07 March 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/10

The Wish of the Brother with a Swan's Wing

As soon as the shirts touched them, the swan skins fell off, and her brothers stood before her in the flesh. Only the youngest was missing his left arm, and he had a swan's wing on his shoulder instead.


To meet his left arm again.
To pick up pebbles and skip them.
To close ten fingers over a pearl
of great price. To wind the gold stem
of his watch. Or not wind it.
To stop time. To walk up and speak to her.
To play Chopin and move the minutes
to tears. To carve her name on a bench.
To lift her chin toward his mouth.
To dance with her, one hand at the small
of her back, the other clasping her fingers
lightly – they are so small, like the bones
of a bird! With his strong left hand,
to slip a gold band on her finger.
To throw off his shirt, blue as the asters,
that his sister wove from the wild stars
of the field. To be broken yet whole, a ring
of still water. To sleep with his bride
on the floor of a white boat as it floats
out to sea. To carry her on the water's
shoulders. To shelter her
under his wing.

Nancy Willard

The Six Swans is a German folk tale about a brave girl whose six brothers have been transformed into swans. She must take a vow of silence and suffer terribly until she can finish weaving wild asters into jackets that, when thrown over the birds, will restore them to human form. It's a fairly standard (though entertaining) story, except for one detail, which some ancient anonymous Oma added in a moment of genius: the girl can't quite complete the six jackets in time, and the youngest brother's left arm permanently remains a swan's wing. This is a striking bit of grit in the happily-ever-after; it produces a pearl – though the youngest brother barely exists as a character, this one remarkable detail makes him one of the most memorable inhabitants of Fairy Land. I was repeatedly drawn to this story when I was a boy (and judging from the number of explorations and expansions of this character that I've come across, including this poem, I'm not the only one a bit obsessed by his fate). The boy is rendered a freak, a monster – but a beautiful one; given the choice between a swan's wing and, say, a rodent's tail or a bird's feet, who wouldn't want the wing, with its broad expanse, its obvious beauty and its implied power to lift you up and help you fly away? Unaided human flight is a long-time and deep human fantasy, found in many ancient stories (often with an unhappy ending: think of Icarus, and a warning about wishing to soar above the normal human sphere). And it's important that the birds here are swans, seen since ancient times as special birds because of their elegance and mystery (I understand that in reality swans hiss and cackle a bit, but they're not obstreperous like geese or common like ducks and there is a long-standing legend that they are silent birds, who only sing once, with devastating beauty, when they're on the point of death). They are associated with royalty and with poets (think of the romantic label "the Swan of Avon" for Shakespeare, or the swan boat that comes for Lohengrin). The youngest brother's monstrous fate is almost enviable, halfway between and inextricably linking beauty and horror.

Throughout this poem there are details that keep up the fairy-tale atmosphere: the colors are gold, blue, and white, as in an old-fashioned illustration; there are pearls and gold, music and dancing, a watch that stops time, a boat that magically floats in the right direction out at sea. As with many fairy tales, the people are royal yet also capable of weaving; they live somewhere between the heights and the humble everyday. There are also, again as in a fairy-tale, intimations of loss and sacrifice on the way to a happy ending: the pearl of great price is a reference to Matthew 13:45 - 46 ("Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls; / Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it"). If the young man plays Chopin beautifully enough, the minutes express their emotion through tears. Being normal means throwing off the enchanted (or disenchanting) shirt woven from the wild stars of the field. The poem hovers, like the shirt, between enchantment and disenchantment (an odd enchantment in normality, and a disenchantment with the solitude of magic and the isolation of even glorious freakishness).

Willard brings out both the beauty and the freakishness (that is, a longing for what seems like the comparative relief of normality) in the youngest brother's situation. As befits a story based on a fairy tale, the poem is swift and light yet rooted in heavier emotional materials. Beneath the elegance there's a tensile strength to this poem, like a bolt of silk. It is made up of brief sentences, each with an infinitive as its subject (that is, an action turned into a noun, an object, giving this half-saved youth an aura of action, but of action objectified, withheld, wished-for), sometimes elaborated with a prepositional phrase or the occasional subordinate clause. This repetition of grammatical structure helps give the poem its rhythm. It steps from one thought to the next, in a definite progression: we start with his basic wish, to be whole and normal once again. Then we move from boyish pleasures (skipping pebbles across a pond, an early suggestion of the water imagery that will reappear at the poem's end) to young love, expressed in specific moments, most of them masculine romantic gestures centered on the use of his hand – to walk up to the unnamed, unidentified, and possibly nonexistent her that he imagines would have appeared if he were normal, to speak to her, to carve her name on a bench, to lift her chin to his mouth for a kiss, to dance with her: we see the stages of developing and eventually reciprocated love, leading, as in a proper fairy tale, to a wedding. (He wants to feel strong and protective towards her, unhindered by his anomalous wing.)

But Willard takes the story beyond that, with the vividly physical act of throwing off his blue magical shirt, into sex and union with his bride. Throwing off the shirt of asters made by his sister suggests also throwing off the whole narrative that left him so beautifully deformed. The poem began with a wish to meet his left arm again (to meet, as if they were strangers or at least long-separated friends); it ends with the wish to shelter her (the unnamed, unidentified, possibly nonexistent bride) under his wing: the expression is usually a metaphor, but in this case it's literal. These lines hearken back to the ones about the delicacy of his lover's hand: her bones must be light and small, as in a bird's wing. Does the final line represent some sort of acceptance of his condition? Or a reminder of how deeply a metaphorical, perhaps even a longed-for, version of that condition is buried in the human psyche? Is an acceptance of his condition part of his wish to be broken yet whole (beautifully deformed but also loved as a normal man)? He wishes to become a ring of still water: ring might bring to mind the gold band he slips on her finger, still can mean both unmoving and a continuing condition; he wants to become water, like the sea on which he and his bride float out into forever. He is both denying his body and celebrating it by transforming it (another transformation for him) into a vast upholding ocean.

This is from In the Salt Marsh by Nancy Willard. The verses from St Matthew are from the King James Version. The basic version of the Six Swans story can be found in the tales of the Brothers Grimm, and there are many editions of the Grimm Fairy Tales; the one I looked at for this entry is The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Jack Zipes. Hans Christian Andersen also wrote a version of the story, called The Wild Swans; it's longer, more elaborate, and more Gothic (the shirts must be woven out of nettles picked from a graveyard at midnight). He also lays a heavier burden of weaving on his heroine, giving her eleven brothers instead of six. I used the version in Hans Christian Andersen: Eighty Fairy Tales, translated by R P Keigwin for the Pantheon Fairytale & Folklore Library.

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