barcelona review #15

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swans and the letter SSWANS, TRICKSTERS,

by Barbara F. Lefcowitz



A cob, a pen a cygnet; a Trumpeter Swan, a Mute Swan, a Black- Necked Swan: it didn’t matter which one even though cobs were always male, pens female, and cygnets juveniles with gray plumage. When I first read "The Ugly Duckling," I wished only that one day I, too, would be transformed into a swan. Surely I was not the first to be fascinated by these elegant, often wild, sometimes dangerous waterfowl, dangerous because a Trumpeter Swan, when approached too closely, can beat a person to death with its powerful wings.

Is it the whiteness of their feathers; the green of their eggs; the knobbiness of their bills; the length and gracefulness of their necks; the mysteries of their migratory habits or of their ability to arch their wings and glide clear across a lake or pond that have for centuries made swans so appealing they are the subjects of so many myths and legends?

Certainly it is not their music. The notion of a swan breaking into song just prior to death is precisely that, a mere notion--despite evidence that none less than Aristotle claimed it to be true, despite the persistence of the term "swan song" to indicate all manner of farewells and last acts. The misnamed Mute Swans do make a sort of singing noise when they move their feathers in flight in order to communicate with the rest of the flock; moreover, according to a BBC educational program, they "also emit . . .quiet grunts, throaty gurgles and honks and they hiss loudly when agitated." But no terminal melodies. . .

Probably the cygnet’s remarkable transformation from a dumpy gray-feathered bird to a long-necked white or black adult accounts best for the widespread allure of swans, as well as their associations with peril, bad omens, death. . .


Transformation to a gliding swan would rank high if I were given a chance to shift to another form, at least temporarily. But a few days as a leopard would also be appealing or perhaps as a willow tree, my long green hair swaying with the wind. Why not follow the more daring path of Gluskap, a god of the North American forests, who could make himself a water eddy, even dust-in-sunlight? Or, like the Hindu Apsara dancers, become a rainbow? Best of all, mimic the African sky spirit Annency who just for the hell of it could become not just a tiger but the yellow of a tiger’s eye; the blue of the sky as reflected in water; pure iridescence like that produced by the sun on the surface of dew.

Though often shape-shifters are creator gods, capable of assuming the forms of what they created, whether lizards, kangaroos, grains of corn or puffs of smoke. Luke, an ancient Nordic god who existed prior to the very notion of existence, contained in his bag of tricks the ability to become a blush on the face of a fair young maiden, all the better to seduce her. (I myself would prefer to become the glaze in the eyes of a man just prior to lovemaking).


If a swan were a letter of the alphabet surely in the Roman alphabet, that letter would be S; a letter whose shape suggests the rhythms of continuous motion; kin to the scroll, the universal spiral, the whirlpool, the whirlwind, the waxing and waning moon, a meandering stream. The closest Greek equivalent would be the sigma : granted such a swan would be considerably more angular than its Roman version. In the Hebrew alphabet, the lamed might do, especially for a swan who has suffered the misfortune of a lopped-off head.

Whether vertical or horizontal, the S shape evokes images of alternating phases, not only of the moon, but the seasons, the commingling of heaven and earth, evolution and involution.

The art of ornamentation is rife with variations of the S, particularly in Persian, Turkish, and Celtic designs. And if we flip an S around, adding a little curve of a tail, we have the zodiacal sign of Leo, linked with fire, the sun, the power of the will. . .



Swan-maidens abound Celtic and Teutonic legends. In "The Dream of Angus," in which one Angus Ma Ox falls in love with his dream vision of a beautiful girl, he visits the lake where she lives, and sees her among 150 other young women, each connected to another by a silver chain. Alas, they alternate each year between human and swan form, and can only be loved in their swan phase. So? The astute young man learns that the ritual shape-changing occurs always at the Feast of Simon, returns to the lake at that time, sees a flock of white swans with silvery chains around their heads, and calls out the name of his beloved, who agrees to join him on the condition he, too, is willing to change himself into a swan. Of course. And so the two fly off together into the Celtic sky, many years later to be transmuted to magical pendants and pins sold in hip little gift shops in, say, Oregon. I also recall seeing such pendants in Iceland.

