Would it head for contrail height or hump and close and streak crosswise down the atmosphere? This morning you thought for a moment you were seeing a swallow hanging out on the edges of serious sun-closing autumn clouds, but
that’s a Northern harrier, a marsh hawk, you said with pride of certainty, since for years you’ve recognized them by the white band at the tail base as they skim summer dunes.
Another year on an April afternoon you thought, That has to be a courtship flight, the male rising and falling in deep sine waves along the hillsides, not as zany as the woodcock’s overture to love, but bizarre enough.
All you know about the marsh hawk you might have learned in a book instead of over years on the hoof, going shank’s mare, stacking the miles. Good man yourself. Take that first time on Corn Hill Road one May
when that male over the marsh let go of a furry ball you thought at first he fumbled, until his partner flying thirty feet below fielded it—how many have seen that?—and bore it off to something she could hear crying me me in the tall grass.
An Arable Bog
My grandfather knew one when he saw one, and ditched this plot so the vernal pools ran to his tended beds. Fallow now and grown complex with its two-year reprieve from my tiller, I study its weeds. A breeze with a northern edge to it is lifting and dropping them into a green chop. Even their names can contain barbs, spurs, hooks, stubborn glues and beaks. Sticktight and spotted henbit, for instance, burdock, sandspur, bristlegrass. There’s catbriar, veteran of battles, a coil of claws, and putting out flowers among this tangle as though they were slumming, several foxgloves. Folks’ gloves in my grandmother’s lexicon, for the hands of the wee folk. Once in Ballyloskey a parched little man begged cottage-to-cottage for a ladle of water, as she told it, and the woman who wet his thirst became rich thereafter, as the nay-sayers withered away. The wise farmer in Ireland still won’t plow a faery rath under, nor I these belled foxgloves for similar reasons. Praise to the story-teller, and to my grandfather whose strawberries hung on for years after he’d gone, and to the resilience of scrappy weeds that arrived here in ships’ ballast and wool bales and a breeze like today’s, and the flops of Bill Hollis’s cows.
Paired in Time
Let’s take to our deck chairs while we can, and watch the year come apart as all years have and will: the marsh releasing seeds in floaters and silky stars rising and falling through the air lighter than mosquitoes and uncatchable in our palms, as if we could impede their progress anyway. Above, on the edge of that autumnal cloud, a single mote, a raptor hanging like a hauled anchor, one more emblem of departure, though at that height who could say which kind of hawk? And still farther above it all, the occasional silver jet streak. Whoever can say how deep that blue is above everything can also count the number of Saturday lovers flying into Logan today, and all who have met the way we have, by grace or luck paired in time.
Consider the three-hundred million things against our ever happening into the Thing we are, like how far Centerville, Iowa is from here, and what an elegant high school majorette you must have been in your white boots, Muse, while I was spraying liquid asphalt on the back roads of New England. Poetry makes nothing happen? Your poems and mine made us happen, after you found me and phoned to say of a garden I planted in a quarterly that you’d never look at a toad in the same way again. Was it chance on a fall evening coming home from Ciro’s that you would sing me Edith Piaf in your perfect French? Are our common Donegal origins chance? Because I would appear at age 77 in your mailbox, on the cover of your daughter’s alumni magazine, I no longer believe in chance.
When will I be like the swallow? — Pervergilium Veneris
You will be like the swallow when you stop noticing the pine warbler’s lunula, and the fiddleheads risen and gossiping together like a tribe of African meerkats.
It could mean turning a deaf ear to imperfection, to that robin singing like a rusty whip-poor-will from a promontory branch,
its livery wasted on these dusks, its broken thrush music seeming to draw starbursts out of the sleeping trees, red dwarfs in the maples, the constellated petals of wild apple.
It could signal an end to nights of rain when the earth softens and swells so you feel it and wonder how anyone anywhere ever thought it was flat.
You remember eyes that glittered like ice flowers on a lapel when you were seven or eight, the way her perfume began to overrule the cold and blend with the heater’s purr, though not her name.
O swallow, is it worth the loss of such fragments to be unbroken, to be unaware of the sibilant lettuce issuing invitations under its own steam in the cold frame, and the way asparagus gasps and aspires in its trenches, its purple helmets rising again as the forays begin, the fighting back over lost ground?
Brendan Galvin is the author of 18 collections of poems. Habitat: New and Selected Poems 1965-2005 (LSU Press) was a finalist for the National Book Award. Egg Island Almanac appeared from Southern Illinois University Press, a Crab Orchard Series Prizewinner, in fall 2017. These poems will be in his forthcoming book Partway to Geophany (LSU Press, 2020). He lives in Truro, Mass.
Header photo by Montipaiton, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Brendan Galvin by Ellen Galvin.