Barn swallows dart up in a drowsing field.
The faint iridescence of their wings
flickers and darkens like a subterranean fire.
Long ago there was a people who believed
that swallows could travel to the continent of the dead —
but these birds are only birds alarmed
by footsteps in the grass. They didn’t cross
the Acheron — they came from Yucatan or Belize —
although it’s possible to see why these aviators
were believed to fly between the living
and the dead, navigating as if out of the earth
or by a sense quite different from ordinary vision.
These birds were said to carry messages
between the dead and those they’d left behind.
Perhaps someone once thought that swallows
shuttled like thought or startled as if with desire,
moving as the living wish their words
to move, defying prohibitions of the air
in order to obey their own deep needs,
as we on earth might want to speak in love —
withholding nothing, for we have so much to say,
even to those who’ve not yet left our shore.
How slow and unwieldy the world must seem
by comparison: the steadier trees and blackbirds,
the cautious breaths of trees — as if waiting for,
then giving up the chance to speak.
Perhaps it’s not so different on that other coast —
although they may have grown more patient without bodies —
but when the swallows come and there is still no word,
to watch these birds must be a torment there.
Sonnet for Wiscasset, Maine by Thibault Raoult
The Swallows by Carol Quinn