread,
come to be comforted.
All night these fingers drum on the roof.
I fall asleep to see my stand-in
in this scene -- an old man
in a rain hat, with a cane --
approach the bridge to watch
the river rise, the junk
rush under: icebox door,
the headlight of a car,
button-eyed doll surprised
to see this stranger there,
above it all. I am
afraid for him
because -- arms broken,
bark stripped by the rain--
dead elms in turn
on him look down.
With hollowed eyes, they, too,
observe the river's rise
Too full to make the turn,
it breaks the bank they mark
and guarded. Running
between the stubble rows,
filling the furrows,
it flushes the field mice
into the open. Their high-pitched
squeaks scratch at the air:
Why are the owls so slow
to appear? Round-eyed,
we stare from
our hole in the elm.
© Jon Swan
The Pane of Glass
No hawk, no owl screams like that, or that long, by day or November graylight.
The raw-throated, drawn-out scream heard through walls and kitchen conversation
as we watched the first fire in the new stove catch the kindling, stopped our talk.
We listened, then stepped outside to see what – or human who – was retching up
this voice of pain that kept pouring out like blood from a vein. Dingy red, the fox
in the cornfield sat on its haunches, head uplifted, screaming until it was worn out.
It took no notice of us, but rose on stiff legs, an old man wearing poverty’s overcoat,
to set out across the concentric circles of its cornfield hell -- frost-hardened mud,
cornstalk stumps -- scattering the geese that flew up as it plodded, silent now,
having barked out its final outcry against the fever that had become its burning body,
which merged with the field as he moved toward the woods while we, chilled, went in
to sit by the fire lapping up the air and leaping into life behind a thick pane of glass.
© Jon Swan
Inaugural: An Anglo-Saxon Riddle
If the thin-skinned wince,
so be it. I myself was weak one.
Now let the dun field be seized, as in glass.
Locked up in its drop,
safely, no bud now will stir or burst.
Growth is a string of small detonations.
Spring, blowing its victims up, destroys
what I hold in trust.
Look. There. Everything is so much simpler.
Stripped of the conundrum of their leaves,
great trees are mere stick.
In vertical black
against a stiff snow, they cut this rune:
we can all do with much less.
Also this good riddance:
many agitated birds have gone.
Quarrels are not, to my ears, music. Let them
go squabble where it’s hot and every
barber warbles as
he strops his razor –
whereas I seldom, if ever, need
raise my voice above its level of ice.
© Jon Swan
Back to the top
In the Company of Pines
In the company of pines in early December
you can stand a long time before the clocks
in your head stop ticking
And you can stand a long time hat in hand
before the trees begin breathing more deeply
And the silence descends
like snow from the bough on which the owl
alights tipping the balance
© Jon Swan
Living inland, it is
the sea we miss,
the salt air and sense
The way it heaves
in redundant waves
that go nowhere.
Its ample indolence.
The way it dozes
its head on its paws,
shakes its mane and seizes
with giant claws
whole villages --
Its indifference to us.
The sea, the sea
borders, along which
stitch a seam, while
far inland, rising above
plowed ground, the killdeer
the plangent language
of the sea’s edge,
calling, recalling the loss
of what mere land lacks
© Jon Swan
Conjuring Blues in the Surf at Nantucket
There are no bluefish. Only
stories about bluefish. Like unicorns they thrive
in the imagination, in the motherwit sea
out of which we stepped originally,
not this one we drive
to each evening. We park the car on the bluff.
We take our shoes off.
Holding long rods, we walk down
to the dividing line between two kingdoms to join
the other dreamers
already casting their lures.
barefooted, ankle-deep, knee-deep,
in the push-pull seacrash, sinking in sand,
becoming more deeply rooted, casting into the wind,
trying to get out beyond the curled lip
of the third wave -- the agreed-upon
line beyond which the hungry creatures of our imagination
must some night
run, and why not
this one -- now, now, before the still-
building wave, there, breaks, prayer being part of the ritual.
Nothing. There are no
bluefish, only stories about them. We dream
standing up -- a long row
of adult men who should know
better, leave now, go home.
It is not yet
dark, but the tinted jet,
the pink shipside
riding the horizon, will soon turn black. The tide
will turn. It would be beyond reason to hope then.
The tide turns. We stand there, cast out in invisible lines, beyond reason.
The floor shifts underfoot. The walls rise
shaken, your brain shrunk
to a scaled button: fear, hunger. Sink
into the half-dark, the dark. Dive! And, surprisingly buoyed up, rise, light,
to feed. Strike. Fight.
Not to be landed. Ever. The sea is all imagination! But the hooks are set.
How will either of us
rid of this dream buried deep in our flesh
except by dying?
© Jon Swan
America: A Formal Elegy (1960)
Where the excessive land ends
Or begins in its hesitant islands,
Slow to begin, foreseeing,
Reluctant to conclude, pondering,
Rocks are resolute, the trees bent.
In slight, considered sums
Those islands shine and lie,
The unbroken nation opening
Beyond them, frugal no longer,
No longer reflective, in its own
Undulant motion involved, between oceans
Unfolding. Scarcely the coasts
Remember, or the harbors of stone,
Our needy arrival. Each
Left some portion behind,
And journey alters the traveler. `
Even the transported body
Of God here is uneasy,
As foreign as those who came
In His name, their eyes locked.
Dear Christ, though the Devil
Himself sports in the thickets,
Shameless, here we will build
Our kingdom of light on earth!
Meanwhile, diminished by increase,
We overreach. In formal clothing and
A stretch of bone, our furious dreams
Lie underfoot, fitfully
Withdrawn. Death as a stranger
Comes, age as an enemy.
Long lay silent to expand,
Long buried, the plains,
And the marvelous slopes recall
Seas gone, their fall,
The grave, harmonious hills
Relinquished, one by one.
What deed can fulfill
Such dimensions of desire?
Therefore leisure is large, pleasure
Infrequent. The continent exceeds,
Through which, restless as rivers,
We move, mingle, descend,
And after what far way wandering
To abruptly widen and be gone!
The cities have been visited. The land
Remains, as alien as the sea,
As broad. And the singular islands,
Aloof. They meet and leave us.
© Jon Swan