The Glacier


Brittenburg    -  The Great Wave   -  Camille Claudel’s “La Vague” 

 A History of Art    -  Ancient Antissa    -   Ionian Eclogue   -    Dunes Moving   -    The Glacier




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 47 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 once upon a Dark Age time
Beowulf won fame in battle, the Roman walls serving as
backdrop as the sea thundered and foamed,
composing its own epic.

Then the whole show slowly went under, under water and under underwater dunes,
not to be seen again until the early fifteen hundreds,
when artists, historians, and open-mouthed
gawkers hurried from

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

while a dozen years later a woman from Leiden and her fiancé, strolling in the dunes
near Katwijk, reporting seeing a part of the ruin
called Brittenburg. The last recorded sighting:
Nineteen Sixty-One.

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

Based on Brittenburg: Raadsels rond een verdonken ruine, by H. Dijkstra and F.C.J. Ketelaar, published by C.A.J. van Dishoek, in Bossum, The Netherlands, 1965. The engraving is by J. Breval, 1726.


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 “View.”

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

 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

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

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

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

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

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 

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


© Jon Swan

The Glacier

You hear it clearly when you’re close enough to sense the peril
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.
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 sheer rock --
magmatic, metamorphic, sedimentary, compacted sand

and silt and clay, baptized in the mantle, converted into granite.
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