This morning, as I was swimming, the swallows were dipping over the lake, turning, plucking insects hovering on the surface of the water. One of them swooped close enough for me to touch. The lake was still and quiet. We’ve built houses for the violet-green swallows that arrive every spring, maybe offspring of the ones who used to nest in the earlier boxes. When those ones deteriorated, John made new ones of cedar, with an ingenious system for opening the house to clean it in fall. The openings are exactly the dimensions recommended for swallows. Somehow these don’t have the cachet of the ones they replaced, painted plywood boxes made by Bill McNaughton who brought them to our children as gifts 30 years ago. But the chickadees use a couple of the houses John built and a squirrel spent a lot of time last winter enlarging the opening on the one nearest the deck so it could store cones.
I wonder if there’s anything more graceful than a swallow over the water? They come down from the trees, light falling, so swift and graceful. Leontyne Price captures something of that quick beauty in this aria from Puccini’s La Rondine (The Swallow). As I swam back and forth in the green swallow-haunted water, I thought of a poem I wrote long ago, one of the last I wrote, in fact, before that particular muse left me. I might have posted it before but looking for something in a desk drawer the other day, I found it a copy of it on yellowing paper. I’d dedicated it to two friends, now dead, one of whom loved opera and was my guide when I was first listening to singers, thinking of taking voice lessons myself. (I know that he would have preferred Montserrat Cabelle’s Chi il Bel Sogno de Doretta so I’ll link to that too and you can make up your own minds!)
La Rondine (for F. & D.)
Standing on the garden path, forgetting
what I’ve come for, scissors in hand
and a small blue bowl,
I watch the swallows reel and turn.
On two fenceposts of the garden,
wait for the nests of dry grass and feathers,
the round opening of home.
In the years before the swallows,
I came out
in the dark, paused in my thin white nightdress
among the new vines of peas, listening
with one ear for the baby,
one ear for owls. Going back
to the house where a single lamp burned,
softened by moths, I wanted nothing
so much as flowers and children,
of vegetables, my husband turning to me
as I entered our bed, cool from the garden.
Now I feel old among the broadbeans
and the rows of potatoes.
The swallows whirl and call in flight
as ardently as Magda
sang the high sweet notes
of youth and love
and I clip rosemary, fill my small blue bowl
So much still undone, children half-grown.
The swallows fall from the sky
it takes my breath
sometimes their wing-tips just touching,
Imagine being, what, 35, and thinking that you’ve left so much undone. Swimming, the swallows light on the surface of the lake, I want to tell that young woman to linger in the garden, linger among the vines and leaves. Every year the swallows return. And the years too.