swifts :: anne stevenson

Spring comes little, a little. All April it rains.
The new leaves stick in their fists; new ferns still fiddleheads.
But one day the swifts are back. Face to the sun like a child
You shout, ‘The swifts are back!’

Sure enough, bolt nocks bow to carry one sky-scyther
Two hundred miles an hour across fullblown windfields.
Swereee swereee. Another. And another.
It’s the cut air falling in shrieks on our chimneys and roofs.

The next day, a fleet of high crosses cruises in ether.
These are the air pilgrims, pilots of air rivers.
But a shift of wing, and they’re earth-skimmers, daggers
Skilful in guiding the throw of themselves away from themselves.

Quick flutter, a scimitar upsweep, out of danger of touch, for
Earth is forbidden to them, water’s forbidden to them,
All air and fire, little owlish ascetics, they outfly storms,
They rush to the pillars of altitude, the thermal fountains.

Here is a legend of swifts, a parable —
When the Great Raven bent over earth to create the birds,
The swifts were ungrateful. They were small muddy things
Like shoes, with long legs and short wings,

So they took themselves off to the mountains to sulk.
And they stayed there. ‘Well,’ said the Raven, after years of this,
‘I will give you the sky. You can have the whole sky
On condition that you give up rest.’

‘Yes, yes,’ screamed the swifts, ‘We abhor rest.
We detest the filth of growth, the sweat of sleep,
Soft nests in the wet fields, slimehold of worms.
Let us be free, be air!’

So the Raven took their legs and bound them into their bodies.
He bent their wings like boomerangs, honed them like knives.
He streamlined their feathers and stripped them of velvet.
Then he released them, Never to Return

Inscribed on their feet and wings. And so
We have swifts, though in reality, not parables but
Bolts in the world’s need: swift
Swifts, not in punishment, not in ecstasy, simply

Sleepers over oceans in the mill of the world’s breathing.
The grace to say they live in another firmament.
A way to say the miracle will not occur,
And watch the miracle.

please :: yusef komunyakaa

Forgive me, soldier.
Forgive my right hand
for pointing you
to the flawless
tree line now
outlined in my brain.
There was so much
bloodsky at daybreak
in Pleiku, but I won’t say
those infernal guns
blinded me on that hill.

Mistakes piled up men like clouds
pushed to the dark side.
Sometimes I try to retrace
them, running
fingers down the map
telling less than a woman’s body—
we followed the grid coordinates
in some battalion commander’s mind.
If I could make my mouth
unsay those orders,
I’d holler: Don’t
move a muscle. Stay put,
keep your fucking head
down, soldier.

Ambush. Gutsmoke.
Last night while making love
I cried out, Hit the dirt!
I’ve tried to swallow my tongue.
You were a greenhorn, so fearless,
even foolish, & when I said go,
Henry, you went dancing on a red string
of bullets from that tree line
as it moved from a low cloud.

late summer :: jennifer grotz

Before the moths have even appeared
to orbit around them, the streetlamps come on,
a long row of them glowing uselessly

along the ring of garden that circles the city center,
where your steps count down the dulling of daylight.
At your feet, a bee crawls in small circles like a toy unwinding.

Summer specializes in time, slows it down almost to dream.
And the noisy day goes so quiet you can hear
the bedraggled man who visits each trash receptacle

mutter in disbelief: Everything in the world is being thrown away!
Summer lingers, but it’s about ending. It’s about how things
redden and ripen and burst and come down. It’s when

city workers cut down trees, demolishing
one limb at a time, spilling the crumbs
of twigs and leaves all over the tablecloth of street.

Sunglasses! the man softly exclaims
while beside him blooms a large gray rose of pigeons
huddled around a dropped piece of bread.

what begins bitterly becomes another love poem :: g. c. waldrep

The earth has a taste for us, in its unknowing
appetite there yet resides a hunger, incompletion
that draws all life to its dark self. What, then,
shall we say of the flesh’s own desire, distal
thumb-brush at evening? There is nothing to say,
the vowels cluster uncertain in the beautiful vase
the throat makes, fricatives corralled behind
ridge of gum and bone-splinter. Flesh and earth:
fire is an illusion, to which water is the antidote.
The day was a bright one, there seemed no need
to move about with mirrors, the usual circumspection
and indirect approach. The abundance of small life
argued some measure of clemency, likewise
the Jerseys lowing in the paddock breeze, tender
shoots of cress and sweetpea spiralling upward.
But fire is a cruel hoax: now you see it,
now you don’t, the object of your affection
cast in carbon on the hard ground which will,
in time, receive. Roadside the irises bloomed
two or three feet max above soil’s surface,
rough tongue resting lightly on each leaf, each
violet exclamation. In full sun your hand guided mine
to the wound. A small one. Water and blood,
like the nurse said: prestidigitation of the body.
We stood without shadows on asphalt at midday.
What we call patience is only fire again, compressed.
I remember: your face flushed, stray petal lodged
in the damp whorl of your dishevelled hair.

the transmigration of souls :: deborah digges

Inside the starboard window
of his room in a boat at sea,
the piece of earth he’s scraped from a dead gull’s leg
sprouts eighty different species, green
under bell glass. By the sunlight
of the oil lamp he makes rain
as the wind picks up toward Chiloe,
Port Famine, Concepcion, and then Galapagos.
Here he finds shipwrecked sailors’ epitaphs cut
into the shell of an old tortoise
who’s tame enough to ride,
too huge to slaughter.
Here the birds are fearless.
He can catch them with his hands, let them
perch on his finger before he
breaks their necks and wraps them
in his shirt and sets their eggs on branches drifting
from the shoreline, island to island.
Now everywhere he meets himself.
He’s tired, and half the world from home.
But his mind has entered the morning
the way all the animals
kept in his cabin in jars along the wall grow
smaller in sequence
until the window opens on the sea,
so that what he’ll remember
are the wasted spaces, the desert rock spread out for miles
as if the earth were flat again,
dangerous at the horizon,
where the stones, piled, shine
against lava black.
Dew pools in the evenings.
A few pale leaves appear.

skinny poem :: john koethe

write some skinny poems—
James Schuyler

Life is rough, as
Rough as you make it.
Is it better to be the
Best at something, or is a
Gentleman’s C enough,
At least occasionally?
I used to think it was—
I used to think whatever
Felt like thought was sheer
Pleasure, but I’m old now:
It’s all edges, edges and
Scraps, like a collage.
I thought that continuity
Was everything, and now I
Think it’s a mirage, like a
Sound-effect or an echo,
A reflection of what flows
Inexorably beneath. “Man
Is the measure of all things”:
Protagoras. Plato refuted
Him, to no avail—you can’t
Argue with a blank stare:
“Here I stand.” I hate poems
Of affirmation, poems too
Unaware, too smooth
To be true. Life is rough.