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American Life in Poetry

Many of you have seen flocks of birds or schools of minnows acting as if they were guided by a common intelligence, turning together, stopping together. Here is a poem by Debra Nystrom that beautifully describes a flight of swallows returning to their nests, acting as if they were of one mind. Notice how she extends the description to comment on the way human behavior differs from that of the birds.

Cliff Swallows

Missouri Breaks

Is it some turn of wind

that funnels them all down at once, or

is it their own voices netting

to bring them in — the roll and churr

of hundreds searing through river light and cliff dust, each to its precise mud nest on the face — none of our own isolate groping, wishing need could be sent so unerringly to solace. But this silk-skein flashing is like heaven brought down: not to meet ground or water — to enter the riven earth and disappear.

Reprinted from Torn Sky, Sarabande Books, 2004, by permission of the poet. Copyright (c) 2004 by Debra Nystrom, an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia. This weekly column is supported by the Poetry Foundation, the Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry.

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