Book Bag: ‘A Bird Who Seems to Know Me’ by Wally Swist

Published: 2/7/2020 8:54:09 AM
Modified: 2/7/2020 8:53:57 AM

By Steve Pfarrer


By Wally Swist

Ex Ophidia Press

The newest collection from Valley poet Wally Swist, “A Bird Who Seems to Know Me,” won the 2018 Ex Ophidia Press Poetry Prize, sponsored by the literary press of the same name, located on Bainbridge Island in Washington state.

That’s worth noting right up top because Swist’s new book, from a physical standpoint, is one of his most beautiful. “A Bird Who Seems to Know Me” was printed by Gabriel Rummonds, the founder of Ex Ophidia Press and a master printer and editor who previously worked with Jorge Luis Borges, John Cheever, Anthony Burgess, Italo Calvino and a host of other well-known writers.

Swist, formerly of Amherst but now living in South Hadley, has long found the natural world an important inspiration for his work, and his new collection narrows much of that focus to avian life. He mixes more traditional free-verse poems with haiku, and the poems and haiku are printed in separate colors, with the haiku set at different intervals on the page, as if to mimic the flight of birds.

From kingfishers and geese, to hawks, herons and robins, Swist examines the elemental role that birds play in the dance of life: how their graceful movements in the sky, their sounds and their colors offer we two-legged observers an important way to be in the moment, tied to nature. His poems are full of closely observed, lyrical details: a “wedge” of snow geese flying overhead; a single kingfisher feather that “bristles across the ripples of a pool” in the woods; a blue jay “with all of his braggadocio” flitting about the branch of a maple tree.

The poet also writes of making a connection to some of the birds he comes across, sharing a moment in which they seem to communicate. In “Ode to a Mockingbird,” it’s a regular visitor to his home: “Whenever I am on the phone, // and standing before the screen door, / the mockingbird hops across // the parqueted brick walk to stare — / it must know my voice by now.”

“Never have I enjoyed such camaraderie / with any other bird, especially a mockingbird,” Swist writes. Perhaps, he notes, that connection comes partly from the bird’s somewhat worn feathers: “My friend has, as have I, survived a few storms.”

There’s also humor in some of these encounters. Consider the short (six lines) poem “Waking the Ducks,” where the narrator walks toward a pond on a quiet summer morning to see what appear to be plump, headless creatures resting along the shore. But when he’s close enough to touch them, “the bill of each duck lifts from the down of their tails. // Amid the echoes of their quacking, feathers / float over the meadow, as the flock floods the pond.”

Swist enjoys many of these encounters during his rambles through the forests and fields of western Massachusetts, so his poems offer a sort of avian road map to the area. There’s the Red-tailed Hawk, for instance, that he watches from the top of the observation tower on Mount Toby in Sunderland; the kingfisher he hears chattering near Cushman Brook in Amherst; and the turkey vulture and great blue heron he sees during a hike on Northfield Mountain.

“In the American genealogy of poets, Swist is descended from the Transcendentalists,” one reviewer says of the new collection. “[H]e has Walt Whitman’s observing eye and Emerson’s deep connection to the natural world. His poems show the reader nature in its finest detail as we walk with him through an entire company of birds, trees, lakes and marshes, observing our own place among the birds — a place of balance and beauty.”

In other book-related news: The Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley will sponsor two readings next week that are worth noting.

On Tuesday at 7 p.m., Vermont novelist Meg Little Reilly will read from her newest book, “The Misfortunes of Family,” a tale about the the danger that long-held secrets pose to a powerful political family that seems to have it all. Former U.S. Senator John Bright, at a family gathering in the Berkshires with his adult sons and their partners, announces he’s going to run for office again — all while the reunion is being filmed by a producer. As publisher’s notes put it, “family secrets start tumbling out and keep coming, including the biggest one that will rock this family to the core.”

And on Wednesday at 7 p.m., Boston writer Helen Fremont reads from her new memoir, “The Escape Artist,” which looks at how she and her sister were affected by being raised in another household filled with secrets. Her parents, European Jews who had survived the Holocaust while many of their loved ones perished, came to America after WWII and raised their daughters as Catholics. It’s a subject Fremont writes about “with wit and candor,” according to publishers’s notes. “In a family devoted to hiding the truth, Fremont learns the truth is the one thing that can set you free.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

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