“The swallows fall from the sky”


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,
little houses
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
with remembrance.
So much still undone, children half-grown.
The swallows fall from the sky
so sudden
it takes my breath
sometimes their wing-tips just touching,
like fingers.

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.


3 thoughts on ““The swallows fall from the sky””

  1. Oh I so adore this post. I can relate to nearly all of it; have experienced the swallows, the nests we built for them; the garden. The thing that’s missing for me is that I had no lake when we lived on the prairies. We had the tuxedoed tree swallows in their blue finery and were so fortunate to also have two pair of barn swallows. We kept the woodshed open for them from April until their young fledged. I could hardly wait for their return each year. Thank you for this lovely post, your poem, and the memories.

    1. I’m so glad you read it, Diane. I feel lucky when I swim under their graceful swoops and miss them in the little houses. My son kept a journal of the nesting period one year, sketching the parents and nestlings, and he called the smallest one (who was always peering out with its mouth open) Parva (he was taking Latin by correspondence!).

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