This poem is taken from Stand 224, 17(4) December 2019 - February 2020.

Roberta Swann Four Poems

I went along on one of Brian’s nature trips, this time to Ramsey Canyon Preserve in Arizona. It’s known as ‘The Hummingbird Capital of the United States’, because it has more varieties than any other spot in the country.

We were lucky to lodge in a broken-down bungalow. People visit from all over the world to experience the unique and abundant wildlife. But I was hot and hungry. The toilet wasn’t working. And those loud incessant hummers grew annoying as mosquitoes, especially the violet-crowned ones.       

I soon got over my sulk, and we joined a guided hike in search of the elusive trogon. Everyone but me had bird books and binoculars. I was just there for the walk. But the ponderosa pines were beautiful. When I stuck my nose into the bark it smelled like vanilla cookies.

A nice Italian couple showed me a photo of the trogon and gave me a bag of trail mix. I lagged behind eating, but stopped when a heard a sound overhead. Looking up, there was the elusive trogon looking down. Wow! The others were nowhere in sight. On my way back to the visitors’ centre, a coati mundi crossed my path.

We stayed four days. It rained on two. The bathroom flooded. No one had spotted the trogon except me. Still, I was happy to leave, to be sitting in a diner, waiting for pancakes and coffee. I browsed through a newsletter from the Nature Conservancy. Beware of rabid skunks, I read. And hungry animals looking for food. They weren’t the only ones.


Now that I no longer practice yoga, due to the fact I practiced too hard and froze my shoulder, I’m exploring meditation. Like yoga, meditation comes in many styles and prices, from free to bankrupt, silence to mantra. But among the nothing there is something, and my Zen Buddhist teacher Banko seems genuine.    

I’ve been an obedient pupil since pre-school. I’m wide-eyed and receptive, able to sit for thirty minutes without going nuts. But am I meditating or napping? Have I risen to the level of meditation just because I can sit still and close my eyes? Banko’s answer is long and unsatisfying: ‘Monkey mind, okay. Even lying on your back, okay. Just come back to the breath.’

I did like the image of the tiger who is always present and awake. And the analogy that we live in a castle but only use the kitchen. So I ask a kitchen question: What about the pain in my neck? Again, he goes off. But he picks up that I’m not going to embrace the pain and admits that he too has a bum back. He mastered the lotus position he now sits comfortably in, watching television. ‘I used to watch a lot of television,’ he says, adjusting his Buddhist bib which strikes me as stylish. I compare it to the latest corset belt from Miuccia Prada, (the thinking woman’s designer).

I like Banko’s candour. He doesn’t pose or make his spirituality seem precious. He was late to class because he was with his sister who’d just put her beloved old dog to sleep. Another student was sure the dog was off to another life. Banko wasn’t. His lack of conviction opened my mind. Which is why I’ve been going back week after week. To relax. For self restoration. Which might be all meditation is about.


Walking down a different Bleeker Street brings that night back. I was sitting at a long table in the Village Gate watching ‘Jacques Brel Is Alive and Living in Paris’, that I’d already seen six times. I was 20. Tickets were cheap. I couldn’t get enough of the original cast who sang the hell out of those songs. My favourite was ‘Marieke’ whose eight stanzas repeated: Without love, warm love, everything is over. I didn’t understand the Dutch, and it didn’t matter that ‘Marieke’ was a love song more about a country. It just felt like a certain kind of world was coming to an end. And that made me feel sad. I tried to hide my tears, but that night I needed a hankie I didn’t have, so I reached for a cocktail napkin that wasn’t mine. A man whose unmistakable face the footlights threw a shine on reached for my hand. He was crying too. It was James Baldwin.

Trump L’Oeil

She’s mute, seen and unheard. Silky as a seal,
the likes of which the world has never seen.
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