Poetry as presence

During April, National Poetry Month, we asked several JHU Press poets to reflect on their art. Brian Swann shares his thoughts and some selections from his latest collection, In Late Light.

Guest post by Brian Swann

The kind of poem that means the most to me begins in wonder. Something we might have seen a hundred times catches the attention and holds it: a tree, birds, horses in a field, or something we didn’t know we had remembered bubbles up. Then the poem spins out reverberative images with the appearance and feel of permanence; it embodies a sensation, making a moment valuable in a throw-away world.

A poem reflects light from the back of the eye so you can see in the dark, like a lion. But even when it is complete, a poem can never tell all there is to tell. And it is always hiding something, the way a dream does.

As Paul Ricoeur has noted, a poem becomes “the representation of presence.” The ancient world was filled with presence, as are traditional tribal cultures today. Poetry tries to call things back from the positivistic brink, away from what Rilke called “America,” where “empty, indifferent things pour over us.” Today, everywhere is America. A poem calls to the world’s beautiful strangeness, the uniqueness of everything and the way things are related and linked in a world at once us, and not us. The poetry I respond to is atavistic. Poetry fights a losing battle, but one well worth fighting.

The Horses

As I reach across I’m
taller than the backs
I stroke before they’ll move
away for as good a reason
as they stayed, down
the steep hill that’s
their meadow of thin grass,
more thyme and rock
than grass, brambles and
this stone wall I’m standing on
that for a while keeps us
all together, I and these horses
so large they’ll leave behind
their silhouettes as mountains,
where now as I stroke their
huge heads and necks like pillars,
gentle muzzles and soft mouths,
they stand so still under the great maple
that I can hear them breathe
and I talk to them as if they
could understand more than
I can, as if they don’t know
that what I’m saying to them
has no other purpose than
to keep them with me and
me with them here until
I have to turn carefully
around on these loose stones,
step down and find my way
back through the darkening woods.

A Typology of Birds

Typology relates to the future, and is consequently

related primarily to faith and hope, and vision.

—Northrop Frye, The Great Code


I have been here some time where
single things pull curtains around them
and the loneliest fall into their own breath.
But in spring I watched water
turn gravity on its head, and saw birds
quiver like tuning forks. Now
summer’s going, when a crack appears
in the sky they’ll fly into it. Circling
stars, they’ll spin out to each other
through nights that give way to them,
following lines to the horizon and then
over into a nothing like a prayer
they know the answer to, and out beyond,
whirling away, and I’ll know they’re
up there, among leave-takings and remainders,
their solemn eyes a kind of light even
at noon, and the same bells I heard by day
going on and on, lighter than shapes,
more persistent than appetite, as if one could
break through to that side and reassure

Making It Out

All over these mountains are huge stone walls, piled up by men
With oxen, tackle, crowbars, and brute will. Trees grow right
Through them, and they still stand. When you hike these woods
They come in at all angles, out of nowhere, cross and re-cross,
Holding whole hillsides up, tracing some invisible plan,
Giving you something to go by. But try following and likely
As not you’ll stop and look around and say Where am I?
Or realize you could be back where you started and so
You have to pull yourself together again and set off, faster,
In a different direction but where the walls still look the same,
Hoping to make it out before it gets too dark to see.


Trees, it is your own strangeness . . .

—Ted Hughes, “Trees”

One of the twin maples that rooted over a century ago in our stone wall,
“line tree,” the locals call them, is down. It was always there for me,
cows and horses, birds too, but in its fall took with it part of the wall
and the top strand of barbed wire. The horses are nowhere to be seen
and the cows don’t seem to notice. There are other shade trees, even
the remaining twin, and, if they wanted they could make like Bailey,
the adventurous heifer who followed the deer over the wall and into
our woods. But no. As dusk falls to the music of metal ear-tags, they follow
their leader at a fair clip back down to the barn. That tree had been leaning
too far out for years, its main branch twice as thick as a man’s waist,
the inside rotted out to duff for my garden, just waiting for a storm
big enough to shake the roots in the shallow soil. And now I’m looking
at it from different angles from either side of the wall, even walking on it,
trying to put things in perspective, take it all in. Parts are still green, and
at the top gooseberry bushes are growing in a crotch. Parts are dust, parts
the planks of a sailing ship with scars like the suckers of a giant squid.
There’s so much going on, it’s bigger than just “tree,” or me, and yet it’s
not quite “here” nor “there,” it’s somehow absent or elsewhere. How to get it
straight? How to ask the right questions so it doesn’t all come out as if it has
no mind to call its own, as if there are no other minds, as if it’s all my fault?

swannBrian Swann is the author of several collections of poems, most recently  In Late Lightpublished by Johns HopkinsHe is the author of Autumn Road, winner of The Ohio State University Press/ The Journal Award, and Snow House, winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize.