Gettysburg Review
Gettysburg College | Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

John Brehm

Swifts

        For my father

Early fall, the light thin and brittle, and if
it’s true that deprivation is a gift,
I accept the gift. I walk down
to Wallace Park to watch the swifts
that roost every September
in the Chapman School’s tall
brick chimney. The charming swifts
with their long, forked tails
and swept-back wings,
ten thousand of them swerving
and darting in the evening sky,
a flowing, expandable spiral
of birds, clearing the air of insects
and riveting the wandering
human mind. Tonight there must be
three hundred spectators,
a whole hillside of us, ordinary people
whose wings fell off eons ago,
who traded flight for speech
and have regretted it ever since,
sodden and earthbound as we are,
except for our lifted eyes, our oohs and ahs
that show we’re still alive when
the peregrine falcon dives in
and knifes one out of the air,
which we boo or cheer,
sometimes simultaneously.
We love this passion play of form
and formlessness,
the birds’ shifting patterns
flung out like a whiplash of water
or school of fish above
the stationary human school,
then drawn tight together,
a miracle they don’t crash into each other,
a miracle of echolocation, until
you see them as they truly are:
a single organism, a body made mostly
of air and quick decisions, jagged
motions that gradually cohere—
a poem, in other words.
It takes the flock a full twenty minutes
to funnel down into the chimney,
and it seems a living smoke
pulled back into a still and sleeping fire,
so beautiful I forget for a moment
my father’s death, or I turn my mind
away from it or, no, I open
my grief to accommodate this wonder
and wonder what he might have thought of it,
were we standing here together,
the kind of thing we never did, and now
will never do, except in my imagination—
that unchanging inner sky where the swifts
take flight whenever I want them to
and my father cannot die.


John Brehm is the author of two books of poems, Sea of Faith and Help Is on the Way, which has an invisible subtitle: But It Will Not Arrive. Both are from the University of Wisconsin Press. He lives in Portland, Oregon. His nearly completed new book is called Big Talk, Small Talk. For more about John, go to www.johnbrehm.net.

“Swifts” appears in our Winter 2013 issue.