American Life in Poetry: Column 029

by TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Many of you have seen flocks of birds or schools of minnows acting as if they were guided by a common intelligence, turning together, stopping together. Here is a poem by Debra Nystrom that beautifully describes a flight of swallows returning to their nests, acting as if they were of one mind. Notice how she extends the description to comment on the way human behavior differs from that of the birds.

Cliff Swallows

Is it some turn of wind
that funnels them all down at once, or
is it their own voices netting
to bring them inthe roll and churr
of hundreds searing through river light
and cliff dust, each to its precise
mud nest on the face
none of our own isolate
groping, wishing need could be sent
so unerringly to solace. But
this silk-skein flashing is like heaven
brought down: not to meet ground
or waterto enter
the riven earth and disappear.

Reprinted from ”Torn Sky,” Sarabande Books, 2004, by permission of the poet. Copyright 2004 by Debra Nystrom, an Associate Professor of English at the University of Virginia. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry.

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