Robert Farnsworth

MUTE SWANS                                                                                                               
                       for D.S.

At first I meant to join you opening
shutters, but instead slipped inside
to watch the musty light slant in
as you creaked them up to their hooks.
Your face peered in then from a future
I’d only have dreamed, had I fallen     
asleep inside the lodge thirty years ago.  
A part of me had. I would know this
all day by the smell: sooty field-stones,
birch and cedar logs a century old,
and the sweet pewter pond, whose blues
and greens we were there to savor, whose
night mists we were there to breathe.
Later, two swans and their cygnet
shadowed our canoe across an evening
so still that lilies swiping the hull sounded
loud as white water. In woods where once
the Narragansetts wintered, shadows steeped.

Amazing after thirty years to hear just
mumbles of traffic from the big bay bridges,
after ninety years still to enjoy what novel--
thumbing, cribbaging forbears meant
by holiday. Everywhere else, vicious wars,
gadgets assembled in the sky, suburban         
encrustations long since snuffed the placid
lives they led, erased them even from
memories avid for the encouragement of ghosts.
But five cartons of clear water always left
by the iron pump are meant to sustain the icy
braid where they plunged their vanished hands.
So as the pair swanned out of the dusk,
and swiveled a level stare at us, shouldn’t
we have asked what would become of our regrets,
so carefully collected but never displayed,
of the starving languages of custom, of our
own children when the swans no longer return
to the rushes, now too well succeeding in
the pond’s east end? We might have asked just
how we’d been sounding from within the deserted
woods across the pond.  We might have asked.
But chased cards & drinks & laughter instead
until kerosene light made phantoms of us all.
Our children slept as once we slept. But when,
next day, hanging paddles in the boathouse,
I had my back to the bright morning doorway,
there  was that sforzando hiss--harsh
behind me, seizing my shoulder-blades with dread,
as when at seven, swimming through golden weeds
with my lump of breath, I surfaced to see them
swing toward me, their wing feathers hackled,
and when I turned, lurching from terror to
hilarity, there you were, smirking at the door.
Your nudging gift to me, too gloomily
contemplative by half. By habit. Let’s keep it,
then, in the dark lodge we’d later shut and latch
the shutters on again, and here, something droll
and certain, to recollect between us, to prompt
returns to that lost world, and dare belief in it again.


Next morning my son
comes customarily down                
with his blanket, asks
for some of this hot coffee,
touches this shoulder
of mine with his scratched
hand. Strict sunlight slants
into the bag of maps
and tools I bent to gather
in the snowy clearing,
even as the canted tire
went on digging a trough
of icy mud, and the yellow
flasher, popped from its
socket, blinked. Snow,
pine sprigs, idling
breeze, pale green piles
of crushed window. Not
until I rise from my chair,
touch his nape with my
scratched finger, pour
his cup, and arrive before
the clock, am I here.
Saturday. Gently to wind
the old toothed wheel
back beneath its verge. Not
until I step with the dog
into sharp January air
do I discover three
emerald chips fallen into
my glove’s warm finger,
and find myself regretting
how it fades: that wild,
barreling hurtle my
shoulders have, in honor,
in spite, been keeping like
the very secret all night.


In the crystal-handled safety razor
function follows form, at a discreet
aesthetic distance. Swallowed
like a sherpa in a blizzard of foam,
it will climb your calf's exquisite
curve, then rinsed, outshine the water.
Believe what you can acquire.
Although you might outlive these
pleasures in hard luck, or stuck
on so-called treasures of the spirit,
let others writhe on homely sheets;
you were born for the silken camisole.

Avail yourself of summer as you will.
Let the dusky pier boys fawn over you,
your perfect flanks gone gold with sun,
your little espadrilles. Then vanish
into the courtyard, and beneath
the bougainvilleas' inhabited petals,
savor some of what they gave you
for your nose. Father's out back polishing
brass appointments on his yacht. Shake
out your yellow hair--rest within its cool
shelter a while.  Perhaps I have over-

drawn you. Perhaps not yet. I have been
looking on in lives like yours, with my
invisible, self-satisfied derision--the diary
of hair you brush out so each night, thrill
to think of cutting. Why I bear you such
particular malice isn't clear--maybe
you seem a primal appetite, hungering
Pandora, fingering the latch. On Saturday
I drift the opulent mall, with its live palms
and carp pools. Young people mutter
and laugh among the clothing stores.

And I'm like, I'm like, I'm like, they
say--like birds the crooked hangers
squeak along the racks. I'm like, I'm
like--whatever I am wearing, whatever
in this bag has purchased me. Think
of the security camera's ghostly
penetration of the bags boarding planes.
It cannot see the razor's crystal handle;
it knows us by our tools, as if we’d been
dead a thousand years. Next week you
are on your way into a season whose

catalogues are now just being shot
and given copy--coy, bold-color
sentences, suggesting a life like yours is
not just possible, but at hand. You're on
your way, and won't it all just hone you--
the Alpine air, the bergamot soap,
the perfect reserva, little storms of gypsy
fiddling in cafes. I know there is nothing
so sentimental as a class contempt, that
envious, arrogant hatred, seed of slaughter
seeking sunlight. You believe what you

can acquire. But perhaps your life is not
unexamined (or no more so than my own),
not without its violent, self-denying solitudes,
and its fearful moments. This afternoon,
in your mother's gallery, you’ll find a large
wasp, washing its head, obscenely flexing
its dangerous abdomen, scissoring its wings,
each portion of its tenuously-connected body
menacing you. It will stand there in a cage
of sunlight, on the stack of exhibit programs.
You will go in empty-handed.


The highway median (young pines
standing in patchy snow, birches
limbering) goes on vanishing into
the convex rear-view mirror. Twice
his foot goes cold and tingles, twice
he nearly nods off to the restrained,
intelligent joy of her voice, poised
a few rows behind him, on laughter's
verge or a sigh. He knows her to be
a remarkable woman--they talked
last year on this same route, all
the way back in the dark. Seatbacks
muffle most of her words, but isn't
he happy just cherishing the mirror,
the paradox of its bulging center
where the lane stripes disappear.
It's a moment, meant or meaning unto
itself, and he couldn't tell her or anyone
what the mirror's appetite means . . .
all gone into the light. That's all.  
Just two hundred yards of the past
hang on beside the bus--her voice
contains six hard, generous decades.
A whole spring landscape pours into
the mirror. They are all riding north
to sing a Requiem . . . .  Concealed in
his revisable observations, promises
he makes to himself, he's startled
when shame, or is it fear, spreads
over his scalp.  Her words linger
far away within the engine's drone,
as in a farther room, where curtains blow
and tender voices rise and fall together.

Robert Farnsworth

Robert Farnsworth's two collections of poems, Three Or Four Hills And  A Cloud and Honest Water, were published by Wesleyan University Press.  Recent poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Antioch Review, Smiths Knoll (U.K.), Malahat Review (Canada), Triquarterly, and Ploughshares.  His work has won a PEN Discovery Award (2005), and for seven weeks this past summer, he was the resident poet at The Frost Place in Franconia, NH.



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