Occasional Verse

In the Waiting Room of the Clinic    -    The Social Contract    -   On the Longing for a Cigarette    -    Gazing

The Birth of the Banana Republic!

The Birth of the Banana Republic: Florida 2000      
The Man in Blue: Total Information Awareness    -   The Uniform   -   The Storyline   -    The Vial: 2/6/03


A Garland for the Groper

The Great Gas Bag   --    One for the Groper!   --   The Fish Mistaken for a Man   --  Taps, Muted   --   The Launching of the Slingshot Ride   --   The King of Bedlam
"The Great Gas Bag," "One for the Groper!," "Taps, Muted," "The launching of the Slingshot Ride," "The King of Bedlam" originally appeared in The Berkshire Edge; "The Fish Mistaken for a Man," in Tikkun


In the Waiting Room of the Clinic

“We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy
that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures…”
Stephen Jay Gould

In the waiting room of the clinic, men and women seldom utter a word.
They flip through old magazines and then return them to the low table.

In the wall aquarium the fish swim back and forth, avoiding each other.
Do they ever have a story to tell! But they never learned how to speak

a foreign language, only their own, which we do not understand. Yes,
they wave their tails, but to propel themselves, not to convey a message.

Their innate ability to avoid one another while constantly on the move
impresses. They describe patterns of peaceful coexistence, while we,

despite our ability to speak, to explain, become vehement, even violent,
which may lead the gazing outpatient to question the ethics of evolution.

© Jon Swan

The Social Contract

God knows why you should pick on me
to save your soul from dissolution here.
But I have seen your forward grin become
a signal of distress as you attempt
to fathom what I, a stranger, make of you.

I shall, accordingly, provide a smile
which you may take to mean that we have met
and that I do, indeed, recall your face;
while I, in turn, interpret your relief
to mean that I am someone in your eyes.

© Jon Swan

On the Longing for a Cigarette
(suggested by Rutger Kopland’s Over het verlangen naar een sigaret)

Dismissed from the forecourt of heaven
for being unable to provide a light!
Who could have guessed they smoked
up there, while we, for our sins, quit,
and spent all those years longing
for a cigarette.

Just the smell of the tobacco as you opened
the pack, foretaste of solace, the jolt
of the first inhalation, the cloud
in the mouth, holding it in, letting it
stream slowly out through your nostrils,
the blue smoke

of the first cigarette, and a whole pack to go!
The sense of risk, the half-buried awareness
that you’re killing yourself, which confers
its specific gravity on the ritual of
inhaling and exhaling the cloud
in your mouth

instead of simply taking a breath. The gravity
is that of an actor playing the dual role
of suicide and mourner. You’re the author
of this drama and it holds you in thrall,
but you won’t be around for
the curtain call.                

© Jon Swan


As when the earthquake rocked Candlestick Park in 1989
and bleachers rose and fell as if a wave passed under and
we sat, breathless, gazing, waiting for the next wave, for
the shaken stadium to crack,

so now we, sitting on the sidelines, as it were, on bleachers
in a stadium of our own, may nightly observe, spellbound,
in passive fascination, the deft undoing of what we once
had thought would long endure.

© Jon Swan
The Birth of the Banana Republic!


The Birth of the Banana Republic: Florida 2000

Not all the hurrahs could be counted, of course,
the skies being crowded, as usual at the season,
with pundits in holding patterns, and everywhere
the terrible shards of breaking news. Stick your head
out the window and, buddy, you're dead.

The photo of the kid holding his beach bucket
up to the sky to catch the cheers as they fell
will surely win a Pulitzer. Unless it goes
to the topless babe holding her cups out
and wearing shades -- a pin-up of blind Justice.

Nothing's surreal anymore in God's country!
The court has ruled against Buñuel et al.
The consumption of bananas in public
shall no longer be permitted. Who picks
the prez is the biz of the beholden Supremes.

© Jon Swan

The Man in Blue: Total Information Awareness

In dreams between the milkwhite sheets the man
in blue may steal into your room

who holds the jar in which you once caught
fireflies He has all night to snatch

the smile from your lips if you should smile
to introduce as evidence at your trial

He holds the net in which you once caught
butterflies and has all night to net

thoughts you thought were private as
your mail once was You'll never guess

it has been opened You'll never know
who your accuser was or who

sentenced you -- a citizen grown alien
through internal emigration

as documented by the man in blue
who knows you better than you know you

© Jon Swan

The Uniform

The coup did not occur at some o’clock,
but as the language underwent estrangement.
You couldn’t understand unless you knew
beforehand, unless you had been trained.

Once you got the hang of it you wore it
like a uniform you could not remove
at night but slept in, and only dreamed
you had a skin that could be pricked.

The language was not altogether foreign,
but with German it had this in common,
that nouns began to do things on their own.
Therefore what you did was not a crime.

