Living Inland

The Corn Lot   -   Landscape and Language   -   Epiphany in a Church     Old House

Neola   -   The Pane of Glass   -   Idyll with Siren   -   Escalations   -   It Springs   

Heaven and Earth   -   Poppies   -   When Wren     Who   -   People & Bats   -   Arioso for William Russo  

 Swamp Creatures Serenade the Queen of the Night

Ovid Underground Update   -   Circle with Penguins   -   Living Inland   -   Searching for the Real McCoy in the Age of Duplication

Conjuring the Blues in the Surf of Nantucket   -    Omen   -   America a Formal Elegy (1960)   

 "The Report" and "Conjuring Blues" in The New Yorker;, "Neola" in The Dark Horse 
"Flight from Manhattan" in Exquisite Corpse; "Among Commuters" in New York Poems
, Who in Antaeus


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
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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.


Epiphany in a Country Church

Heavenly bodies glitter and
wink as the good people
gather for the covered-dish social

God and the Missus hopping
out of the jalopy
smelling of scalloped potatoes


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
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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

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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 it 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


Idyll with Siren

Between the cat’s hopeful appearances, creeping through snow,
this tree-sparrow flock, these slate-colored juncos
pick at the seed,
fly off, perch, flit back, feed, while
snow continues to fall at an angle.

As the cat, reappearing, cocks its head,
there is a rush for the branches,
a smart rapping of beaks against branches,
as if only normal after a meal.
Attentively ignored,
will the cat fade? It chooses to.
A siren goes off in the town below.

As a result, perhaps, two cardinals arrive – this flame and its shadow.
Crested, splendid, the male pitches his torch
among brown crisp clubs the oak holds onto,
tenacious as the rich.
His fire doesn’t rub off. The pair descends,
picks at the seed,
flies off, perches, flits back, feeds, while
snow continues to fall at an angle.

As the cat, reappearing, cocks its head,
there is a rush for the branches,
a smart rapping of beaks against branches,
as if only normal after a meal.
Attentively ignored,
will the cat fade? It chooses not to.
The siren is silent in the town below.

As a result, perhaps, the cat is black.
She creeps like smoke

As a result, perhaps,the cat is black.
She creeps like smoke
over deeper snow.


  © Jon Swan

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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
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

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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 shy
white garlicky bulb.

© Jon Swan

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Every other shuts up, sits tight when daylight
goes gray. The gorgeous and gregarious are dumb
in the dark. The sun is their god -- a great glare
that rouses them in the morning.

They pick out branches or perches and sing
to say who they are and exactly where.
All that color under the sun and yet
they go on naming, claiming, insisting.

I love their last cries when the light dies, their silence
when the moon takes over the sky. Then I fly, and the voice
that tells who I am and where is the voice of the mouse
or the mole or shrew slicing the night once only.

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

Circle, with Penguins

Large wings rush past my window too fast to see
the body they bear.
My flying children!
To have lived long enough to have flown
and to have given up flight.
To take one’s turn in the circle of fathers.

The earth turns away from the sun. The long shadows spread out into the night
and in the woods the birds settle down for the night, their songs tapering off
into silence. Large wings rush past my window too fast to see the body
they bear into the dusk. Bats flit around the tops of the tall poplars
and once again I am amazed that mice should have learned how to fly
at the price of being blinded for life, and, even more, that these birds,
resting now, started out as reptiles, that their feathers were scales once.

The earth has turned away from the sun and my children turn in their beds,
already dreaming, flying perhaps, thanks to that most ancient nub
of the brain, the reptilian leftover which, each night, takes over,
and a procession of birds marches into my mind, one by one
removing their tall hats to stand silently, their hands at their sides,
as if at some formal occasion: the birth of a child,
the death of a man. They recognize me. I recognize them.

These are the Emperor penguins. They have lived long enough to have flown
and to have given up flight for a life in the sea. Each winter, however,
“we march inland over a landscape of ice to lay eggs which must never
touch ice, because they would freeze then. We receive the egg on our feet.
Far from the fish-thick sea, we stand there, starving. The cold would kill you.
We form a circle, each taking turns shuffling into the warmer center
of the circle of fathers until, at last, the hatchling is born or is not born.”

Large wings rush past my window too fast to see
the body they bear.
My flying children!
To have lived long enough to have flown
and to have given up flight.
To take one’s turn in the circle of fathers

© Jon Swan

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Art in the Age of Mechanical Duplication

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?
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

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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

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