Poetry Sunday: Swifts

In just a few days now, we will see the official beginning of spring. We have looked for the unofficial beginning over the last several weeks and at times we thought that we saw it peeking through the bare limbs of the trees or shining through the feathers of the goldfinches as they took their leave of us and headed north. But we were fooled. Winter maintained its grip. It's only in recent days that we have again begun to hope that the dreary gray season has almost reached its end.

There's one way that we'll know for sure that winter is over and spring is here to stay. It's when the Chimney Swifts return. Typically, in my yard, that is in the first week of April, but warm weather is returning earlier in these years of global warming and perhaps the swifts will adjust their timetable accordingly.

I love Chimney Swifts. They are among my favorite summer visitors. Perpetually in motion, they live life on the wing and they never fail to cheer me with their with their amazing flights of "Two hundred miles an hour across fullblown windfields...Earth is forbidden to them, water's forbidden to them." They are creatures of the air with their scimitar wings and streamlined cigar shapes. 

The poet Anne Stevenson appreciates the little birds, too, and she showed it with this poem - a poem which catches the spirit of the swifts and the joy with which we greet their arrival and the return of spring.


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.


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