Wild Geese

Wild Geese

Mid-March. The wild geese are back in the field in front of our house. They remind me of something I wrote back in November when they were heading the other way! Here it is:

This morning a flock of more than 150 wild geese flew overhead, the cacophony of their calls a perfected music. And later, I saw Trumpeter swans lazing on Quamichan Lake, near Duncan, British Columbia, sight and sound gone liquid. And the goslings, surely big enough now to be called young swans, floated with their necks cursive to the nib of beak asleep in each planet of back feathers, not yet, pure white.

And then, of a sudden, the adult swans’ woken-wings drummed the lake awake and something, sound, air’s absence, lifted them, lifted them, flying. And I, rooted to the spot, to this home by a lake, felt the absence of my own returnings, rhythms a season forgot to leave in my blood. But then, why this restlessness? Am I somehow still the exile, wanderer, wanting like these birds, the salmon, to make my way home? And what is, where is that home place if not where I live now?

Migrations, exile, leaving home, never coming back. These thoughts that fly in my mind on the wings and calls of migrating birds find unexpected company in a book. In a conversation contained in a language of railtracks, arrivals and departures. In a conversation between octogenarian John Berger – poet, artist, essayist and polymath (born in England but now living in France) –and Canadian novelist and poet Anne Michaels in their collaboration Railtracks published in 2012 by Counterpoint Press. Come close in. Overhear them:

JB – Ambushed by history, by the stench of dislocation, by every smell that does not belong to you, there is always one memory, one face that remains.

The man who has left his wife and his children, his old mother and his old father, does not yearn in his night for abstractions. He longs for the Sunday afternoon with his wife in their bed, for one word more than any other in his mother tongue. Both his politics and his despair are for a specific desire. And every migrant works for or against this reunion.

AM – A human migrant may never understand the language in which he dies.

When an animal migrates, the return in part of its journey. One could say an animal migrates for the sake of its return.

There is a man, perhaps he is your father too, born in the earliest years of this [20th] century, who no longer remembers his family, or how he earned his living, or where he lives… but still he remembers the moment he stepped from the train – via the great port cities of Gdansk, Le Havre, and Montreal – and entered the vastness of Union Station [Toronto].

Now with memories of how we leave and arrive — the sounds and smells– and the where –train station, airport, a driveway – listen to Canadian poet Stephanie Bolster as she remembers:

Train Windows

The first train came to me
like an unstoppable force.
I stood aside at Fredericton Junction
and let the speed and flare approach.
Wind flailed my hair, the gathered dark

dispersed. I found my room
of pull-out bed and pull-up blind.
A solitude so rare, uncracked, I
couldn’t sleep. Morning: I tugged

the shade and empty ponds appeared.
We were that close to something;
the surface still rippled.
We were late for Montreal, New York,

for the years that would come, were gone,
were here. Years of blurred views through
windows. The engine approached,
I was alone, I held my breath

and didn’t let it out. And haven’t.

Stephanie Bolster (1969 – ) from Pavillions, McClelland & Stewart, 2002

The years that would come, were gone/ were here. Time unloosed. Poetry’s prerogative. Do we not live somehow, somewhere in all three dimensions – past, present, future – simultaneously?

When I sit with Bolster’s poem, I absorb her strong nouns, the energy that flares and ripples in her lines. Then I remember, imagine, the raw, wild sounds of migrating geese or swans. I let the sounds disturb and disorient me and take me back to my own migrations, my own displacements – city to city, home to home. And I remember poems of migrating geese and other birds that bring me home to myself. Here is a selection including Lorna Crozier, Mary Oliver, Ruth Stone, Albert Goldbarth and Denise Levertov. First, here is Crozier’s poem. What a Canadian poetic treasure she is!


Have they begun their journey
to the nesting grounds?

If I could I would warn them, too soon,
too soon. Is there nothing you can do?

Everything’s still hard here
under the moon. Wind makes it swing

on hinges like a sigh made out of tin.
Truly, I can hear it creaking.

The body also moves
before the beloved has prepared

the fires and the feasting.
When I raise my head it is you

I praise, this waking into wind’s
slow change of seasons,

wings lifting under the great
glittering belly of the bear.

Lorna Crozier (1948 – ) from the Blue Hour of the Day, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2007

Have you or I moved too soon? Left what’s safe? Felt this bitter loneliness? If I could I would warn them, too soon,/ too soon. Is there nothing you can do?//Everything’s still hard here/ under the moon. Wind makes it swing// on hinges like a sigh made out of tin.

I can’r resist including the well-known Mary Oliver poem, Wild Geese. For all its popularity it still carries a charge for me every time I read it. It reminds me that the world offers itself to my imagination;  that I am not separate from the world around me.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver (1935 – ) from New and Selected Poems Volume One, Beacon Press, 1992

Here, the geese represent something so comforting in their heading home again. A sense that no matter where we are we can find a home to feel known in. That the cry of the geese signals, not a dislocation nor exile, but a being known, and not apart from the life around us.

As much as I like what this poem says I like even more how it says it. The first two thirds of the poem is driven by the stressed, repeated words at the beginning of the line. First, you, repeated three times, then the imperative Tell which is echoed by tell later in the line. Then Meanwhile drives the poem forward. A rhythm of return, a rhythm that is as reliable as the return of the geese year after year. She also gets away with using tons of abstractions like lonely, love, despair, imagination, and good because they are balanced by her strong images. Especially: you do not have to walk on your knees.

