By May Swenson 1913–1989 May Swenson

A smudge for the horizon   
that, on a clear day, shows   
the hard edge of hills and   
buildings on the other coast.   
Anchored boats all head one way:   
north, where the wind comes from.   
You can see the storm inflating   
out of the west. A dark hole   
in gray cloud twirls, widens,   
while white rips multiply   
on the water far out.
Wet tousled yellow leaves,   
thick on the slate terrace.
The jay’s hoarse cry. He’s   
stumbling in the air,   
too soaked to fly.


Knuckles of the rain   
on the roof,
chuckles into the drain-
pipe, spatters on
the leaves that litter   
the grass. Melancholy   
morning, the tide full
in the bay, an overflowing   
bowl. At least, no wind,   
no roughness in the sky,   
its gray face bedraggled   
by its tears.


Peeling a pear, I remember
my daddy’s hand. His thumb
(the one that got nipped by the saw,   
lacked a nail) fit into
the cored hollow of the slippery   
half his knife skinned so neatly.   
Dad would pare the fruit from our   
orchard in the fall, while Mother   
boiled the jars, prepared for   
“putting up.” Dad used to darn   
our socks when we were small,   
and cut our hair and toenails.   
Sunday mornings, in pajamas, we’d   
take turns in his lap. He’d help   
bathe us sometimes. Dad could do   
anything. He built our dining table,   
chairs, the buffet, the bay window
seat, my little desk of cherry wood   
where I wrote my first poems. That   
day at the shop, splitting panel   
boards on the electric saw (oh, I   
can hear the screech of it now,   
the whirling blade that sliced
my daddy’s thumb), he received the mar   
that, long after, in his coffin,   
distinguished his skilled hand.


I sit with braided fingers   
and closed eyes
in a span of late sunlight.   
The spokes are closing.
It is fall: warm milk of light,   
though from an aging breast.   
I do not mean to pray.   
The posture for thanks or   
supplication is the same   
as for weariness or relief.   
But I am glad for the luck   
of light. Surely it is godly,   
that it makes all things
begin, and appear, and become   
actual to each other.
Light that’s sucked into   
the eye, warming the brain   
with wires of color.
Light that hatched life
out of the cold egg of earth.


Dark wild honey, the lion’s   
eye color, you brought home   
from a country store.
Tastes of the work of shaggy   
bees on strong weeds,
their midsummer bloom.   
My brain’s electric circuit   
glows, like the lion’s iris   
that, concentrated, vibrates   
while seeming not to move.   
Thick transparent amber   
you brought home,
the sweet that burns.


“The very hairs of your head   
are numbered,” said the words   
in my head, as the haircutter   
snipped and cut, my round head   
a newel poked out of the tent   
top’s slippery sheet, while my   
hairs’ straight rays rained
down, making pattern on the neat   
vacant cosmos of my lap. And   
maybe it was those tiny flies,   
phantoms of my aging eyes, seen   
out of the sides floating (that,   
when you turn to find them   
full face, always dissolve) but   
I saw, I think, minuscule,   
marked in clearest ink, Hairs   
#9001 and #9002 fall, the cut-off   
ends streaking little comets,   
till they tumbled to confuse   
with all the others in their   
fizzled heaps, in canyons of my   
lap. And what keeps asking   
in my head now that, brushed off   
and finished, I’m walking   
in the street, is how can those
numbers remain all the way through,   
and all along the length of every   
hair, and even before each one   
is grown, apparently, through   
my scalp? For, if the hairs of my   
head are numbered, it means   
no more and no less of them   
have ever, or will ever be.
In my head, now cool and light,   
thoughts, phantom white flies,   
take a fling: This discovery   
can apply to everything.


Now and then, a red leaf riding   
the slow flow of gray water.
From the bridge, see far into
the woods, now that limbs are bare,   
ground thick-littered. See,
along the scarcely gliding stream,   
the blanched, diminished, ragged   
swamp and woods the sun still   
spills into. Stand still, stare
hard into bramble and tangle,   
past leaning broken trunks,
sprawled roots exposed. Will   
something move?—some vision   
come to outline? Yes, there—
deep in—a dark bird hangs   
in the thicket, stretches a wing.   
Reversing his perch, he says one   
“Chuck.” His shoulder-patch   
that should be red looks gray.   
This old redwing has decided to   
stay, this year, not join the   
strenuous migration. Better here,   
in the familiar, to fade.

May Swenson, “October” from Nature: Poems Old and New. Copyright © 1994 by May Swenson. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Source: Nature: Poems Old and New (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1994)

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Poet May Swenson 1913–1989

Subjects Family & Ancestors, The Body, Nature, Relationships, Fall, Weather, Animals

 May  Swenson


During her prolific career, May Swenson received numerous literary awards and nominations for her poetry. Often experimental in both form and appearance, her poems earned her widespread critical acclaim. As Priscilla Long commented in the Women's Review of Books, "Swenson was a visionary poet, a prodigious observer of the fragile and miraculous natural world."

Swenson's poetry has been praised for its imagery, which is . . .

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SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, The Body, Nature, Relationships, Fall, Weather, Animals

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