MN poetry: Barton Sutter’s ‘My Mother at Swan Lake’

This Sunday at noon Barton Sutter and his brother Ross will perform poetry and music at Plymouth Church in Minneapolis.

The program, titled "This is the Day: Rejoicing Anyway" focuses on the spiritual response to suffering, and is part of the church's "Literary Witnesses" program.


Ross and Barton Sutter

Image courtesy of the artists

Bart says about the performance:

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"As the Buddha said, everyone suffers. How we respond to suffering is a crucial spiritual question. Billions of people suffer more than Ross and I do, but art always works with particulars, and in our particular case, when we were just kids we watched helplessly as our mother suffered a gruesome illness and died. Such an experience shatters simple-minded religious faith. So then what? We designed our program around that experience and its spiritual consequences."

One of the poems Sutter will read on Sunday is "My Mother at Swan Lake" from his new collection The Reindeer Camps. Sutter says it took him close to fifty years to write.

"The memory of that picnic haunted me for decades, and I didn't know why. In writing the poem, which is mostly just description, I discovered some of the reasons for the haunting. For one thing, I realized this was the last day I remembered my original family as happy and whole. For another, my dead mother seemed to have a message for me in what she'd said that day, but I hadn't been hearing it clearly."

Sutter says he hopes to move the audience to tears, and to laughter.

"We hope they'll go away humming one of Ross's songs or maybe mumbling a couple of my lines. And since all of us suffer, I suppose the best one-word take-away would be--encouragement."

My Mother at Swan Lake

                    "This is the day which the Lord has made;

                    let us rejoice and be glad in it."

                            —Psalms 118:24

A maniac for picnicking,

     She'd pack us up to go

The very first thing in the spring;

     Sometimes we sat in snow!

But we were well into the year;

     The swans had all long gone.

We'd shed, like leaves, our nagging fears.

     The lake went pink and calm.

Her hair'd come back; her light, low laugh;

     Her cancer in "remission,"

A state that gave us some relief

     From pain and vain religion.

My dad had let me start the fire.

     I saw my mom was proud

Of how the flames kept growing higher;

     They wouldn't flicker out.

I've clutched this day near fifty years

     But always felt so stupid

That it could bring the sting of tears

     When there was nothing to it:

My sister makes a small bouquet

     Of weeds and faded asters,

But I can't hear my mother say

     What she bends low to ask her.

My brother's down beside the shore;

     I see his silhouette.

My father calls out, as before,

     "Now don't go getting wet!"

My mother leans against a tree.

     She sighs. I hear her say

Across the half a century,

     "It's been a lovely day."

- My Mother at Swan Lake, by Barton Sutter, from his collection The Reindeer Camps, published by BOA Editions, Ltd. Reprinted here with permission of the author.