Poet Mary Swander Sings of Our Common Folklore

Mary Swander
Mary Swander in the kitchen of her home in Kalona (Photo by Mark Paul Petrick, © The Iowa Source)

Not far from where I live heavy machinery has scraped the earth down to a layer of clay. I walk out to it. It has been raining, and miniature lakes the size of mixing bowls reflect the gray sky and punctuate this Mars-scape of reddish muck. I wonder if this is good clay, the kind my sister would pull from the earth like a sleeping baby and spin on a stone wheel into another wondrous creation. I really know nothing about clay, but I reach down and press my hand into it and it receives my imprint, down to every last whorl on the thumb, copies it faithfully. I feel a kinship with the clay without really thinking about it; I always have. I think of every anonymous voice that was ever 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 walks I 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 tombstones remind 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 their bones 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-Earth House, 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 town of Manning and later in Davenport, Iowa. As a college student, Mary began her English degree at Georgetown University, but finished at the University of 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’ Workshop and pursued a variety of jobs for several years, including therapeutic massage. In 1986, she started teaching at Iowa State University. Says Swander in an interview on the website beyond 9-11 (www.beyond9-11.org/), “Iowa is 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 different kind of commitment to staying here and seeing what the issues were. Younever know what’s going to happen to your life, but it’s only when you’re in a place long enough that you can do anything in terms of the folklore, knowing the character of the people, improving the environment.There are certain issues you can’t address if you only live in a place 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 perspective having been here probably 40 of my 50 years.”

It is winter now in Iowa, and as I walk down certain of my favorite trails I see the fence rows still clung with vines, but dry and brown, with pods cracked 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 State University, her attachment to Iowa soil has not made her writing by any means homebound. She has received some of the nation’s most prestigious recognitions, 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 Nation magazine, 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 York City. The invitation had instructed the guests to come in “festive” attire.We sipped champagne in crystal glasses served on silver trays, the women’s gold bracelets clinking together on their wrists, the men’s gold cuff links 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 of the grassroots pieces balanced the lines of the finely coifed hairdos of the host and hostess.

I wandered out into the courtyard, a garden filled with the last blooms of fall flowers. I smiled and chatted and made small talk. I found myself back 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 glasses clicked. 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. “You appear to be a happy person. . .”


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

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

“No.” Jack’s voice took on a tone of insistence. “I mean 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 kind of 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?” Jack motioned 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 out there 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’s a Borders Bookstore that was in the World Trade Center where I’vegiven readings, bought books, all this stuff. I’ve been to the top doing the tourist thing. And I knew the area. I go to New York, like, twice a year, and so it was real to me. And then the Pentagon thing—I lived in Washington, D.C., and I knew exactly where that was, too, and how that was 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 assimilate what’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 always liked crows, the intelligence in their eyes, the way they strut upon the ground, the way they take off with a gulp of air under their wings and become far lighter than the color black. Their raucous music sometimes seems like the only home for my soul, and while it doesn’t exactly soothe me, I find comfort in it, knowing that trio is probably a family grouping, 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 entitled The Desert Pilgrim (Viking, 2003, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.) She is also known for her memoir called Out of this World (Viking, 1995). Swander is the author of three books of poetry, Heaven-and-Earth House (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 Healing Circle: Authors on Recovery from Illness (Plume, 1998, with Patricia Foster); Bloom and Blossom, a collection of garden literature from Ecco Press (1997); and Land of the Fragile Giants, an edited collection of non-fiction and art work on the Loess Hills (with Cornelia Mutel, University of Iowa Press, 1994).

The University of Iowa Press reprinted Driving the Body Back in 1998.Ms. Swander adapted Driving the Body Back to the stage and this piece, along with her co-authored musical, Dear Iowa (with composer Christopher Frank), have been produced across the Midwest and on Iowa Public Television. Ms. Swander performs her own work and also gives solo readings throughout the United States. Ms. Swander is a regular commentator on WOI radio in Ames, IA, as well as National Public Radio’s Sunday Weekend Edition.

Ms. Swander has published individual poems, essays, short stories, and articles in such places as The Nation , National Gardening Magazine, 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 Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State University. She lives in an old Amish schoolhouse, raises geese, goats, and a large organic garden. And plays the banjo.