Poem of the Week | December 16, 2013

[This text is also available online as part of our TextBox anthology.]
This week we’ve dug up a poem by Mary Swander from our Summer 1981 4.3 issue. Swander is the Poet Laureate of Iowa and a Distinguished Professor at Iowa State University. Her latest book is a play and collection of edited essays called Farmscape.

Author’s note:

The poem was written after a dip in Lost Lake in northwest Iowa on a very hot summer’s day. The world opened up as a mythological place.


Lost Lake



We do not leave our bodies behind.


In each new field
we bury our flesh and carry
our bones with us.
Slipped into a pocket,
we are fists without fingers,
a single tooth, scarred cheek,
a sunken chin.
We are hands opening,
webbed thumbs.


In each new field
our hair drops from our skin,
drifts into the grass,
floats away with our tongues.
We have eaten common
nightshade and jimson,
lips swelling shut.
We have lived
underground like tubers,
wed into the same family,
shoots rising
from our one good eye.


We move on,
sometimes we stop.
We say, the land
is fine here,
then our fists become
clay pots filling
with the bones
of our own fingers.


We move on,
stand inside an old barn,
the boards, ribs caving in.
Our bodies float inside a hull.
float across water,
sink to the bottom
of a lake
where we enter
each other’s house,
peel off our clothes
and lie down
on more solid ground.


Alone all winter,
we only get better.
But if we are touched
when wet, a fungus
will spread through the night
and the stars will swim
into the moon.
And if we are pulled up,
carted off
in the dark,
we will leave holes
that will not fill forever.


Dogs roam our dreams.
We herd inside an old barn,
but ribs crack,
and through the sockets
of a ram’s skull,
we look out on the lake,
the water, a mirror,
and see masks
of our own faces—
joints knit
with plaster,
that never close.


And from our own skulls
we drink water
until the lake is gone,
a crater filled with sand,
and we crinoids,
our spines, stems
bent over.
Then in each new bed,
we lie down.
Grass covers stone.
We slip our hands
inside a body
and we are buried in grain.
In each new field
a harvest begins.




One day we stop,
I say the land is poor
here, but I will raise
sheep on the hills.
Down to bare skin
I will clip fleece
from belly to sternum.
The wool will fall
in one clean piece.
I will wrap myself
in yarn and let the rain
roll off my shoulders.


The rain rolls
down the hills
where the sheep
glean the fields.
They carry away the seeds.
They come back for
the leaves and stems.
They rout underground
for the plants’ few
last threads until
the ground is gone
and their hooves
sink through the mud.
Their bodies disappear
and the rain rolls
down the hills.


The rain drips
through the rafters,
through the fibers of
a ewe and settles
under her skin
where hooves tangle,
legs, heads, bend toward
swollen blue tongues.


Then after the double birthing
we work all night
to stuff the lining
of the ewe
back into its own wall.


With needle and thread
we stitch the lips together
and do not say a word.




We move on
through our own skin,
the veins of
our hearts reversed,
the chambers too small
to pump to our hands.
We are a basin
filling with clay.
We carry our bones
slipped into the pocket
of our chest wall,
the vessels, holes,
fists without fingers,
one hollow muscle,
one hollow muscle.




No door can shut us out.
No bolt can turn us back.
Through the hinge
like the wind you blow.
Through the tongue
of the ewe drinking
its own milk,
you blow.
Through the hay,
the rough boards,
out over the fields of
fox glove and lupine,
into the mouth of
hemlock and hellebore,
you blow.
No door can shut you out.
When the berries of
the carrion plant
swing back and forth
on their weak stems,
through their flesh
like the wind you blow.




You carry me
into the claws of the owl,
its wings, filaments.
A branch sweeps the lake.
We light up the whole night
and moths flutter
around our center.
We are a lamp
on water.


The fog pulls us
along like thread,
pulls us across cliffs.
We settle between stone
and have no need
for roots here.
Water travels
through fibers of air.




We float toward land
and leave the island
of our birth behind.
In winter, we walked
across the ice.
In summer, we rode
in an old man’s boat,
his oars scraping
the waves
as we bailed out
a small leak
in the stern.


Now the weeds
have pushed through
the windows of our houses
and we do not look back,
the sun down,
the man and boat
curled into a leaf blade.
But when I place
my hand in yours,
my palm fills with water.