© Jon Swan

Jon reading

The Story Line

It’s always time in times like these
to watch the news. It turns you on
and keeps you glued. The story line
involves you in the latest crisis,

then puts you on an escalator
headed for the upper floors of fear.
You could get off at the commercial
break, but if the threat is real,

as advertised, would that be wise?
You’re getting used to being nervous.
It would be a letdown to be calm,
the unreal calm before a storm

big enough to make a movie of.
So up you go, feeling ready
for a higher level of anxiety,
as if fear itself had made your brave.

Of course, you’re not the only one
who’s headed up. Look around, you’ll see
the whole impatient news-hooked nation
staring as the made-for-TV story

builds to its climax. The ratings soar.
There’s money to be made from war.

© Jon Swan

The Vial: 2/6/03

Citizen in the back of the room,
hold your applause until
the end of the program–

the show-and-tell, with the diagram
and the doomsday vial
held between forefinger and thumb,

the most powerful nation on earth,
selling snake oil.

© Jon Swan
A Garland for the Gasbag

The Great Gas Bag

The Great Gas Bag

Zero leaks and flees
escapes like gasses
self-inflates into balloon
rises in his self-esteem

Eyes rise in mute salute
Stiff arms follow suit
There is no uniform
that doesn’t fit a man

who waits to be begun
to join a regiment
of rage in which each
issued shirt turns brown

Let all hell break loose!
Let each his business
do in accordance with
the mood transmitted

by the big balloon in
nods and bobs in lingo
if it makes no sense no
matter He’s the boss

the commanding zero
the helium hero who
rules gassy heaven
like a combusting sun


One for the Groper!

Behold a geezer named Donald --
a groper, not a Gipper, like Ronald.
A lecherous phony,
he extrudes yards of baloney,
and when he ad-libs sounds addled.

© Jon Swan

The Fish Mistaken for a Man

I tried to explain that I was innocent, that
I had been talking about a bottom feeder,
a fish, and, under questioning, explained

groupers are ray-finned, and are typically
stout-bodied and large-mouthed, and that
their mouths and gills form a strong suck-

system which can suck their prey in from
a considerable distance, known in politics
as a sphere of influence. As I spoke, I saw

the eyes of my interrogators slid sideways
as if to say You gotta be kidding, which was
not so. I had, I insisted, been talking about a

not of a hominid who might or might not be
ten fingers shy of a load, aye, a ten-fingered
fish out of water, out of his depth, not even

elected by a self-decreed landslide, although
it’s true that a grouper can weigh up to 220
pounds, heft of a groper wearing a long, red

© Jon Swan

Taps, Muted

Of him it can truly
be said he was all bully
and no pulpit,
a bully who blamed others
when he was the culprit,
a master of ballyhoo
who blew his own trumpet,
and ruled by tantrum and tweet.

What to do with a leader
who leads us backward step by step?
Best would be
store item in a cool, dark place
pending return to sender.

Jon Swan

Rollercoaster illustration by Joan Griswold

The Launching of the Slingshot Ride

Ticket taken take your seat buckle up and wait
until the roller coaster starts to move you slowly
then ever faster until you grip the sides and start
to scream with something that is akin to laughter

but terror’s neighbor whose arm you clutch as up
and almost over and then down you go screaming
whoa wow eyeballs bulging larger than the sockets
will allow like the eyeballs of the ocellated blenny

Everyone is screaming so it must be fun

as the roller-coaster cars shoot as if rocket-launched
suddenly upward and then stick way up there in thin
air suspended docked above the expanded landscape
breathless eager for dreading what will happen next

before plunging from a height of four-thousand feet
above the ever-rising sea level then looping up gut-
wrenchingly again until… Dead ahead the final mile
of iron track remains unlaid owing to the reluctance

Lo! The final mile of iron track remains unlaid

of the oligarchs to make pledged donations until such
time as they receive assurance that each in turn shall
have a shot or crack at governing a fractious nation
So the Slingshot flings us howling into outer Space

Who knew? We all bought into the ride

Jon Swan

The King of Bedlam

Bedlam, the colloquial name of London’s Bethlem Royal
Hospital for the mentally ill, was regarded as a tourist
attraction in the eighteenth century. The word came to
mean “mayhem,” “riotous confusion,” “chaos.”

The King of Bedlam wears no jacket, but see
how with his hands he clasps himself straitly --
hands clamp’t under armpits, arms crossed over chest,
as if, unless so constrain’d, His Majesty might burst!

The King of Bedlam is a portly tun
whose three-legged stool he takes for a throne.
He says one thing twice, then over and over
and snorts and tweets like a pig in clover.

No jacket’s needed for such as fool as this.
In love with himself, himself he would kiss.
Hand him a looking glass, what will he do?
He’ll play the coquette and commence to woo.

Crowds gather to stare at this Humpty Dumpty
on days when His Majesty’s not feeling grumpy.
Then he’ll caper and clap and grin so wide
you can see for yourself that there’s nought inside.

Jon Swan

I. Flight from Manhattan II. Living Inland
IV. Arrival & Departures

V. The Ones Who Got Away