Poets Make Black History: “Leda, After the Swan”

The series “Poets Make Black History” features M. Ayodele Heath performing Carl Phillip’s “Leda, After the Swan.”


Poem of the Week: “Leda, After the Swan” by Carl Phillps


in the exaggerated grace
of his weight

the wings
raised, held in

I recognized
something more
than swan, I can’t say.

There was just
this barely defined
shoulder, whose feathers
came away in my hands,

and the bit of world
left beyond it, coming down

to the heat-crippled field,

ravens the precise color of
sorrow in good light, neither
black nor blue, like fallen
stitches upon it,

and the hour forever,
it seemed, half-stepping
its way elsewhere–

everything, I
remember, began
happening more quickly.

Carl Phillips is without a doubt my favorite American poet writing today. Born in 1959, he currently teaches at Washington University in Saint Louis.  “Leda, After the Swan” was published in 1992’s In the Blood.

I love this poem. I love all the commas (even in the title) that force you to pause, as if the poem and its contents are happening slowly and yet the events can not be stopped. As Leda remembers the swan, his intent is ambiguous (is it strike or embrace?). As a reader, you get a sense of an out-of-body experience, focusing more on the surroundings–the field, the color of the ravens– than Leda’s embodied experience of the moment.

The line “this barely defined / shoulder whose  feathers / came away in my hands” simultaneously breaks and fills my heart.

Leda and the Swan

What is happening in that last poem? You can read a more comprehensive summary and analysis here, but the short(er) version is that Yeats is drawing from a Greek myth in which Zeus, in the form of a swan (he loved to take animal forms and do weird shit to women) either rapes or seduces (uhh) the human, mortal Leda. Helen (as in, of Troy) was born as the result of this union. Leda’s daughter with her mortal husband, Clytemnestra, married Agamemnon. Helen and Agememnon were catalysts of the Trojan War and Agamemnon ended up being killed by Clytemnestra’s lover. So, a lot went down because of Zeus’ aviary interlude.

Yeats is using the violence of this myth to say something about the colonial and oft-violent relationship between Ireland and England. But that is for a whole other post.

The myth has also inspired countless paintings, sketches, and sculptures over different periods and in styles.

Paul Cezanne Lena and the Swan
Paul Cézanne’s “Leda and the Swan”
Leda and the Swan DaVinci
Davinci’s “Leda and the Swan”

Images from Wikipedia.

Poem of the Week: “Leda and the Swan” by W.B. Yeats

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
    Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
    By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
    He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

    How can those terrified vague fingers push
    The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
    And how can body, laid in that white rush,
    But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

    A shudder in the loins engenders there
    The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
    And Agamemnon dead.

                        Being so caught up,

    So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
    Did she put on his knowledge with his power
    Before the indifferent beak could let her drop? 

Cilantro Chicken and Lime Rice

Narragansett beer can chicken cilantro roasted chickenLast night, the chicken I took out of the freezer on Saturday (!) was finally fully defrosted. What to do with it? Generally, my rosemary kick translates to rosemary chicken, but we weren’t in the mood for that. We had a ton of cilantro, some beer in the fridge…why not beer can chicken with lots of cilantro and lime? I’d never made beer can chicken before and I wasn’t entirely convinced the can wouldn’t somehow explode in the oven, so I let M be in charge of that. He adapted a recipe from Cooking for Keeps and I got to work on the sides.

I had dry black beans from the Charlie’s Redhouse Farm and when I googled “dry black beans?” the first result was the always trusty J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats. I have made a bunch of his recipes before, from the normal (really yummy french toast) to the weird (cranberry and turkey stuffed latkes. Remember Thanksgivukkuh?), so I trusted him when he said there was no need to soak the beans overnight. I used a Serious Eats recipe he recommended, subbing lime for orange, planned to make rice using this method I learned from Wanderlust Kitchen (it seriously makes the best rice), we were on our way.

It was a slow “on our way,” to be honest. In typical fashion, we hadn’t started cooking till after 7, not realizing our grand ideas would mean we would eat around 9:45. Oh well, We killed time by watching TV and doing a puzzle. Adulthood!

Olivia Bee Photos

Several years ago, as a recent college grad with a job that allowed a lot of internet browsing, I came across Olivia Bee’s Flickr account. I fell in love with the dreamy images and used my mom’s upcoming birthday as an excuse to buy a print. It was part of this series:

Olivia Bee balloon series

Olivia Bee crown

Looking at them with 2015 eyes, they kind of have a True Detective vibe, no?

I sent Olivia a check (err, two checks. the first one bounced. I may not be good with money) and she sent me the print. I got it framed and it hung in my parents’ room for a while, but now it hangs in my old room. I love seeing it when I visit.

Now, Olivia Bee has photographed for Addias, Hermès Paris, New York Times, and Madame Figaro. I like to think I had a good eye!

All photos by Olivia Bee.

Earth and Iron, or, I Can’t Resist a Well-Made Sign

Last summer at the Newport Folk Festival, I passed a particular booth several times a day. Directly on the water AND on the way to the restrooms (read: double row of port-a-potties), these guy had a prime spot and an eye-catching sign.

Earth and Iron Newport Folk Festival 2014

I kept stealing glances at the Earth and Iron each time I walked– the textures of grass, wood, and nails caught my eye every time. Finally I stopped and spoke to the guys who ran the booth. They were so friendly as they showed me their goods. Did I need a large chalkboard or an axe with a beautiful handle or a large keyholder rack? No, but between the beauty of the sign and the niceness of the guys, I knew I was hooked. I ended up choosing a small wooden….receptacle? They ended up painting one for me, because I like the asymmetric design on some of their pieces. I picked it up a few hours later, when the paint was dry, and walked away thinking, now what?

Earth and Iron

I generally keep a small tea light in it and though it was a totally unnecessary purchase, it does make me smile to see it. I hope to see the Earth and Iron guys at the Folk Fest this summer, and who knows what will happen. Maybe I’ll make an offer on the sign.