into flight, the name as velocity,
a swift is one of two or three hundred
swirling over the post office smokestack.
First they rise come dusk to the high sky,
flying from the ivy walls of the bank
a few at a time, up from graveyard oaks
and back yards, then more, tightening to orbit
in a block-wide whirl above the village.
Now they are a flock. Now we’re holding hands.
We’re talking in whispers to our kind, who
stroll in couples from the ice cream shop
or bike here in small groups to see the birds.
A voice in awe turns inward; as looking
down into a canyon, the self grows small.
The smaller swifts are larger for their singing,
the spatter and high cheeep, the shrill of it.
And their quick bat-like alternating wings.
And the soft pewter sky sets off the black
checkmark bodies of the birds as they skitter
like water toward a drain. Now one veers,
dives, as if wing-shot or worse out of the sky
over the maw of the chimney. Flailing—
but then pulling out, as another dips
and the flock reverses its circling.
They seem like leaves spinning in a storm,
blown wild around us, and we are their witness.
Witness the way they finish. The first one
simply drops into the flue. Then four,
five, in as many seconds, pulling out of
the swirl, sweep down. So swiftly, we’re alone.
The sky is clear of everything but night.
We are standing, at a loss, within it.
(c) David Baker, 2010, printed by permission of the author
David Baker is chair of the English department at Denison University and poetry editor of The Kenyon Review. His latest books are Never-Ending Birds (poems, W. W. Norton) and Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry (co-edited with Ann Townsend, Graywolf Press).
Lisa Russ Spaar notes:
David Baker’s autumnal “Swift” embodies what Baker himself has said so eloquently elsewhere of the lyric poem and the “problem of people”—how the privacy of the lyric’s intense, transient,“swift” interiority is also “a vital feature of cultural identity, even perhaps of collective survival.” This poem recounts a community’s gathering to witness a primal and instinctual motion of the other, of the animal world, a flock of homing swifts. In that shared ecstasy, the self rediscovers itself, both part and whole : “A voice in awe turns inward; as looking / down into a canyon, the self grows small,” and then the birds, our words, our selves become “leaves spinning in a storm, / blown wild around us, and we are their witness” and it is night and “[w]e are standing, at a loss, within it.”
Monday’s poems will be selected weekly from published or unpublished works by poets in academe, and/or from books by scholarly presses. They will be chosen by Lisa Russ Spaar, a professor of English and poetry writing at the University of Virginia, who will also write a monthly column about poetry for Arts & Academe.