Wally Swist – Seven Poems

photoWally Swist’s books include Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love (Southern Illinois University Press, 2012) and a new interpretation of The Daodejing: An Interpretation, with David Breeden and Steven Schroeder (Lamar University Press, 2015). Some of his new poems appear in Commonweal, North American Review, and Rattle. Garrison Keillor recently read one his poems on the daily radio program The Writer’s Almanac.

The Gate Left Open

The Black Angus bull
and several cows crunch the snow in the barnyard,

having escaped from the pasture
across the town road—through the gate left open.

The cows prance through fresh snow,
and convene by the compost pile,

near the barn; while
the bull romps up and down the brick esplanade,

on the side of the farmhouse that faces the pasture,
where these Black Angus

have broken free.
The bull in front of my window,

is beautiful and terrifying, at once, its massive dark
shape bouncing from

front to rear hooves; darting through snow;
steam issuing from its nostrils in the sunlit cold

of late morning; loose, unrestrained;
now enabled to realize how large he actually is,

freely bounding—
his pound by pound adding up to what is

probably a ton; seemingly,
feeling at one with the expanse of the open land

beyond what is the partially electrified fence,
which I learn of later, that held them captive.

Now the bull rejoins his harem, and leads them—
since it is rutting season, as I just heard his bellows

and their huffing cries earlier in the day—
out into the south meadow, and they follow him,

strutting on their way—
until two men, who work at Brookfield Farm,

come with shovels to coax
them back from what they might have sensed to be

a trackless acre of fenceless
paradise, to trot back across the barnyard and over

the icy road, the ground
thundering with the tonnage of their bodies.

The Female Cardinal

Watching the birds this morning use the budding
adolescent maple as a stage from which they

dive to the ground and then rise up again, I see
the blue jay, with all of his braggadocio, flutter

and fluster on the branches, and poke his beak
among the leaf litter, then leave; a mourning dove,

in all of its natural coyness, coo and peck, then
alight upon the driveway’s crushed black basalt

where it selects flecks of grain no other bird seems
to be able to find; but then a female cardinal

begins her flight-dance among the maple’s limbs,
charming in her practical but fashionable colors—

wearing her rouge liming just the edges
of her wings and highlighting the top of her head;

with just enough mascara to accentuate
the sparkle of her eyes; her beak sun-colored with

an element of gold; her feathers not the bright red
of her male counterpart, but she wouldn’t have it

otherwise, since she blends her feathers within
her environment with their rich shades of beige

and brown. There she is not missing a windblown
seed among last autumn’s mottled leaves, adept

and confident, obviously feeling quite smart
in her avian regalia, apparently not out to beat up

on the boys, and to cackle about it later, since
that is not her way, but yielding to the female

principle inherent within her as she gives way to
the puddles in the culvert by hopping around them.

She gains strength in herself by not trying to be
what she is not, and discovering the deep parity

in that, as she answers the whistle of her mate,
the delight evident in her tone, and as cardinals

do, whistles her response back, as if to say, I’m
over here. What else is new? And what about you?


The time they drove escaped from their pen from the farm
across the road, they moved in a huddle over the lawn,

red-cheeked and pink in their muddied nakedness, cheery
in their sanguine abandon, snorting in their anticipation

of their approaching the compost pile beside the barn.
They jiggled when they moved, ears cocked,

ruddy-faced, in their collective charge forward together,
insouciant in their newfound freedom, just the oh, yes

of them a pleasure to observe in their open delight that
was as sheer of a thing as they were of a weighty heft.

Gregarious in their gait together in their small herd, they
launched themselves forward with an intelligence that

seemed to be fertile in their brains, more so, than other
animals, apparently protective of each other as they were

of themselves, seemingly motivated in that they bore
resemblance more to humans, especially in the glib look

on their faces, and that they moved about in the world
not so much at random but that they had intent, a plan

that included one for all and all for one, in their reaching
the kale stems, apple cores, and still-juicy melon rinds

that they so auspiciously found among coffee grounds
in the compost, before their farmer, smiling broadly,

brought them back to the sparseness of their
wooden pens, spattered with a wealth of mud, as tines

of the farmer’s pitchfork tickled them from behind,
the lilt of his chanting call of sooey the alchemical charm

to bring them home, their snouts turned upwards, mouths
open, congenially returning, squeaking their nasal oinks,

throaty and full, on the run; the beauty in them, seeing
them come; the joy about them, in seeing them go.

