Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Our Twenty-first Summer, Chimney Swifts,” by Christine Rhein

 

Poet’s Note

I wrote the poem about twelve years ago, and I just don’t remember how it took shape. My guess is that the first sentence came to me (away from my desk) and that, when I sat down to draft the poem, I wanted to keep it sparse in form (a departure from the longer-lined narrative poems that I often write). Perhaps, with the five sections, I was also going for a “bird-flight-like” weave. Or perhaps, as I drafted, I just got out of the way and let the poem carry me along, via recent experiences (we really did have a nest in the chimney, my husband really did not believe me at first) and also via facts I found about swifts.

 

 

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

It can be challenging to find great love poems that celebrate marriage or other long-term romantic relationships—many are lukewarm on the one hand, or fatuously overenthusiastic on the other. I appreciate today’s poem for its deft, sure touch in what can make for a ponderous or obligatory-feeling subject. It’s a highly personal poem that steers clear of confessionalism while offering a few spare, intimate details about the marriage: the speaker has been with her husband for 21 years, they have two sons who are “growing older,” and they still share a warm bed. This portrait of a marriage is quickly sketched with a lightness of touch that mimics the flight of the birds that are also the subject of this poem and porous enough to be expressive of a universal human experience.

In the best poems, as in all writing, no detail is gratuitous, and we can safely assume that the choice of chimney swifts here was no accident. Let’s start with the name, itself a wonderful pun on the mercurial quality of a life against which the weight and security of a long-term relationship can be counterpoised. Add to that the scientific fact that swifts eat, drink, bathe, and—can you imagine it? —even mate on the wing. Physiologically incapable of perching, they rest by clinging to vertical surfaces like trees and cliffs. Significantly for this poem, they mate for life. Highly social, swifts typically hunt and fly in pairs and nest in communities. Swifts’ wing-to-body ratio is very high (“[a] wingspan more than / twice as long as their bodies”) and accounts for their extraordinary flight maneuverability. Couples perform display flights together, dipping and gliding high enough sometimes to be glimpsed by airplane pilots. Before the arrival of European colonists in North America, chimney swifts nested in hollow trees, but now they tend to use human-built structures. Their nests are messy, ephemeral things, shallow brackets of sticks broken from trees and gathered in flight, glued together (and to a vertical plane) with the bird’s saliva.

In today’s poem, the speaker identifies with the birds in a way that feels partly accomplished and partly yearned for. Like them, she is mated for life (well, 21 years and counting) and has borne offspring that, helpless and vulnerable at first (the scientific term is “altricial”), go on to achieve independence. The speaker’s home is perhaps more solid than a swift’s—it has a chimney, after all—but the line “[a] half-saucer is enough,” conveys a kind of admiration for the simpler, adequate dwelling. And while humans do not live “mostly in the air” (unless “air” means the internet!), any busy contemporary couple can appreciate the metaphorical possibilities of the phrase “mating on the wing.” When the speaker describes sitting in her living room hand-in-hand with her husband and listening to the “sound of chirping, / incessant twilight hunger,” we are reminded that she, now in the twilight now of her life, feels that hunger too.

Today’s poem is an example of a Nature Poem or Pastoral, one in which a speaker’s encounter with nature inspires discovery of something larger and true about him or herself or humanity as a whole. [For an extended discussion on the pastoral, see the column featuring Vievee Francis’s “Anti-pastoral.”] The poem begins with the speaker hearing what sounds like birds in the chimney, an experience her husband at first discounts (“You didn’t believe me”) and then embraces when he sees the birds for himself, pouring from the chimney and fluttering around his mowing tractor.

What makes this poem succeed where other married-love poems fail? First and foremost is its restraint, seen in the careful and spare choice of which personal details to reveal and also in the poem’s form: five sections of free verse in very short lines gathered into variable-length stanzas. Diction and syntax are simple and straightforward, a kind of plainsong. This restraint allows Rhein to pull off lines such as “[a]nd this is why I love you” that otherwise might cloy. Another strategy that strengthens this poem is the use of image and action to show rather than tell the reader. For example, we learn why the speaker loves her husband from what he says (presented as direct dialogue) and does, as in his almost childlike delight in watching the birds as “they dove over and over / right in front of the tractor.” Instead of seeing swifts as pests, he researches them, and upon learning they are endangered decides to delay capping the chimney and to build a nesting tower, actions that reveal qualities of tenderness and commitment. I don’t know about you, but by the end of the poem’s second section, I found the husband pretty loveable, too.

To recap, section 1 sets up the event—discovery of swifts in the chimney—that inspires the reader to reflect about her long marriage and also introduces a quickly resolved conflict between husband and wife. Section 2 is the first time the first-person “I” makes an appearance, and it solidifies the union of the speaker and her husband in a mutual appreciation for and desire to protect the birds. Section 3, narrated in first person, opens in the speaker’s mind as she recounts a dream about two swifts loose in the couple’s bedroom. Remembering the old wives’ tale about birds in the house being an omen of death, I initially recoiled from this image, along with other ominous signs, like a clock that is “gone” and an undecipherable message traced by the birds’ flight paths. But the simple and very physical line “I felt your breath on my shoulder” is strongly reassuring and is reinforced by “[t]here was no need to wake.” The couple shares a bed then, and one that seems warm and safe. As with any dream, there are surreal elements like the missing clock and the inscrutable pattern, and we can search for meaning in these, such as the idea that time was standing still. Or, we can just let them be, enjoying the images they paint and their communicated sense of life’s deeper unexplained mysteries.

Up to this point, everything except “[a]nd this is why I love you” has been cast in simple past tense. In section 4, though, and through the rest of the poem, the speaker uses present tense. At first, she muses about the characteristics of swifts, communicating some of the things a Wikipedia entry might tell you: Swifts are literally incapable of perching and only stop moving to clutch briefly to vertical surfaces; they are built for flight; and they are generally monogamous. This focus on the birds’ physical and behavioral traits offers a retreat from the moment of intimacy revealed by the image of the couple in bed and is another strategy employed by Rhein to exercise restraint in the poem.

With 15 lines, the last is the longest of the poem’s five sections. In its first two stanzas, we learn more about the couple’s relationship. They sit together in the living room in a way that feels habitual, listening to the birds and seeming to identify with their “incessant twilight hunger.” They hold hands and speak of two sons who are growing up. With that, the speaker pulls back again and returns to the birds, describing the impulse, even in flight, to keep breaking off twigs needed to keep the nest in order. Because of the way this section begins, though, we can’t help reading the lines about the swifts without seeing how they apply equally to the human couple. They too feel a twilight hunger and can identify with the need, even in the busiest and most distracting of times, to maintain a safe and intact home for their offspring. We intuit approval (or is it a yearning to downsize?) in the description of the simple nest, and in the closing of a pair of swifts “clamped side by side” and clinging to the chimney’s “cliff wall,” we see the speaker and her husband together facing the crevasse of the future. It’s a long, dark way down and their grip is tenuous, but braced against one another, they are stronger together than they would be alone.

A kind of “mature valentine (have you penned yours yet?),” “Our Twenty-First Summer, Chimney Swifts” is an example of two great gifts poetry can offer—appreciation for things often taken for granted and a genuine, deep consolation for the losses that affect us all.

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  • Susan Gunter February 12, 2017 at 6:00 pm

    This is a lovely poem–I am reading it on a sunny day as my husband trims our grape vines. I love this kind of picture of a quiet domesticity that broadens to include all of life.

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