A few times a year I’ll tear a story out of a newspaper or magazine. I tear it out rather than scissor it neatly because I want a feeling of unplanned offhandedness, not one of careful consideration. And I save a particular story not because of its googleable facts or empirical information but because something in it has connected with me in a way I can’t quite articulate—something residing in my deepest mind, something from childhood or the womb, something.
I don’t remember how long I had the above item with me before my poem “Longhouse” showed up, but probably several years. (Obits on the back of this story tell me that these events took place in 1994. My poem appeared in a magazine in 2000, and in my book The Rope in 2004.) Sometimes a poem directly or indirectly generated by the topical will appear in my notebook hours later, sometimes years (and sometimes there are many drafts, of course). I usually read the news story many times, allowing it to write itself in me, if it will. I try not to understand it, but to fathom it, sound it. Above all, I do not want to force it.
Many aspects of this brief report still intrigue me: the Star Wars name given to the male mute swan; how it rose to the defense of its mate; the story’s location in the land of one of the tribes of the Iroquois; the sadistic nature of the crime; the ages of the perpetrators; the community’s “loathing.” But I know that what hit me hardest was that after the boys mutilated Obie—swan of my childhood, swan of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” and “The Wild Swans at Coole,” swan of Budd Schulberg’s book Swan Watch, black swan of Düsseldorf I photographed decades ago, emotional echo of every swan I have ever seen—they left his head at the entrance to the police station. No doubt everything in me of disgust/anger/impatience/dread regarding aberrant behavior was evoked by their criminal act. I was far from a perfect teenager myself, got drunk and into trouble in sometimes imaginative and embarrassing ways, was lucky that I eventually wised up, but there was never anything in me that “tortured and stabbed … repeatedly, then broke … legs,” never anything in me that so brazenly and unconsciously challenged and attempted to desecrate the community’s moral and civil laws.
But a poem won’t survive being declaimed from a morally superior pulpit, no matter its ostensible subject. “Longhouse” became a poem, it seems to me, when suddenly during the writing I threw myself behind the eyes of that head still receiving starlight and the tinges of birdcalls as dawn awakens the village where a sacred relationship once existed between creatures and human inhabitants. The long concluding sentence beginning “During those hours” came to me without forethought. I—the I that I am within the poem—seem not to want to let the swan be dead, seem to want to keep it within the processes of a universal life. In any case, my poem is quiet, controlled, understated, but at the same time may be on the verge of a radical and responsible anger—after all, these are our teenagers. And what they did is now left here, in the poem, in our place, imposed on us, on beauty, on order, on communal memory itself.
In short, then, what happens is that a story from the out-there might by way of deepest unconscious pressures in us generate a rhythm, a sound, a duration of empathy and imagination in us, a poem.
A seventeen-year-old Onondaga County boy admitted that he
& a younger friend
had been drinking, had jumped a fence at the village pond
to attack a Mute Swan,
Obie, who met them to defend his nesting mate.
The boys killed him,
Left his head on steps at the entrance of the police station.
They confessed they’d tortured & stabbed Obie repeatedly,
Then broken his legs. . . . .
The Swan’s head lay at te station’s entrance
For several hours
Before discovery that morning. During those hours, Obie’s eyes,
Open or closed,
Absorbed the last signals of starlight, & whatever birdcalls
Tinged their cells,
As dawn awakened this village once part of the Iroquois longhouse
Where two of our teenagers
Climbed a fence to torture & decapitate a winged creature, then
Left its head here.
Copyright 2004, 2010 by William Heyen. Reprinted by permission of the author. The essay was first published in Todd Davis and Erin Murphy, eds., Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets (State University of New York Press, 2010).