Marking the Swans and Other Poems

Marking the Swans: Stanley Spencer at War

after the painting Swan Upping at Cookham, 1915–1919

From my north-aisle pew, I could hear
the river’s boatmen
and the swans hissing, the pens and cobs
hissing, beating the water
with their wide wings. All up! the boatmen called,
herding the birds
toward the grassy bank. I could hear the words
move toward me, down
through the centuries, down through the unions
of beauty and greed,
as the cygnets chirped, feet scarred for the ancient Wardens,
beaks nicked for the ancient Guilds—
All up!—I rose—pale, tepid legs banded
for the Worshipful Company
of Dyers, or the King, or the Keeper of Suns—
All up!—and I rose with the swans
through the green bank of the chancel’s light, unharmed
in that hour as they would be,
the most weightless of collars awaiting me.

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