Flying geese reflected in morning light

Three Poems by Heather Swan 11th Annual Contest in Poetry Semifinalist

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While the World Burned On

for Lailah

The geese shot across the water
like a squadron, a line of them,
two feet above the surface. We were
caught in their path, my canoe
merely a shape cut out
of the gathering gray light of dusk.
We watched them coming
between lake and sky, mirror images
of their bodies just below them
as they grew larger and larger,
unwavering, passing us close enough
that the sound of their wings
pressing against the wind
left us gasping, awakened
from the spell you had cast
with your poem moments before
about your dead son—
that had us floating only
on the cavernous grief,
his bones silting in the spring,
your empty hands, my own dead
returning, while the hole
left by the virus widened
beneath us like the dark water,
and the palimpsest
of the many violences
was suddenly so clear and
we were descending.
We were out of time, meaning,
not in it, but then a breath later,
the moonlight flickered
on the surface of the water, and
that sound of wings, and we were back
in the boat, the geese pulling us forward
as they did the impossible—
not stopping, but flying on together,
though the air was thick with dread
and there was so very little light.



Pesticide IV: Synapse

In the canned fruit aisle of Walmart,
he reaches for apricots the way
one might reach for a robin’s egg,
with a slowness akin to reverence.
His gait does not fail him today,
and I can almost pretend there’s
no Parkinson’s. It’s work, though,
he says. He has to tell his knee to bend
and when. Tell his arm to reach.
The disease steals the art
of the synapse, steals the body
a bit at a time. His paintings
never mourned. One winter in
Wisconsin, after months of gray days,
his studio blossomed in canvases
covered with colors we had all forgotten.
Still he dreams of painting.
In frozen foods, he chooses
chicken stir fry, cherry pie, pasty.
One day he called me early
in the morning, shocked to learn
he could crack an egg. Mornings
he still has his hands. Lately his voice
has been tissue-paper thin, so every word
has weight. Back at his studio
where he has chosen to live, I help
him carry the groceries inside. Today
when I leave, he gives me a painting
he knows I’ve loved—the red one
with the handprint hidden amid
birdwings. Birds caught in the updraft,
he tells me. Being carried. Rising.



Crop Duster


At dawn, an airplane roars over
the rooftop, close enough
to shake the windows,
close enough to wake her,
and a rattle is set loose
in her body. Adrenalin
raises her head, and she listens.
The whine of the engine
trails off, but then arcs,
accelerates, grows louder.
Grabbing her baby girl,
she races downstairs.
Is the pilot suicidal?
She opens the door,
steps outside, her child
flattened to her chest.
The sound deafens now
as the airplane sheers
the tips of the pines,
bearing down again
on her home. Not until
it is shrinking away
does she feel the mist
settling on her skin.
Wanting to wretch,
she reels back in,
rushes to find faucets
for rinsing.


“Residents: Spraying will begin in early May, weather dependent. Trained pilots will treat approximately 1,235 acres in 8 counties as part of the 2007 gypsy moth suppression program… Some people with severe allergies may wish to avoid areas to be sprayed on the day that spraying occurs.”


A lump in the little
girl’s neck swells
to the size of a mango.
She is too young
to be afraid. Doctors
take measurements
and needle her arms,
but find no solid answer.
Does she have allergies? Yes.
Has she suffered from asthma? Yes.
The mother mentions the plane
and the mist just 2 weeks before.
And the neighbors sprayed
their lawns then, too.
There is no evidence
chemicals were the cause.
Surgery is the solution.
If the gland does not go down,
we’ll cut it out.
But there is no way to prove
the root cause.


“Recognizing Pesticide Poisoning:
             Mild poisoning or early symptoms of acute poisoning: headache, fatigue, weakness, dizziness, restlessness, nervousness, perspiration, nausea, diarrhea, loss of appetite, loss of weight, thirst, moodiness, soreness in joints, skin irritation and irritation of eyes, nose and throat.
             Moderate poisoning or early symptoms of acute poisoning: nausea, diarrhea, excessive saliva, stomach cramps, excessive perspiration, trembling, no muscle coordination, muscle twitches, extreme weakness, mental confusion, blurred vision, difficulty in breathing, coughing, rapid pulse, flushed or yellow skin and uncontrollable crying.
             Severe or acute poisoning: fever, intense thirst, increased rate of breathing, vomiting, uncontrollable muscle twitches, pinpoint pupils, convulsions, inability to breathe and unconsciousness.
             The appearance of symptoms may be sudden and dramatic or may be delayed, but usually occur within 12 hours. Chronic poisoning occurs as the result of repeated, small, non-lethal doses through a longer period of time. Many symptoms may appear such as nervousness, slowed reflexes, irritability or a general decline of health.”

– Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service


Gypsy moth
die as quickly
as those of all
the other butterflies
and moths who
are in the range
of fumigation.


In the faded photo,
the two tiny girl children,
grin in the sunlight,
chins glistening with
juice, the paler one
holding a peach
by her cheek.
Like a measuring stick
for her lymph gland.


“… the CEO of Monsanto, Hugh Grant’s response was to claim that ‘numerous regulatory agencies have assessed glyphosate and all of them have found glyphosate to be safe.’
… Currently, 300 million pounds of glyphosate are applied each year to American farms.
… In general, chemical companies can claim ‘safe’ equals ‘not toxic,’ meaning it won’t kill a human in 96 hours.
… Regardless of Monsanto’s definition of safe, hundreds of studies have recently shown a wide variety of harm from glyphosate-based herbicides, including neurotoxicity, liver disease, thyroid disorders, endocrine disruption, birth defects, testes and sperm damage, growth of breast cancer cells, increased non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, the destruction of gut bacteria which leads to numerous autoimmune diseases and autism symptoms, and more.”

The Hill, March 17, 2017


At twelve, the girl
is taller than her mother.
Friends tease her
about the scar on her neck
which looks to them
like a love bite. This spring,
her white blood cells surged,
her feet turned blue,
her temperature spiked
and spiked again.
Tremors rocked
her body. Plus nosebleeds.
Lethargy. Vomiting.
The doctors tested her
for autoimmune disorders.
No connection,
her mother reassured
herself when her daughter
was stable again. Mornings
she does what she can:
organic oranges,
organic eggs,
organic bread.




Heather SwanHeather Swan is the author of the creative nonfiction book Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field and the poetry collection A Kinship with Ash. Her nonfiction has appeared in such places as Aeon, Belt, Catapult, Edge Effects, ISLE, Minding Nature, and The Learned Pig, and her poetry in Phoebe, Poet Lore, and Midwestern Gothic. She teaches writing and environmental literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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