Never well know until the last years of her long life, American poet Ruth Stone is a stand-out. Her poems have a freshness to them, a wonderful balance of comedy and tragedy so that even when her poems deal with the life-long grief for the death of her husband (and many of them do) they retain their poetic integrity, never become mawkish or self-pitying.

You can see your strong voice in her poem Currents. It is full of unexpected moments, syntax and language. Especially in the beginning: her syntax is chopped up, truncated. Gorgeous this line with all its stresses: Ego, vanity, the male strut! And how about that Cleopatra metaphor! Where did that come from? And Great sperm bank of the galaxy! That took a confident writer with guts!


Something about a flock of birds toward evening.
The weather report sleet, snow.
The hot males riding ahead,
the swamp ridged in last year’s cattails.
Ego, vanity, the male strut.
Oh, that burr and sweetest whistle,
their hearts pumped out with thrush steroids.
In another week, perhaps a quick melt
and we’ll hear them clinging to the old stalks,
staking out their claims
while from the south
the slow shadow of the migrating females
like Cleopatra’s barge,
the oars dipping,
the fringed canopy
like clouds of sweet rain
rippling behind.
The eternal tribal ritual,
the dense flock, undulating
packet of the future –
great sperm bank of the galaxy,
the billions of the separate
that gathers itself into the one,
summer after summer.

Ruth Stone (1915 -2011) from What Loves Comes To – New and Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press. 2011

Albert Goldbarth, the unprecedented two-time winner of the National Book Critics Award (1990 and 2001) is known for his discursive “ultra-talk” poems. He packs them with information, wit and wisdom. There is a detached drollery in many of them that can be deftly undercut by unexpected seriousness that can land like a fist on a reader’s unsuspecting chin! Here is his migration poem October:

Another poem struck into being by seeing
a vee of geese overhead, a wing-shape
that’s composed of its several dozen element-wings
on loan to the greater body. This becomes an argument
(of isolation versus community) given immediate,
visible form; a stream is taking the mountain
away, but at a pace we’ll never see—unlike
this sky-adorning passage timed
by mere coincidence to human comprehension.
And we learn, by the absorption of these single, scattered creatures
into one majestic pattern, how a proper use
of “beauty” is in service
to “beatitude”—the rising of a concept
into something more, some larger, further order
of existence. I suspect I’m not
the only one who’s stood here with the groceries leaking
out of the paper bag, and the volts that bump in the heart
like small trapped minnows of longing, and our evanescence
burning in the way that a leaf is a green flame
on its ordained path to orange—here, defined
by “the futility of work in the face of destruction”
(the phrase is Rachel Cohen’s)—and looked up
to imagine he belonged with them, but
was abandoned, missed the call
to gather and to lift as one, so now
can only stare at their increasing distance,
maybe in the way that, once, the Lost Tribes
looked to see the rest of Israel
continue warring and praying and sowing
and loving by starlight
into the future without them.

Albert Goldbarth (1948 – ) from Everyday People, Greywolf Press, 2012

Ah, the melancholy in these lines: looked up/ to imagine he belonged with them, but/ was abandoned, missed the call. Stephen Dobyns, the American poet and essayist, says a poem should have three essentials: images, thought and feeling. This poem has them all. And it displays a wonderful tonal variation. The overt intellectualism of the first half is displaced suddenly by the startling image of the speaker with the groceries leaking out of the paper bag and the surprising metaphor that compares the speaker to the Lost Tribes of Israel.

I couldn’t resist including this last poem of migrating sparrows by Denise Levertov. Levertov is considered one of the fine and important American poets of the 20th Century. (Her collected poems just came out last year with an introduction by the Irish/American poet Eaven Boland.)

Not Yet

A stealth in air that means:

the swallows have flown
south while I flew
north again.

Still, in the quiet there are
to make me grudgingly smile
and crickets curious about
my laundry put out to bleach
on brown grass.

So I do smile.
What else to do?
Melancholy is boring.

And if the well goes dry –
and it has;
and if the body count goes up –
and it does;
and if the summer spent
itself before I took it
into my life –?

Nothing to do but take
crumbs that fall from the chickadee’s table
— or starve.
— But the time for starving is not yet.

Denise Levertov (1923 – 1997) from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov, New Directions Books, 2013

What a last line – But the time for starving is not yet. There is such a sense of resiliency in this poem. There is the same sense of loss as in Goldbarth’s poem but in this case caused by the double migration: of her and the birds.

No matter my own dislocations, my own restlessness, these poets and their poems remind me to cherish my own seasons of  of departure and return; to feel the stir in my blood when I hear the calls of the wild geese overhead.


  1. Heidi Garnett
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Richard, how relevant your migrations theme is to my own life and my inner journeying to find “home”. Your selection of poems reminds me of a poem I recently wrote about the Anhalter Bahnhof in Berlin which no longer exists, but is well documented in photographs taken by Bourke-White in 45-46, the awful spectacle of eastern refugees clinging to the trains’ every protuberance. I marvel at how my parents found their way from Gdansk to Berlin, January, 1946, the last miles by train. There is something poignant about the sound tracks make, the clickety-clack of time passing and this longing to follow the tracks to their end, to see what awaits us where the track narrows to a point on the horizon.

  2. Richard
    Posted April 5, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Heidi: I know your journey “home” will be the subject of many books to come! Blessings and thanks.

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