‘Make/a mockery out of our darkness…’

A Pennsylvanian whose poems boast the occasional demotic intensity, Gerald Stern has quietly amassed a slim collection of lasting work, most of which he collected in Leaving Another Kingdom: Selected Poems, winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize. I enjoy the booming opening of “Swifts”.

Bing Crosby died in Spain
while playing golf with Franco
but who could care less, and at this
writing only a few of
my dear ones are gone—ah I
could make a sad list—the swifts,
as if to prove a point,
fly into the light and make
a mockery out of our darkness.
They scream for food but in
the world of shadows they only
make a quick motion; I have
studied them—the whiter
the wall is—the barer the bulb—
the more they scream, the more
they dip down. I have made
my two hands into a shape
and I have darkened the wall
to see what it looks like—I have
shortened my two broken fingers
to make the small tail and twisted
the knuckles sideways so when
they come in to eat one shadow
overtakes the other, that way
I can live in the darkness
with Franco’s poisonous head
and Crosby’s ears, who fainted,
a thousand to one, behind a
number two club, though no swift
died for him, well, for them,
digging for clubs. I watch the
birds every night; they fly
in a great circle, much larger
than what I can see, their dipping
is what I dreaded in front of
my plain white wall—I say it
for the nine hundred Americans
who died in Spain. I thought
I’d have to wait forever
to do them a tiny justice
and listen to their songs
and die a little from the foolhardy
mournful words, flying down
one air current or another
and doing the sides of buildings
and tops of trees, the low-lying
straggling dogwood, the full-bodied
huge red maple, my dear ones.

Happy February.

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