May Swenson

Here you will find the Long Poem October of poet May Swenson


A smudge for the horizon 
that, on a clear day, shows 
the hard edge of hills and 
buildings on the other coast. 
Anchored boats all head one way: 
north, where the wind comes from. 
You can see the storm inflating 
out of the west. A dark hole 
in gray cloud twirls, widens, 
while white rips multiply 
on the water far out. 
Wet tousled yellow leaves, 
thick on the slate terrace. 
The jay?s hoarse cry. He?s 
stumbling in the air, 
too soaked to fly. 


Knuckles of the rain 
on the roof, 
chuckles into the drain- 
pipe, spatters on 
the leaves that litter 
the grass. Melancholy 
morning, the tide full 
in the bay, an overflowing 
bowl. At least, no wind, 
no roughness in the sky, 
its gray face bedraggled 
by its tears. 


Peeling a pear, I remember 
my daddy?s hand. His thumb 
(the one that got nipped by the saw, 
lacked a nail) fit into 
the cored hollow of the slippery 
half his knife skinned so neatly. 
Dad would pare the fruit from our 
orchard in the fall, while Mother 
boiled the jars, prepared for 
?putting up.? Dad used to darn 
our socks when we were small, 
and cut our hair and toenails. 
Sunday mornings, in pajamas, we?d 
take turns in his lap. He?d help 
bathe us sometimes. Dad could do 
anything. He built our dining table, 
chairs, the buffet, the bay window 
seat, my little desk of cherry wood 
where I wrote my first poems. That 
day at the shop, splitting panel 
boards on the electric saw (oh, I 
can hear the screech of it now, 
the whirling blade that sliced 
my daddy?s thum, he received the mar 
that, long after, in his coffin, 
distinguished his skilled hand. 


I sit with braided fingers 
and closed eyes 
in a span of late sunlight. 
The spokes are closing. 
It is fall: warm milk of light, 
though from an aging breast. 
I do not mean to pray. 
The posture for thanks or 
supplication is the same 
as for weariness or relief. 
But I am glad for the luck 
of light. Surely it is godly, 
that it makes all things 
begin, and appear, and become 
actual to each other. 
Light that?s sucked into 
the eye, warming the brain 
with wires of color. 
Light that hatched life 
out of the cold egg of earth. 


Dark wild honey, the lion?s 
eye color, you brought home 
from a country store. 
Tastes of the work of shaggy 
bees on strong weeds, 
their midsummer bloom. 
My brain?s electric circuit 
glows, like the lion?s iris 
that, concentrated, vibrates 
while seeming not to move. 
Thick transparent amber 
you brought home, 
the sweet that burns. 


?The very hairs of your head 
are numbered,? said the words 
in my head, as the haircutter 
snipped and cut, my round head 
a newel poked out of the tent 
top?s slippery sheet, while my 
hairs? straight rays rained 
down, making pattern on the neat 
vacant cosmos of my lap. And 
maybe it was those tiny flies, 
phantoms of my aging eyes, seen 
out of the sides floating (that, 
when you turn to find them 
full face, always dissolve) but 
I saw, I think, minuscule, 
marked in clearest ink, Hairs 
#9001 and #9002 fall, the cut-off 
ends streaking little comets, 
till they tumbled to confuse 
with all the others in their 
fizzled heaps, in canyons of my 
lap. And what keeps asking 
in my head now that, brushed off 
and finished, I?m walking 
in the street, is how can those 
numbers remain all the way through, 
and all along the length of every 
hair, and even before each one 
is grown, apparently, through 
my scalp? For, if the hairs of my 
head are numbered, it means 
no more and no less of them 
have ever, or will ever be. 
In my head, now cool and light, 
thoughts, phantom white flies, 
take a fling: This discovery 
can apply to everything. 


Now and then, a red leaf riding 
the slow flow of gray water. 
From the bridge, see far into 
the woods, now that limbs are bare, 
ground thick-littered. See, 
along the scarcely gliding stream, 
the blanched, diminished, ragged 
swamp and woods the sun still 
spills into. Stand still, stare 
hard into bramble and tangle, 
past leaning broken trunks, 
sprawled roots exposed. Will 
something move??some vision 
come to outline? Yes, there? 
deep in?a dark bird hangs 
in the thicket, stretches a wing. 
Reversing his perch, he says one 
?Chuck.? His shoulder-patch 
that should be red looks gray. 
This old redwing has decided to 
stay, this year, not join the 
strenuous migration. Better here, 
in the familiar, to fade.