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Unread 07-01-2022, 07:20 PM
Carl Copeland Carl Copeland is offline
Join Date: Apr 2022
Location: St. Petersburg, Russia
Posts: 362
Default Henry Taylor, “At the Swings”

I’m left cold by a lot of free verse, but this one by Henry Taylor breaks down my resistance entirely. It’s the concluding poem in his 1986 Pulitzer Prize–winning collection The Flying Change. A week and a half ago Mr. Taylor turned 80.

                 At the Swings

           Midafternoon in Norfolk,
late July. I am taking our two sons for a walk
    away from their grandparents’ house; we have
    directions to a miniature playground,
       and I have plans to wear them down
           toward a nap at five,

           when my wife and I
will leave them awhile with her father. A few blocks
    south of here, my wife’s mother drifts from us
    beneath hospital sheets, her small strength bent
       to the poisons and the rays they use
           against a spreading cancer.

           In their house now, deep love
is studying to live with deepening impatience
    as each day gives our hopes a different form
    and household tasks rise like a powdery mist
       of restless fatigue. Still, at five
           my wife and I will dress

           and take the boulevard
across the river to a church where two dear friends
    will marry; rings will be blessed, promises kept
    and made, and while our sons lie down to sleep,
       the groom’s niece, as the flower girl,
           will almost steal the show.

           But here the boys have made
an endless procession on the sides, shrieking down
    slick steel almost too hot to touch; and now
    they charge the swings. I push them from the front,
       one with each hand, until at last
           the rhythm, and the sunlight

           that splashes through live oak
and crape myrtle, dappling dead leaves on the ground,
    lull me away from this world toward a state
    still and remote as an old photograph
       in which I am standing somewhere
           I may have been before:

           there was this air, this light,
a day of thorough and forgetful happiness;
    where was it, or how long ago? I try
    to place it, but it has gone for good,
       to leave me gazing at these swings,
           thinking of something else

           I may have recognized—
an irrecoverable certainty that now,
    and now, this perfect afternoon, while friends
    are struggling to put on their cutaways
       or bridal gowns, and my wife’s mother,
           dearer still, is dozing

           after her medicine,
or turning a small thing in her mind, like someone
    worrying a ring of keys to make small sounds
    against great silence, and while these two boys
       swing back and forth against my hand,
           time’s crosshairs quarter me

           no matter where I turn.
Now it is time to go. The boys are tired enough,
    and my wife and I must dress and go to church.
    Because I love our friends, and ceremony,
       the usual words will make me weep:
           hearing the human prayers

           for holy permanence
will remind me that a life is much to ask
    of anyone, yet not too much to give
    to love. And once or twice, as I stand there,
       that dappled moment at the swings
           will rise between the lines,

           when I beheld our sons
as, in the ways of things, they will not be again,
    though even years from now their hair may lift
    a little in the breeze, as if they stood
       somewhere along their way from us,
           poised for a steep return.
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Unread 07-02-2022, 02:07 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 6,630

Yup, that is quite lovely - thanks for posting. He manages simplicity very well, and sustains the space needed to write that long poem.

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Unread 07-02-2022, 05:02 AM
Joe Crocker Joe Crocker is offline
Join Date: Sep 2020
Location: York
Posts: 453

The boys' lifting hair at the arc of the swing always caught in time's crosshairs. That makes you catch your breath. Beautiful.
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Unread 07-02-2022, 08:50 AM
Carl Copeland Carl Copeland is offline
Join Date: Apr 2022
Location: St. Petersburg, Russia
Posts: 362

Yes, the last stanza gives me shivers too. I’ve always wondered about “poised for a steep return.” A steep return on the swings is clear, but later in life, when the boys are “somewhere along their way from us,” what does the return mean? A trip home? Eventually one to take care of elderly parents? Just musing.

Last edited by Carl Copeland; 07-02-2022 at 02:19 PM.
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