Poet Mary Swander Sings of Our Common Folklore


Mary Swander in the kitchen of her home in Kalona, Iowa (photo ©2005Mark Paul Petrick)

Not far from where I live heavy machinery has scraped the earth down to alayer of clay. I walk out to it. It has been raining, and miniature lakes thesize of mixing bowls reflect the gray sky and punctuate this Mars-scape ofreddish muck. I wonder if this is good clay, the kind my sister would pullfrom the earth like a sleeping baby and spin on a stone wheel into anotherwondrous creation. I really know nothing about clay, but I reach down and pressmy hand into it and it receives my imprint, down to every last whorl on thethumb, copies it faithfully. I feel a kinship with the clay without reallythinking about it; I always have. I think of every anonymous voice that wasever raised in song. And then I look at the clay.

Mary Swander said to me, “My major influence is ‘anon.’,the oral tradition—especially the ballads.” On my health walksI wander near, but far. Should I turn right at the edge of a certain trailI know, I would climb the hill toward the cemetery. How much the tombstonesremind me of poems in an anthology. A name. A date. A little quoted phrase,some attempt at song, communication, advice, longing, love. Like Mary Swander,my favorite poet has been someone without a name, it has been several someones,male, female, neither young nor old now that their flesh is clay and theirbones flowers. But their traditions have been carried by living tongues,with burdens sharp and light with the task of singing of a common destination,or perhaps of some place we’ve never left?

Mary Swander in her poem “Heaven?” (from Heaven-and-EarthHouse, Knopf, 1994) says:

No, it’s lying in a field in Iowa
staring at the heavens, stars streaking
the sky, their auras pulsing out, in.
Night of the meteor shower,
night of the mosquito netting and pitched tent,
the flap open to the eastern horizon.

Born in Carroll, Iowa, in 1950, Mary Swander grew up in the nearby townof Manning and later in Davenport, Iowa. As a college student, Mary beganher English degree at Georgetown University, but finished at the Universityof Iowa, returning to her home state because her mother was dying of cancer.

Mary earned her M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshopand pursued a variety of jobs for several years, including therapeuticmassage. In 1986, she started teaching at Iowa State University. Says Swanderin an interview on the website beyond 9-11 (www.beyond9-11.org/), “Iowais a good place to write. We actually, in our weird way, support writers.We’ve always had a writing tradition here. Lots of times, it’sturned into writers in exile, and that’s the tradition in the Midwest:that you start out here and then you move away, and you write about thinkingback. But I saw that as an early writer, and wanted to make a differentkind of commitment to staying here and seeing what the issues were. Younever know what’s going to happen to your life, but it’s onlywhen you’re in a place long enough that you can do anything in termsof the folklore, knowing the character of the people, improving the environment.There are certain issues you can’t address if you only live in aplace a year and then you move, or five years, and that’s basicallywhat we do in our culture these days. I actually have a unique perspectivehaving been here probably 40 of my 50 years.”

It is winter now in Iowa, and as I walk down certain of my favorite trailsI see the fence rows still clung with vines, but dry and brown, with podscracked open like listening ears.

Mary Swander writes in “Heaven?”:

What awaits? A choir of angels,
a chorus of sheep bleating out how good
is the grass, how good is the flesh.
How good were the stars to lead me here,
the year of the blue goat, brown duck,
the year of the squawk and coo, the loyal
dog who barked at strange men and storms.
O little town of Kalona, Hannakalona,
Kahlua Kalona, bull town, where the gardens
are ringed in cockscombs and cannas,
and down the road little girls sing hymns
outside the window of the dying man
propped with pillows near the screen.
Their voices hover above me, and are gone,
a flock escaped from the barn.

While Swander currently lives and writes in Kalona, teaches at Iowa StateUniversity, her attachment to Iowa soil has not made her writing by anymeans homebound. She has received some of the nation’s most prestigiousrecognitions, such as the Whiting Award (Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation,1994), a National Endowment for the Arts grant for the Literary Arts (1986),two Ingram Merrill Awards (1980, 1986), the Carl Sandburg Literary Award(Chicago Public Library, 1981), and the Nation-Discovery Award (The Nationmagazine, 1976). Such honors do get her out of the house though, and periodictrips to New York City come about.

As we all know, one unfortunate moment in recent history happened in NewYork. I would like to quote Mary Swander’s affecting response toit here in full (from www.beyond9-11.org):


It was September 8, 2001 and I was attending a cocktail party in New YorkCity. The invitation had instructed the guests to come in “festive” attire.We sipped champagne in crystal glasses served on silver trays, the women’sgold bracelets clinking together on their wrists, the men’s goldcufflinks brushing past the poached salmon to the caviar. We balanced ourchina plates on our laps, admiring the collection of outsider art gracingthe walls of this three-story brownstone. The rough-cut paint strokes ofthe grassroots pieces balanced the lines of the finely coifed hairdos ofthe host and hostess.

