Finding the Form with Janeen Werner-King
“Migrations” was inspired after I witnessed a field full of trumpeter swans covered in snow beside the Courtney River in British Columbia. After returning to Calgary, I didn’t write about my experience for several months, and then, in a Wordsworth-like moment of tranquility, I recalled my excitement and amazement of seeing so many swans all together: “My heart pumps like a trumpeter swan’s / webbed feet in the estuary, / creating currents / that free roots / from mud.” It wasn’t just their numbers, “one thousand snow-covered swans,” but also how they had recovered after being hunted to near extinction to make “the boas of decades ago – a beautiful cruelty.”
As I reflected on the swans and the great distances they travel from the Arctic to Vancouver Island every year, I remembered some of my former students who had migrated to Canada. Possible parallels between the migrations of the swans and the students prompted me to characterize the narrator as a teacher:
as students fill rows
of my classroom
I hadn’t planned that the narrator would be a teacher of refugee students. With her new role, “Migrations” was no longer just a celebratory nature poem; it began to explore complexities of human violence, fear, empathy, hope, migrations, and survival through parallels, contrasts, and juxtapositions with the natural world.
The middle stanzas introduce three specific students who migrated, fleeing specific cruelties. Names were changed for privacy. First there is, Bhanu who “escaped a locked / factory, months / before fire killed hundreds.” Then, there is Faheema who “writes / of burial / shrouds and /pamphlets / that warned—/ any girl / in school / will wear these.” And there is Saidu who “hid / in the jungle / every night / he heard / the drums say / rebels are coming / to take the village / boys as soldiers. / Each morning, / he ran farther / from smoldering ash and the copper taste / of blood in the air.” Images of life-threatening fire, burial shrouds, boy soldiers, smoldering ash, and the copper taste of blood in the air take both the narrator and reader mentally away from the snow, fields, swans, and estuary where the narrator stands. Jarring, these violent images contrast sharply with natural imagery in the opening stanza. Although her students physically escaped brutality, the teacher’s retelling of their stories reveals they carry past traumas with them.
“Images of life-threatening fire, burial shrouds, boy soldiers, smoldering ash, and the copper taste of blood in the air take both the narrator and reader mentally away from the snow, fields, swans, and estuary where the narrator stands.”
Following close-ups of each migrant student, the narrator steps back, reflecting on multiple migrations and the feelings of those who decide to flee. A moral ethical tension develops as she considers the reasons for many human migrations. “Migrations echo like / multiple gun shots and / percussive heart beats / of someone running.” The narrator hears “multiple gun shots” and feels the fear, the “percussive heart beats / of someone running” from violence. She simultaneously thinks about the larger world picture while internalizing fears of someone trying to escape a threat. “Percussive heart beats” echo the opening when the narrator’s “heart pumps like a trumpeter swan’s / webbed feet in the estuary.” The beating heart image signals a transition, and the narrator’s attention returns to the migrant swans:
A pair of trumpeters runs
one hundred yards
together . . . .
Their black feet flex,
eight foot wings beat.
Then, long necks stretch,
feet extend and
offer some solace
to their audience of
this ballet of flight.
The natural beauty of swans taking flight provides the narrator with “some solace.” Knowing that the trumpeters were saved from extinction, recognizing the sanctuary her students now experience, and witnessing the “ballet of flight” reassures her about rectifying past wrongs. The beauty of nature, art, and action merge in a “ballet of flight,” providing relief from the horrors of humanity’s past actions. Nevertheless, the narrator recognizes this comfort is inadequate—the near extinction of the swans and the violence forcing multiple migrations of people remain in the back of her mind and cannot be erased. The narrator of “Migrations” changes profoundly as she watches migrant trumpeter swans while her thoughts and feelings about past threats to the swans, her students, and other refugees enter and disrupt what appears on the surface to be peaceful scene. Nature, the swan’s success story, and the physical safety of her students are restorative, but limited in their capacity to assuage the narrator’s thoughts and feelings. This leaves the narrator, me, and perhaps you, the reader, feeling hopeful and unsettled.
Janeen Werner-King’s poetry is published in Ariel, Contemporary Verse 2, Orbis, Other Voices, Queen’s Quarterly, and Whetstone. Her poems have been broadcast several times on CBC radio. Janeen initiated and organized the first two Calgary Stroll of Poets festivals, and previously was a poetry editor of Dandelion magazine.
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