Three Poems for Lit Break


If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.
—E. O. Wilson

I met its acquaintance lifting boxes, thick

with dust, that hadn’t been moved for years,

for the purposes of readying the books

for a donation and a sale.

Its size puzzled me: the exaggerated length

of it, its many legs looking more like hair

than the paired pins that support it, segment

to segment; waddling more as does

a skunk would than any insect I had seen

ever does. However, I respected

its dimension and what I assessed as

apparently its age, and from that first time

it regarded me, knowing that I was not

one of its persecutors. Although I occasioned

to see its activities, bolting from one dark

corner of the bookstore to another,

toward the end of the day, perhaps, after

a reception, which might have included

cheese and crackers, or bruschetta

and red and white wine, convinced I

would never witness its covert movements

in broad daylight. Such as that is,

one late mid-winter morning, while

at my desk in the office next to the café,

I turned my head to the right, as if

on cue, and saw through the open door

that it was streaking, most of the length

of its body, hurled upward

and forward, as if it were, perhaps,

screaming, as it lunged underneath

the table of baked goods, and into

the metal baseboard heat cover.

It had chosen a time when the rush

between classes had dissipated,

when I couldn’t help but consider its

enormity and the leftover pastries—

the cinnamon buns,

fruit Danish, oatmeal

cookies, and varieties of Biscotti—

that I would admonish

the student staff to cover

with Saran or to replace the tops

of the clear glass jars,

to deduce that the size

of the centipede may have been

in direct proportion

to its gluttony for glazed

icing, pearl sugar, and marzipan.

Offering Guidance

for Karen Olander

The thought does occur to me that whatever

discipline or life you choose, or that you find

intrinsic to who you are, there is challenge, and

then not only just challenge but sheer obstacles

block the path, through which you must

circumnavigate, or blast right through. No artist

or writer, nor human being ever born into this

world, ever had a clear path to the mountaintop.

There have always been jungles to traverse,

forks in the path that must be discerned

as to which to choose, the roar of tigers around

each bend of the circuitous summit trail,

marauding brown bears prowling near the froth

of the falls, and then the rime-slick cairns near

the very peak itself. Aesthetic ascension is no

different from athletic achievement,

the metaphors being apt for one another.

Where lies the actual nascence of the spiritual realm

therein, since in the very ascent up this

precipitous mountain we always risk everything,

since there is nothing gained if we don’t.

The perils of moving forward are far less than

not embarking on the trek at all. Through this

ardor, we slough off the skins of naiveté and

innocence, and molt into the spiritual beings we

really are, possibly creating a work of art worth

the attention and respect in offering guidance

apt for all others who come along this way.

The Swist

The Swist is a brook. As child, the name

was often intentionally

mispronounced by classmates who would

also insert the word cheese after rending

the air with hyperbole. As a grown man,

particularly women, on a date, would

rhyme Swist with Twist, and then say, Just

like Chubby Checker, right? Often enough,

I have needed to have to speak each

letter of it over the phone to a Customer

Service Representative, enunciating

the letters twice; only to hear, Yes, Swift,

repeated back to me, the consternation

rising in my pulse and shooting right

through the top of my head; my ire

surfacing through my repetition, once

again, of the four consonants protecting

that one vowel in the middle, with

the sinuousness of the soft consonants

providing a rush until the final hard sound,

as in following a straightaway before

a sudden meander. The Swist rises in

Rhineland-Palatinate at 330 meters

above sea level on the Eifel. The brook

is nearly 44 kilometers long, and in

North Rhine-Westphalia it joins the mouth

of the Erft. The Swist flows through

my veins, as readily as it tumbles into

Swisttal, a municipality; and its rush

may be heard in Meckenheim and

Flerzheim, which is considered to be

a berg of the town Rheinbach. It is here

that there are cycle paths along

the edge of the brook, where lovers lie

in the grass and children play among

wildflowers. The Swist also gives

its name to the town of Weilerswist.

The source of my namesake is

found at the northern edge of the Eifel.

Considered to be the longest brook

run in Europe, the Swist may explain

why I find healing in moving water.

Wally Swist’s books include Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love (Southern Illinois University Press, 2012); The Daodejing: A New Interpretation, with David Breeden and Steven Schroeder (Lamar University Literary Press, 2015); and Invocation (Lamar University Literary Press, 2015). His poems have appeared in many publications, including Commonweal, North American Review, Sunken Garden Poetry, 1992-2011 (Wesleyan University Press, 2012), and upstreet. Garrison Keillor recently read a poem of Swist’s on the national radio program The Writer’s Almanac.