American Life in Poetry: Column 029


Many of you have seen flocks of birds
or schools of minnows acting as if
they were guided by a common intelligence,
turning together, stopping together.
Here is a poem by
Debra Nystrom that
beautifully describes a flight of
swallows returning to their nests,
acting as if they were of one mind.
Notice how she extends the description
to comment on the way human behavior
differs from that of the birds.

Cliff Swallows
--Missouri Breaks

Is it some turn of wind
that funnels them all down at once, or
is it their own voices netting
to bring them in--the roll and churr
of hundreds searing through river light
and cliff dust, each to its precise
mud nest on the face--
none of our own isolate
groping, wishing need could be sent
so unerringly to solace. But
this silk-skein flashing is like heaven
brought down: not to meet ground
or water--to enter
the riven earth and disappear.

Reprinted from "Torn Sky,"
Sarabande Books, 2004, by permission
of the poet. Copyright (c) 2004 by
Debra Nystrom, an Associate Professor
of English at the University of Virginia.
This weekly column is supported by
The Poetry Foundation, The Library of
Congress, and the Department of English
at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
This column does not accept unsolicited poetry.