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OPINION

American Life in Poetry: Monarchs, Viceroys, Swallowtails

Introduction by Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate
An eastern monarch butterfly gathers its strength after emerging from its chrysalis in a Paradise, Indiana.

Edward Muir’s poem, “The Horses,” published many years ago, envisioned a future in which the workhorse would return, and with them, we’d have a new beginning. Today, some of our fellow creatures aren’t to come back. Here’s a poem by Robert Hedin, of Minnesota, that I found in the most recent Alaska Quarterly Review.  Hedin’s most recent book is At the Great Door of Morning, from Copper Canyon Press.

Monarchs, Viceroys, Swallowtails 

For years they came tacking in, full sail, 

Riding the light down through the trees,

Over the rooftops, and not just monarchs,

But viceroys, swallowtails, so many

They became unremarkable, showing up

As they did whether we noticed them or not,

Swooping and fanning out at the bright

Margins of the day. So how did we know

Until it was too late, until they quit coming,

That the flowers in the flower beds

Would close their shutters, and the birds

Grow so dull they’d lose the power to sing,

And how later, after the river died,

Others would follow, admirals, buckeyes,

All going off like some lavish parade

Into the great overcrowded silence.

And no one bothered to tell the trees

They wouldn’t be coming back any more,

The huge shade trees where they used 

To gather, every last branch and leaf sagging

Under the bright freight of their wings.

American Life in Poetry does not accept unsolicited manuscripts. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2019 by Robert Hedin, “Monarchs, Viceroys, Swallowtails,” from the Alaska Quarterly Review (Vol. 36, No. 3 & 4). Poem reprinted by permission of Robert Hedin and the publisher. Introduction copyright @2020 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.