Posted by: John Looker | 20 November, 2011

ARTFUL DODGERS

This is the second of two poems on the same theme:

 

ARTFUL DODGERS 

That vanishing trick of swallows
and then their “Abracadabra
we’re back!”
baffled us down the ages. 

Each summer, all summer long,
they dare-devil low and fast
over the lakes and fields;
then they’re gone. 

Who would imagine these feathered darts,
these off-cuts of cloud,
could fly away farther than Man had travelled
to lands undreamt of?

Hibernation however: that filled the gap,
that explanation appealed –
even the theory, daft as a duck,
that swallows wintered in the mud of ponds. 

Why would these sparks of sun and air,
free as the angels,
sink to the half-lit, slow-moving, medium
of fish?

But, as we know, the human mind
– whooping and wheeling –
has always flown, fast and low,
over the facts and lacunae.

© John Stevens

 

You can read the first of these two poems at:
https://johnstevensjs.wordpress.com/2011/10/21/secret-commands/  

Photograph: ‘Deciphering’ by Hannah Stoney, reproduced with permission from her website at http://thethinks.com/ 

There is also an exquisite painting of birds in flight over a winter landscape on the ExtraSimile blog. Take a look, at http://extrasimile.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/untitled-8/  

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Responses

  1. it was good to find this waiting for me when
    I opened up the iPod. thanks John for
    another good one!

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  2. What lovely imagery you have used here: ‘feathered darts’; ‘off-cuts of cloud’; and ‘sparks of sun and air’. I love the way you lead us through your thoughts in this poem, without being heavy handed. We humans like simple, ‘off-the-shelf’ explanations, and in accepting them, we can miss so much and learn so little. I very much like your flight metaphor for the human mind, which fits so seamlessly with the rest of the poem. Very thought-provoking and beautifully written.

    I’m glad it led me back to read the previous poem too.

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    • Thank you – I’m glad you liked it, and I’m very pleased that you thought that the ‘human mind’ element turned out ok.

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  3. Hi John, 🙂 I love this poem, yes, how do they do it, like a magician’s trick, they pop up again as if something so little could really fly so far, they make us wonder what is possible and what not and you described it beautifully.

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    • Hi Ina. Obviously they make a big impression on you too!

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      • 🙂 They do! And geese going South as well. I recently did a poem about them btw.

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  4. I’m a big fan of idea poems. I like the suggestion (even if it’s just my own take) that we may be as the swallows. And I’m puzzled, too, by why we’d sink to the half-lit, slow-moving medium of fish if we’re the swallows in the poem. Or if we share an angelic spark with them, as it were.

    The title leaves me thinking, too.

    Very much enjoyed!

    -jeff

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    • I’m rather pleased that you’ve found these two poems interesting for the ideas they attempted, Jeff. And in your reading of them you are indeed on the same track as I was. I’m grateful to you for commenting.
      I’m glad the title appealed too. Artful dodgers? The swallows of course, but I would suggest our own minds too, often in self-deception (and probably mine more than anyone’s).

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  5. Oh, what a wonderful way to start my Monday morning, John. As BH commented, ‘Feathered darts, off-cuts of cloud, sparks of sun and air’ are perfect images, beautifully observed and so vivid. There are so many ideas, big and small, in the antural world for those of us who take the time to find them. I love this poem – thank you so much.

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    • That’s very generous Nick. Actually I would recommend anyone who appreciates poems about nature and landscape to visit your own blog.

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  6. In strange synchronicity – the last two days we have had a swallow flying around our garden in the late afternoon just as it gets dark. Yesterday as I drove home the road ahead was suddenly filled with hundreds of swallows swooping and darting, a breath taking sight. There is something about them that draws you in as they “dare-devil low and fast” , a curiosity that makes you want to go along for the ride – even only in your mind – whether to the mysterious depths of the pond in winter or to the “lands undreamt of ” on the other side of the world.

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    • What a wonderful experience – it must have been breathtaking – how lucky! I haven’t seen anything quite as stunning as that this autumn, but maybe there’s time yet.

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  7. Amazing images, as always…

