White Swan’s Burden
Five and twenty swan drift upon the lake this April morning.
Five and twenty swan, and Yeats can have them all.
Where had they wintered
When the lake was iced over?
Not far enough away.
Five and five years past,
One attractive brace decorated these waters
And sailed on our summer breeze of ah’s.
Now it’s: oh, look at all the swan,
As they zealously breed in the wetlands
And fill in our lake like an Escher in progress.
These sociopathic seraphs.
This fissioning Victorian eyesore.
Herman Melville’s white wedding.
Let us be clear what they symbolize:
An invasive armada of waterfowl,
The latest white European invaders of North America.
They would protest they were invited—even swanned across the Atlantic,
But they are the Mute swan.
This lake was theirs before they were the lake’s,
When they were floating like dreams
In the lily ponds of English pleasure gardens.
The touring New England madams swooned.
They belonged in a painting!
They belonged in a poem.
The Void began aching:
America could not be The Beautiful without them.
So the swan came before the egg
Along a transatlantic sentence
Of Henry James
To the Old English ponds
Of the New England patricians—
But who stays put
In the Land of the Free?
That swan can fly.
Soon off they soared
In a self-styled Back-to-Nature movement,
A royal ballet touring the sticks,
Demoting to proles
Our native ducks and geese,
With a manifest destiny
To make every lake Swan Lake.
It was a triumph
Of Emersonian self-reliance—
Too bad they missed Audubon.
You can feel loathsome despising these archetypes of elegance, surely as Hegel had the night he blasphemed the stars as “leprous,” because he couldn’t have them shining on his crazy metaphysics.
But here is a cob in his springtime delirium, terrorizing our lake like a depraved Roman emperor, giving us all through his domino a tiny evil eye. With feathers dramatically erect, he glides vigilantly over the water, a viscous adder sprung out of a wedding cake, and listen: he grunts and squeaks—it seems the Mute swan is only mute enough not to be put to work. This cob demands a vista as vacant as Frederick’s monk by the sea. Let anything appear on the water, from a kayak or a powerboat to a goose or rival swan, and he launches from the waves to attack in full flight, forcing off the intruder with all of his arched and seething vehemence. Even the muskrats have learned to detour around this immaculate maniac. And soon, when his mate in the marshes appears at his side, leading three or four wobbly gray cygnets—he’s sure to act even twice as crazy.
The afternoon when for hours he chased in flight a single Canada goose, all about the perimeter of the lake, around and around and around, until the swan would sink to the water in exhaustion, whereupon the goose, a slighter but more agile fowl, would gratefully glide down as well, then anxiously paddle to hold its distance from its fanatic pursuer. Within minutes the cob would launch again, and the goose wearily returned to the air, and swan and goose resumed their absurdist orbit—round and round. I grew outraged at this cruel madness, and even fetched from our attic an heirloom shotgun to blast that psychopath out of the air. But oh, the hue and cry that would rise from our neighbors on the lake! “You!—you murdered a beautiful swan!” I reconsidered.
I’d be wearing that white bird around my neck like the Ancient Mariner.
The truce at breeding’s end, when a game-ending whistle seems to have blown on our waterfowls’ enmity, and dozens of geese and swan mingle at the lakeshore in the early evening. The geese with their spunky half-grown goslings; the swan parading their now-snowy cygnets like exclusive debutantes, as they feed on still another exotic species invasive to these waters, the Eurasian milfoil vegetation carpeting the lake bottom. The flocks accommodate one another with surreal disregard. It’s like a big, faintly uneasy plantation reunion of former masters and slaves.
The enmity was disturbing, and yet so is this ever-more expansive quasi-amity. If there’s anything this lake needs less than more Mute swan, it’s still more Canada geese, slumming and shitting all summer on its shores.
And yet the swan are indeed so dreamlike, so incandescent on the blue corrugations of the water. Preening, dipping, dabbling, drifting, converging and diverging, the soft hooks of their necks withdrawing and extending as they feed, and with such self-possession, and always to a time slower and somehow richer than our own. Even when behaving more creaturely, when they waggle their tails or exercise their wings with a few vigorous flaps—or if the flock’s hierarchy appears to be contested and a brief disturbance arises—the swan are instantly drawn back to their sublimity, to the tranquil equanimity of the Epicurean gods. And their white is neither benevolent nor malevolent, it is the absence of all earthly taint, the white of a pure and perfect indifference. These swan! These birds of the gods! Mute swan, yes—but messengers maybe, messengers from the Beyond, though to the unworthy like ourselves they have nothing to say. There are moments when the lake is like a horizontal sky, or a portal into the heavens, in whose berth immaculate spirits are hovering—the lake is visible where the illusion of the Earth has worn away, to reveal these beings of the Empyrean, like attractions in a heavenly zoo, floating upon a blue nothingness, perfectly unaware of our existence—so that maybe we and our world are the unreality, maybe we are nothing but our own private delusion, and only these spirits, these serene white swan, are all that is truly substantial.
Later at sundown, a consummate vision: six swan float and feed in a scarlet pool of water mirroring the fiery sunset. Those incandescent forms on the intense scarlet of the water—the unearthly splendor is not for words to convey. Once again, it’s as though a veil has been raised by one corner, to reveal some inexpressible, unattainable realm hidden by our own, exposed minimally and only fleetingly, for in minutes the scarlet glow withdraws from the lake, and the swan diminish to large pale birds on the vibrating silver-black water of the dusk hour. But I remain unsettled by a sense of the swan’s here-and-thereness—of their presence both here on Earth and there in that veiled, unattainable Paradise.
Not long after, with a large disturbance of their wings on the water, the swan launch from the lake, and proceed in a low-flying echelon over our acres. As they pass overhead beneath some still-refulgent clouds, they have the bearing of eerily life-sized and substantive angels, and the resonant whistling of their great wing-beats is heard as an intricate music. And they soar with such resolve, their necks rigidly extended and their heads and beaks straight forward, as though hypnotically fixated on a preordained destination, or as if heeding the summons of a siren, so that already they are not so much departing as arriving, and to the only place they can possibly be.
But they’ll be back
Minus the nightfall’s white magic,
Ruling our waters
In the stark light of day
With the overmuscular elegance
Of ballerinas abusing anabolic steroids
Performing now to Tchaikovsky
Now to AC/DC—
With something pornographic
In those thick twisting necks
That wasn’t lost on Zeus.
And we’ll want to ask:
Who invited Cinderella’s sisters
To the masked ball?
But who are we?
Who is unworthy of whom?
The national bird of Denmark
May only be mute in contempt,
In congenital aristocratic ignorance
Of the peonage infesting its shores,
We who came and conquered—
For the Mute swan.
We are the Coolies.
We are the Hottentots.
We are the White Swan’s Burden.