Nemerov’s “The Blue Swallows”

I wouldn’t classify Howard Nemerov as a nature poet because only a small percentage of his poems are about nature, but I bought his Collected Poems because I liked the poems I read in The Blue Swallows (1967), and my favorite poem in that collection is the title poem, which may very well turn out to be my favorite poem in the entire book, though I have another hundred pages to read:

THE BLUE SWALLOWS

Across the millstream below the bridge
Seven blue swallows divide the air
In shapes invisible and evanescent,
Kaleidoscopic beyond the mind’s
Or memory’s power to keep them there.

“History is where tensions were,”
“Form is the diagram of forces.”
Thus, helplessly, there on the bridge,
While gazing down upon those birds—
How strange, to be above the birds!—
Thus helplessly the mind in its brain
Weaves up relation’s spindrift web,
Seeing the swallows’ tails as nibs
Dipped in invisible ink, writing…

Poor mind, what would you have them write?
Some cabalistic history
Whose authorship you might ascribe
To God? to Nature? Ah, poor ghost,
You’ve capitalized your Self enough.
That villainous William of Occam
Cut out the feet from under that dream
Some seven centuries ago.
It’s taken that long for the mind
To waken, yawn and stretch, to see
With opened eyes emptied of speech
The real world where the spelling mind
Imposes with its grammar book
Unreal relations on the blue
Swallows. Perhaps when you will have
Fully awakened, I shall show you
A new thing: even the water
Flowing away beneath those birds
Will fail to reflect their flying forms,
And the eyes that see become as stones
Whence never tears shall fall again.

O swallows, swallows, poems are not
The point. Finding again the world,
That is the point, where loveliness
Adorns intelligible things
Because the mind’s eye lit the sun.

Animal metaphors are so deeply ingrained in not only our literature but our very language that it is far too easy to think of them metaphorically, “Seeing the swallows’ tails as nibs/ Dipped in invisible ink, writing.”

There’s also a natural tendency to see ourselves reflected in nature, or at the very least, like the Puritans, to think that God reveals himself to us through nature, “Poor mind, what would you have them write?/ Some cabalistic history/ Whose authorship you might ascribe/ To God?”

You’d be forgiven if you thought that this was my favorite poem simply because blue-colored tree swallows are one of my favorite photographic subjects:

Tree Swallow

but, like Nemerov, I’d argue that photographs are not

The point. Finding again the world,
That is the point, where loveliness
Adorns intelligible things
Because the mind’s eye lit the sun.

3 thoughts on “Nemerov’s “The Blue Swallows”

  1. Hi Loren,

    I’m fond of this poem also and have been thinking about since I first read it here. I’m interested in your thoughts about Nemerov’s use of quotation marks in the poem.

    “History is where tensions were,”
    “Form is the diagram of forces.”

    I don’t have a good feel for what that’s about.

    Thanks for making us aware of the poem.

  2. I’m not sure why those lines are in quotes, Jon, though I think they both refer back to the lines “In shapes invisible and evanescent,/ Kaleidoscopic beyond the mind’s/ Or memory’s power to keep them there.” Googling the lines, strangely enough, brings me back to this entry, and then to other citations of Nemerov’s poems, and nowhere else.

    The narrator’s mind seems to try to make some kind of “sense” or see some message in the shapes, and perhaps these lines suggest a “sense” of what he sees in them. I know I’ve been guilty of this at times, believing I’ve seen a “sign” that something else will happen.

    At the beginning of the next stanza, though, he rejects that very idea, suggesting that there is nothing in the shapes formed by their dives except the shapes themselves — and the beauty of the shapes, of course.

  3. If you guys get the chance , go watch some swallows fly about during the spring and summer months . There are 4 major types : cliffswallows ( these are the ones I think Nemerov is describing ) bankswallows , barnswallows and treeswallows . Maybe an afternoon spent observing these blue/black wonders may help you see the metaphor he’s trying to create more clearly . As for why those two lines are in quotation marks . . I haven’t a clue . Maybe he’s comparing our busy, battling , tense , earthbound reality with their historically uncomplicated form of escape i.e. flight . Whatever .This poem is cool !

What do you think?