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  8. Yes, I’ve too have been thinking of birds. Your other correspondents have correctly pointed out how sharply described these swallows are. ‘Off-cuts of clouds’ is perfect; it confronts my thought patterns anew at each reading. ‘Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest.’
    But one suspects this poem has an interest in mud too. After all, that human mind—oh so swallow-like—keeps flying over facts (is the world made up of facts?) and (the ever present?)lacunae. And what is the greater act of imagination, to think these birds fly to South Africa or to think they sink down into the primordial slime? Well, a lot of the earth’s creatures do hibernate. And swallows do make nests from mud…
    Another whoop and swoop I like is:
    Abracadabra
    we’re back!”
    baffled us down the ages.
    Kind of like the flowers saying ‘Hocus Pocus, we’re crocuses’. No, I’d better save that for spring. But we do swoop right past that missing ‘had’—or ‘has’—‘baffled’—and that is tricky.
    And let’s go ahead and answer the question asked here.
    Well, there are two. The second one, though, seems to force us into lands we can’t quite imagine from the first. Maybe they do end up in the mud each winter, those swallows. Maybe all sparks go out, empty as an evening’s entertainment watching songbirds sing. Frogs can sing too, you know. They don’t winter in Cape Town. They don’t return to Capistrano. At least there are no songs about it.
    Talk about your daffy ideas. Plato thought to explain his by sitting us in chains in a cave. Imagine the sun is not a fire at the back of the cave, that there is something other than shadows. Maybe all thought is zig. Then zag.
    Maybe this poem is artful, and dodging too.
    Jim
    (Glad you liked my picture. It kind of goes with this poem. And it kind of does not go with it too.)

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    • Thanks Jim – I’m always interested in your reactions so I’m relieved you find the piece of sufficient interest for some close reading. It’s pretty slight, I know.
      I’m rather pleased however that you raise the question of what is the poem going on about! I had an idea of where I was going with it personally (a daffy idea, sure!) but I’m happy that it leaves the door open to various interpretations. More a kind of zigzag of ideas, in your phrase.
      Should I have said “had [or have] baffled” and not just “baffled”? I said ‘had’ in the first draft but dropped it to preserve an ambiguity about whether we fully understand even now. Tell me if I’m wrong.
      I’ll wait eagerly for your springtime poem: “Hocus Pocus! I’m a crocus!”
      And I hope people will follow the link I gave above to the exquisite painting you’ve posted on your own site.

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      • I was being a little ‘impressionistic’ this morning—but my point about using ‘had’ or ‘has’ is the same as yours. To use either makes the situation definite. Either it’s over or it’s not. To leave them both off the page is canny—and good, if that’s what you want to say—which you do.
        One crocus? No, far too easy a rhyme. Is the plural of crocus, croci, crocae, crocus, crocuses? And then do they have to announce hocus pocuses? Hocus poci? If Pocahontas is picking crocuses for a magic trick, in which she is going to be turned into two Pocahontases, the second Pocahontas must be a bogus Pocahontas no matter how many crocuses focus the hocus pocuses…anyway, to turn one Pocahontas into two Pocahontases must be a form of mitosis…and to do that more than once…
        Okay, I’ll stop. I may be on the other side of the Atlantic, but I can hear you groaning.
        And, yes, there was a marked upswing in people looking at my latest picture today. Thanks.
        …you must say, Hocus pocuses Pocahontases over crocuses in which many mitosises focuses hocus poci Pocahontae so the croci foci…

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        • Ha ha! Did you manage to stop there, or did the internet server cut you off in mid flow? 🙂

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  9. Wonderful swooping rhythm to this, John. It’s pace really emotes the flicker of watching them. It’s good to be back and even better to know I can come by and read good quality like this. 🙂

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    • That’s really kind Narnie – thank you!

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  10. I just finished re-reading your swallow poems. The idea in them is wonderful, to begin with, and then you metamorphose the idea into a telling comment. I have always said that a poem should mean, not say, following an idea originally expressed by Archibald MacLeish, an American poet. But in the case of this particular poem what you do is say, make a point, but you do so in a way that is so metaphorical that the saying also means. This is a good trick. You really are a great poet. I found you on another great poet’s site, the one by David Agnew, and I’m grateful to both David and you. There is nothing as fine in the world as a good poem or a good pair of poems.

    Like

    • This is an especially helpful comment – thank you (Ethel or Thomas?).
      You are very complimentary (too complimentary!) but you are also frank enough to pose a challenging question about the poem, and I like that; it makes me stop and think. Other visitors to this site do this from time to time and it’s invaluable to have a critical reading from people who think a great deal about poetry, as you do. Jim Kleinhenz (at ExtraSimile) is another who has been a helpful critic.
      I know the MacLeish poem you have in mind: his Ars Poetica. It’s a good reference point for you to give me – a reminder to let the poems just ‘mean’, as you put it, and not shout too much.
      Thanks again.

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  11. I remember how fierce and bat-like the swallows of my youth were. I’ve often thought to write about the swallow infested barn. My most vivid memory is of the way I’d cower under my own raised arms as I approached the barn, and then I’d set to work at rescuing all the baby swallows that had fallen out of their nests, that littered the barn floor…quite a sight and quite a mixture of things, and the smell… This poem of your brings me back there…thank you.

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    • What a fascinating story! I’ve never had an experience quite like that! Thank you for mentioning it.

      Like

  12. Love the artful flow and play of ideas. So you’ve read Dickens?

    Like


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