Poetry Walkabout for the
Swenson House Groundbreaking Celebration
Conducted by Logan City Poet Laureate Star Coulbrooke, September 18, 2018
Anna Thilda May Swenson was born in Logan at 2:30 AM on May 28, 1913, first child of Dan and Margaret. By the time May was four, she had three little brothers to play with. The four of them were rough-and-tumble outdoor children. As more children came along (ten in all), May inherited a long list of household chores, but she always cherished her time outside and recorded it in poems. (Note the abundance of trees, birds, plants, and animals in the following poems.)
WRITING PROMPT: Looking at the poems by May Swenson. Think of the ways in which Swenson places herself simultaneously inside and outside as she reflects on her childhood or her past experiences through the eyes of one who has gone from that former scene.
In “The Poplar’s Shadow,” for instance, the memory of the tree’s slim shadow on the lawn where Swenson played as a child recalls for her a feather pen. She might be using a pen to write at her desk in the city as she watches pigeons flying, their wings recalling the “silver undertint” of the poplar’s leaves.
Then, as if she has flipped a coin to decide between times of then and now, she looks down to see that a pigeon’s feather has dropped and made a shadow like the poplar’s. Past and present are instantly blended, along with inside and outside, as “the poplar’s shadow is found.”
Or, as in “The Centaur,” Swenson recalls the details of childhood playacting, her mother’s short admonishment, and her own boyish retort. The contrast of outside and inside occurs entirely in her mind and sets the tone for positive, light-hearted acceptance of who she is.
Use the poems on this page as prompts for pondering and/or writing about an instance in your past. Compare that experience with something you’ve found or thought about as you’ve looked at the Swenson grounds. Send your written reflection, story, poem, or favorite lines to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
THE POPLAR’S SHADOW
When I was little, when
the poplar was in leaf,
its shadow made a sheaf,
the quill of a great pen
dark upon the lawn
where I used to play.
Grown, and long away
into the city gone,
I see the pigeons print
a loop in air and, all
their wings reversing, fall
with silver undertint
like poplar leave, their seams
in the wind blown.
Time’s other side, shown
as a flipped coin, gleams
on a city ground
when I see a pigeon’s feather:
little and large together,
the poplar’s shadow is found.
May Swenson, Swenson Collected Poems 2013
A Cage of Spines, 1958
ABOVE BEAR LAKE
Sky and lake the same blue,
and blue the languid mountain between them.
Cloud fluffs make the scene flow.
Greenly white poles of aspen snake up,
graven with welts and calluses where branches
dried and broke. Other scabs are lover-made:
initials dug within linked heart and, higher,
some jackknifed peace signs.
A breeze, and the filtered light makes shine
a million bristling quills of spruce and fir
downslope, where slashes of sky and lake
hang blue—windows of intense stain. We take
the rim trail, crushing bloom of sage,
sniffling resinous wind, our boots in the wild,
small, everycolored Rocky Mountain flowers.
Suddenly, a steep drop-off: below we see the whole,
the whale of it—deep, enormous blue—
that widens, while the sky slants back to pale
behind a watercolored mountain.
Western Tanager—we call him “Fireface”—
darts ahead, we climb to our camp
as the sun slips lower. Clipped to the top
of the tallest fir, Olive-Sided Flycatcher,
over and over, fierce-whistles, “Whip!
Whip three bears! Whip, whip three bears!”
May Swenson, Swenson Collected Poems, 2013 (New and Selected: Things Taking Place, 1978)
I hope they never get a rope on you, weather.
I hope they never put a bit in your mouth.
I hope they never pack your snorts
into an engine or make you wear wheels.
I hope the astronauts will always have to wait
till you get off the prairie
because your kick is lethal,
your temper worse than the megaton.
I hope your harsh mane will grow forever,
and blow where it will,
that your slick hide will always shiver
and flick down your bright sweat.
Reteach us terror, weather,
with your teeth on our ships,
your hoofs on our houses,
your tail swatting our planes down like flies.
Before they make a grenade of our planet
I hope you’ll come like a comet,
oh mustang, —fire eyes, upreared belly—
bust the corral and stomp us to death.
May Swenson, from Swenson Collected Poems,
published by The Library of America, 2013
GREEN RED BROWN AND WHITE
Bit an apple on its red
side. Smelled like snow.
Between white halves broken open,
brown winks slept in sockets of green.
Stroked a birch white as a thigh,
scar-flecked, smooth as the neck
of a horse. On mossy pallets green
the pines dropped down
their perfect carvings brown.
Lost in the hairy wood,
followed berries red
to the fork. Had to choose
between green and green. High
in a sunwhite dome a brown bird
sneezed. Took the path least likely
and it led me home. For
each path leads both out and in.
I come while going. No to and from.
There is only here. And here
is as well as there. Wherever
I am led I move within the care
of the season,
hidden in the creases of her skirts
of green or brown or beaded red.
And when they are white,
I am not lost. I am not lost then,
only covered for the night.
May Swenson, the Complete Poems to Solve, 1993, by the Literary Estate of May Swenson
THE WOODS AT NIGHT
The binocular owl,
fastened to a limb
like a lantern
all night long,
sees where all
the other birds sleep:
towhee under leaves,
in a twighouse,
to a knothole lip,
redwing in the reeds,
swallow in the willow,
flicker in the oak—
but cannot see poor
under the hill
in deadbrush nest,
who’s awake, too—
with stricken eye,
flayed by the moon
her brindled breast
repeats, repeats, repeats its plea
May Swenson, Swenson Collected Poems, 2013
To Mix with Time 1963
The summer that I was ten—
Can it be there was only one
summer that I was ten? It must
have been a long one then—
each day I’d go out to choose
a fresh horse from my stable
which was a willow grove
down by the old canal.
I’d go on my two bare feet.
But when, with my brother’s jack-knife
I had cut me a long limber horse
with a good thick knob for a head,
and peeled him slick and clean
except a few leaves for the tail,
and cinched my brother’s belt
around his head for a reign,
I’d straddle and canter him fast
up the grass back to the path,
trot along in the lovely dust
that talcumed over his hoofs,
hiding my toes, and turning
his feet to swift half-moons.
The willow knob with the strap
jouncing between my thighs
was the pommel and yet the poll
of my knickering pony’s head.
My head and my neck were mine,
yet they were shaped like a horse.
My hair flopped to the side
like the mane of a horse in the wind.
My forelock swung in my eyes,
my neck arched and I snorted.
I shied and skittered and reared,
stopped and raised my knees,
pawed at the ground and quivered.
My teeth bared as we wheeled
and swished through the dust again.
I was the horse and the rider,
and the leather I slapped to his rump
spanked my own behind.
Doubled, my two hoofs beat
a gallop along the bank,
the wind twanged in my mane,
my mouth squared to the bit.
And yet I sat on my steed
quiet, negligent riding,
my toes standing the stirrups,
my thighs hugging his ribs.
At a walk we drew up to the porch.
I tethered him to a paling.
Dismounting, I smoothed my skirt
and entered the dusky hall.
My feet on the clean linoleum
left ghostly toes in the hall.
Where have you been? said my mother.
Been riding, I said from the sink,
and filled me a glass of water.
What’s that in your pocket? she said.
Just my knife. It weighted my pocket
and stretched my dress awry.
Go tie back your hair, said my mother,
and Why is your mouth all green?
Rob Roy, he pulled some clover
as we crossed the field, I told her.
May Swenson, Swenson Collected Poems 2013
A Cage of Spines, 1958