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Living Inland


It Springs
    -    Poppies   -  The Creation of Words   -   Old House   -   Landscape & Language   -   Lament 

Reflections on Destin’s Backwards-Brain Bicycle   -   Ovid Underground Update    -   Cider Giddy  -    Fall   -   The Corn Lot        

   Escalations   -   Waking to Coyotes   -    The Pane of Glass   -   Inaugural: An Anglo-Saxon Riddle   -   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, and “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 and "Inaugural: An Anglo-Saxon Riddle" in Antaeus.
"Reflections on Destin’s Backwards-Brain Bicycle" appered in Tikkun


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It Springs

It springs early.
The leaf, wing-like,
tapering at the top,

is a sharp green
whose white stem
blushes wine-red.

The plant, ramps,
grows in woods,
along roads;

clan-like, spreads
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 prized
white garlicky bulb.

© Jon Swan

Poppies

set the glorious-hatted
summer fashion
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

Old House

The old house slopes its shoulders
having weathered
another winter

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

Landscape and Language

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



Lament

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,
in isolated acts of desperation,
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


Reflections on Destin’s Backwards-Brain Bicycle

1

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?

2

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.

3

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

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

Cider-Giddy

Thump of apples dumped into the oak-ribbed press,
crushed, under a frost-sharpened October sky,
warms the cockles as hot cider served in mugs.
Lips kissed share the tang.

Wasps zip in to feast on steaming pomace cake.
Bees hover, settle down, head home a bit drunk.
Hawks, above it all, in sober circles soar
smack into the sun.

© Jon Swan

Fall

A door to the forest swings on hinges
as the invisible phoebe sings.
The floor is a roof fallen in.

Through arches of silence between,
fox and rabbit wait for
the other’s first move. The hunter,

shadowed, stands still as a tree.
Only the blacksnake fully appears:
a circle asleep on a rock in the sun.

© Jon Swan

    

The Corn Lot

A corn lot in August
under the dry-spell-
breaking rain,

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
whole notes
of summer--

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
growing restless,

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

Escalations

1

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.

2

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
with consternation.
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:
Fear! Fear!

Why are the owls so slow
to appear? Round-eyed,
we stare from
our hole in the elm.

 

© Jon Swan

Waking to Coyotes

Waking to coyotes addressing the moon,
your blood barks back.

How will you reply to the code of the owl,
its eight spaced hoots,

counterpoint to the yodeling of surgeons
with blood on their muzzles?

The owl’s beak is the scalpel. The moon
above the operating table

blinds you as you stare. You are the mole.
You are the deer.

© 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

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Living Inland

Living inland, it is
the sea we miss,
the salt air and sense
of endlessness.

The way it heaves
in redundant waves
that go nowhere.
Its ample indolence.

The way it dozes
lazy-lion-like,
its head on its paws,
shakes its mane and seizes

with giant claws
whole villages --
then withdraws.
Its indifference to us.

The sea, the sea
redefines, redraws
borders, along which
fastidious sandpipers

stitch a seam, while
far inland, rising above
plowed ground, the killdeer
still speaks

the plangent language
of the sea’s edge,
calling, recalling the loss
of what mere land lacks

© Jon Swan


Searching for McCoy on the Coast of Maine

His land- and seascapes were based on photos taken by his wife,
and so were a step away from the real McCoy,
but, revealing the vigor of his brushstrokes, the ardor of the artist,
were deemed more valuable than what might be called,
rightly or wrongly, the originals.

Often they walked along the coast of Casco Bay within the vaster
Gulf of Maine with its three thousand islands
scattered across the barely ruffled blue expanse to provide a sense
of depth to printed photos or paintings on flat canvas.
the so-called picture plane.

The islands drew their eyes out from the shore which, as the tide
receded, exposed an ever greater stretch of muck,
a world of mud and sand and isolated men wading out with rakes
and buckets ever farther as the sea withdrew,
enticing and enlisting them,

until their stooped figures merged with the mud, an all-embracing
gray so that, at the vanishing point, they vanished.
It was at this moving moment, the clammers now invisible, that
the camera dollied forward to document the couple’s
re-enacted visionary gaze.

© 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.

We stand,
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
and crumble.
Whose house
is this?
Kneel,
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

get rid of this dream buried deep in our flesh
except by dying?

© Jon Swan

America: A Formal Elegy

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

I. Flight from Manhattan III. A Flight of Birds and a Bat V. Satirical Verse VI. The Ones That Got Away   Bio Home
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