I wandered out into the courtyard, a garden filled with the last bloomsof fall flowers. I smiled and chatted and made small talk. I found myselfback in the living room, laughing and joking with a couple of friends.It was the 50th birthday of the guest of honor, a scholar of the Holocaust.The room was filled with the sons and daughters of survivors of Nazi Germany.We clapped and sang “Happy Birthday.” The champagne glassesclicked. All the candles were blown out.

A thin, wiry man in his mid-60s approached me, staring me straight inthe eye, his hand holding my cheek.

“My name is Jack,” he said, his lips curling up in a smile. “Youappear to be a happy person. . .”


“What I want to know is this: If you had a big disappointment inlife, what would you do?”

“Ah, I’ve had many disappointments. You just deal with them,” Isaid.

“No.” Jack’s voice took on a tone of insistence. “Imean if disaster struck right here this week, where would you turn?”

“Well, I . . .”

“No, I mean it,” Jack said. “In a time of total chaos,where would you go for solace, where would you look for help?”

I sighed and thought for a moment. “I’d look for some kindof connection.”

“Connection to what?”

“To home, to family. . .”

“What if you had no family?”

“To the world of art, then.”

“If the ship were going down, you’d cling to this?” Jackmotioned to a piece of sculpture, placing his glass down on its pedestal.

“Then I’d look beyond the world of art.”

“You actually believe in a beyond?

I nodded.

Jack shook his head. “Do you know how many people there are outthere who are searching for an answer to this question?”

“What did you say your name was?” I asked.

“Jack. Just call me Jack,” the man said and walked away.

It was New York City, September 8, 2001, and since that time I’vebeen looking for those connections.

Swander continues in her beyond 9-11 interview:

I just got back from New York the day before, and so I was just horrified.I’ve been in the World Trade Center a number of times. There’sa Borders Bookstore that was in the World Trade Center where I’vegiven readings, bought books, all this stuff. I’ve been to the topdoing the tourist thing. And I knew the area. I go to New York, like, twicea year, and so it was real to me. And then the Pentagon thing—I livedin Washington, D.C., and I knew exactly where that was, too, and how thatwas going to affect people.

I had to teach from 7 to 10 that night. I just went in and said, Okay,we’re going to have a moment of silence and just try to assimilatewhat’s happened today. And I just let the students talk about it.It was one of those things where you find out how interconnected we allare, and so they had a lot of relatives, friends, and everything there.We did manage to talk about some poems, but it was a tough night.

My walk is at an end, and I stare at the same stretch of clay nearmy house. I see a trio of crows in a bare tree nearby. I have alwaysliked crows, the intelligence in their eyes, the way they strut uponthe ground, the way they take off with a gulp of air under their wingsand become far lighter than the color black. Their raucous music sometimesseems like the only home for my soul, and while it doesn’t exactlysoothe me, I find comfort in it, knowing that trio is probably a familygrouping, a mother, father, and a fledged offspring. Staying together.

Mary Swander writes in “Heaven?”:

Their voices hover above me, and are gone,
a flock escaped from the barn.
I chase them one way across the ditch,
over the hill, through the neighbor’s
orchard and field. I chase them
back toward the house, corner the ram
against the fence, then Aries, Aries
is free and off through the grove
with the ewes and lambs close behind.
So bleat for the cries who never return,
the ones who last just this long,
the empty manger and stall, bleat
for the ones who come again, who ascend
in the clear air, dark night, holy night,
when sounds carry and trails of light
flit over our heads, and bleat for the moon,
the sun, the golden day when we will all lie
down in a field, nothing more to be done.


Mary Swander’s most recent work is a book of non-fiction entitledThe Desert Pilgrim (Viking, 2003, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great NewWriters selection.) She is also known for her memoir called Outof this World (Viking, 1995). Swander is the author of three books of poetry, Heaven-and-EarthHouse (Alfred Knopf, 1994), Driving the BodyBack (Alfred Knopf, 1986),Succession (University of Georgia Press, 1979), as well as a book of literaryinterviews, Parsnips in the Snow (with Jane Staw, University of Iowa Press,1990). Swander has edited three books: The HealingCircle: Authors on Recovery from Illness (Plume, 1998, with Patricia Foster); Bloomand Blossom, acollection of garden literature from Ecco Press (1997); and Landof the Fragile Giants, an edited collection of non-fiction and art work on theLoess Hills (with Cornelia Mutel, University of Iowa Press, 1994).

The University of Iowa Press reprinted Driving theBody Back in 1998.Ms. Swander adapted Driving the Body Back to the stage and thispiece, along with her co-authored musical, Dear Iowa (with composerChristopher Frank), have been produced across the Midwest and on Iowa PublicTelevision. Ms. Swander performs her own work and also gives solo readingsthroughout the United States. Ms. Swander is a regular commentator on WOIradio in Ames, IA, as well as National Public Radio’s SundayWeek-end Edition.

Ms. Swander has published individual poems, essays, short stories, andarticles in such places as The Nation , National GardeningMagazine, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and Poetry magazine.

Ms. Swander received her M.F.A from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.She is a professor of English and a Distinguished Professor of LiberalArts and Sciences at Iowa State University. She lives in an old Amishschoolhouse, raises geese, goats, and a large organic garden. Andplays the banjo.