Two Lives

Its face shone in the late September sun through the screen
of the window in the back of the cabin’s living room,

as I gave it a look, my eyes lifting all too briefly from my
work, mistaking always being too busy as my true calling,

then dismissing the animal nibbling at the spindly birch
sapling near the ledge at the rear of the property before

the two-hundred foot drop to a dogleg of Cushman Brook,
as a mule deer, because that is what it appeared to me as,

is as preposterous now as it apparently had made sense to
me then. I remember the long bony protuberance of its

face, among the elongated shadows of the pines beside
where it stood, on a path I had cut back and cleared of

tendrils of poison ivy that were growing around the trees
along the bank edge. The ears of the cow upturned in

a manner of felicity on the sides of its face that showed
the elements of a painting by El Greco, revealing depths

in its animal soul, with the humility that Jimenez offered
in his descriptions of the burro in his story, Platero and I,

which is where I may have initially thought that this
animal was a mule deer, to which there is little similarity

to a moose; but what I saw through the mesh of the screen
was the cow’s face, and the hump rising behind its neck, as

it chewed some still-green birch leaves, among the leaves
beginning to yellow, its thick sensual lips moving as it

consumed a leaf, then another, as I looked up again, with
the lips doing all of the work, and its head unmoving,

in its nearly peaceful motionlessness, the hair on its face
a lighter color than the beige gray-brown bristle of the fur

of its body, that I could see, intermixed with stray black
coarse hair. And when I put my work down,

I walked to the window where the animal was framed for
my intermittent and unconscious gazing up and out, where

it had left to continue being content with what it was: large,
quiet, and humbled by the wonder of its life among the trees

and their leaves, the awe of its presence and its staggering
patience, to dwell in the forest, as gingerly, in its oblique

anonymity, and its breadth of spirit, as it came to visit me;
and that we both benefited by my being so negligent

that it was a moose, who are known to become unnerved,
when startled, in my having left it alone in its own solitude.

For All to Savor

Each of the tulips, red, white, and yellow, standing
tall in all of the gardens, said it in the sunlight,

in the rain.
The purple of wild thyme growing in the grass,

although few noticed when they passed, said it,
as they offered the aroma of their fragrance

for all to savor.
Every oak, whose leaves were turning lime green,

said it all along in a row, their buds lining the cycle
path beneath them with sprays of yellow.

Even the ordinary daffodils said it, growing in
their golden clusters, their aureoles limned

with singularly extraordinary bright orange circles.
The pink wands of the weeping cherry said it

as each bent in a parabolic
arc, nearly touching the verdant green of the grass

spreading over the wet brown soil of the ground.
The pear and apple trees announced it

in every orchard,
and alone, in various yards, through their white

bursts of dizzying fragrance.
Then the tambourine of the rain began to play

on the lute of the wind, through the plucked strings
of the trees, and it said, with

of all of its jangling bells ringing, for everyone
to hear, Ciaconna—dance, listen to the castanets.


What startles me into incandescence
is the harmony of motion in the gate

of the beige cow crossing the pasture,
her four legs moving in rhythm to

each other, hoofs touching the verdant
grass, the corn stalks nearly grown

to their full height on the other side
of the barbed wire fence. Her face

beams in the sunlight, the bovine
eyes alive and shinning. If there is

anyone who doubts the divine exists,
then the presence of the sacred

animated in this beige cow would quell
anyone’s misgivings that the light

of grace emanates in the world beyond
the limits of our own imagination.


Driving the country road, traffic ahead
of me is circumventing what looks

to be road construction, but it is
a turkey vulture finding such delight

in a road kill skunk, and is so attached
to sating the desire of its hunger, that

it refuses to fly out of the way
of the oncoming cars. Living this life

is all about reading the images
in the myths, the stories of our lives

that present themselves out of what
is biological necessity, and that furthers

our understanding of our temporal
existence on the physical plane; and

to come to know that there is an essence
within us, that when it is time, rises out

of who we were, as strands of burning
incense, weaving and unweaving from

ash, tapers into the air, which coalesces
into what is happening now; driving

on the way to the farm stand where I
will buy corn and squash, and the basil,

that will leave its fragrance in the car and
in my home for the remainder of the day.


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