Tree Swallow

Photo by Mark Seth Lender


My Swallows


For hours I sit here facing the white wall
and the dirty swallows. If I move too much,
I will lose everything, if I even breathe,
I'll lose the round chest and the forked tail
and the nest above the window, under the ceiling.

As far as shame, I think I have lived too long
with only the moonlight coming in to worry
too much about what it looks like. I have given
a part of my mind away, for what it's worth
I have traded half of what I have--

I'll call it half--so I can see these smudges
in the right light. I think I live in ruins
like no one else, I see myself as endlessly
staring at what I lost, I see me mourning
for hours, either worn away with grief

or touched with simple regret, but free this time
to give myself up to loss alone. I mourn
for the clumsy nest and I mourn for the two small birds
sitting up there above the curtains watching--
as long as I am there--and I mourn for the sky

that makes it clear and I mourn for my two eyes
that drag me over, that make me sit there singing,
or mumbling or murmuring, at the cost
of almost everything else, my two green eyes,
my brown--my hazel, flecked with green and brown--

and this is what I'll do for twenty more years,
if I am lucky--even if I'm not--I'll live
with the swallows and dip through the white shadows
and rest on the eaves and sail above the window.
This is the way I have lived, making a life

for more than twenty years--for more than forty--
out of this darkness; it was almost a joy,
almost a pleasure,  not to be foolish or maudlin,
sitting against my wall, closing my eyes,
singing my dirges.


—Gerald Stern (b. 1925)


Field Note


Every Fall Tree Swallows congregate a few miles upriver from the mouth of the Connecticut. After sunset their agitation grows.  You can hear it.  As if they must agree before it begins. And then it begins, their nightly ascent, a great cloud of birds rising higher and higher till they shrink to black dots, swirling and whirling, not a flock but a school of birds like an airborne school of fishes. As darkness gathers all at once they funnel down, a tornado of birds. All this is practice, readying their bodies for migration and perhaps, testing the currents of the air. For when wind and weather and celestial alignments are just right they will rise, and go, and be gone until another year. 

Mark Seth Lender



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"My Swallows" by Gerald Stern from This Time: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1984 by Gerald Stern. Reprinted with the permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.