In other versions, the swan-maiden can change her form at will with the help of a magical garment, usually a feather robe. Should her future mate find the robe and ask its purpose, she must change back into a swan and fly off forever into the unknown. Interpretations include the conflict between the swan’s desire to stay in a particularly place and the need to migrate; also a parallel between the loss of the robe and the process of moulting. In Central Asia, the demonic swan-maiden drinks the blood of the dead.

Male versions of the motif, or swan-knights, are usually associated with boats or chariots. Well known because of Wagner’s opera, Lohengrin was such a knight, his swan-journey analogous with those of the Greek sun-gods, notably Apollo. I think as I write this of the swan boats in which my children and I paddled around the waters of the Boston Common many years ago. . .

Some families of the Rhineland actually claimed descent from a swan-knight. And though on the Isle of Skye, swans allegedly rescue human babies, wrapping them in shawls of feathers and carrying them in "nests" of twisted nettles, swans are regarded as ominous in Scotland where to this day they are thought to embody the souls of the dead. Perhaps a Hebrides version of the Oedipus legend, a swan substituted for the shepherd who rescued the abandoned infant with spiked ankles, only to bring on unspeakable woe?


A most fascinating shape-shifter is the African creator-spirit Dxui. His method of creating various animals and plants involves actually becoming the created object, one at a time. Thus he might briefly become a flower, but for reasons unbeknownst--possibly boredom--he would leave his imprint on its petals, moving on to become, say, a tiger; in turn, perhaps a rock, a grain of sand, a lump of dung-- anything to relieve his tedium vitae.

Imagine the implications for human creators: today I shall literally create and become the clay of a pot, the very stuff of my being coiled or shaped on a wheel, fired in a kiln, glazed, set out to dry. After a spell of experiencing the world as a pot--does it really welcome being filled with water or used as a cooking vessel?--I inscribe it with my initials and leave it behind, having decided now to create a mosaic. Not only does my flesh and blood turn gold, but I become, in turn, each of the mosaic’s luminous angels. Then move on perhaps to become each note in, say, Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy. . .or each streak on the body of a worm.


The letter S has been associated with the shape of the lyre, with water, with thin clouds. Reversed and crossed in the middle by two parallel lines, it is the alchemist’s sign for oil; flipped onto its back and preceded by a plus sign, it’s the alchemist’s sign for arsenic. The alchemical associations are, of course, most germane here, given the close tie between alchemy and transmutation. Though S was associated with lead in early charts of the elements, mystics linked it with saintliness and sun worship.

Its closest numerical cousin is the number 8, whose horizontal version represents infinity. The sign for the American dollar, $, derives from its association with that number: originally a symbol for the Spanish peso, equal in value to 8 reals or pieces-of-eight, it first was shaped like a blend of a P and and 8; later the P was dropped and the 8 bordered on each side by a diagonal line: /8/. Still later the lines were superimposed upon the 8, which, according to John Fitzpatrick, author of "The Spanish Galleon and Pieces-of-Eight" in Scribner’s Magazine, was carelessly written to resemble an S. Finally, the lines were superimposed upon an S curled at each end so the new symbol resembled a fusion of the U and the S, appropriate enough for the United States of America.

An ordinary S all by itself is the official American meteorological sign for a sandstorm.



"Swan Upping," the purpose of which is to record the number of swans on the river and to mark or pinion the cygnets to indicate ownership, still takes place each summer on the River Thames. The ritual is linked with the swan’s status as Britain’s royal bird; all swans, even those at liberty or in common waters, belong to the Crown or to companies of the Vintners and Dyers. As royal birds, swans were prized as gifts and consumed at banquets and Christmas dinners.

After the swan was officially declared royal in 1482, "swan motes" and "Swanning Courts" were established to enforce the swan laws. To this day there is a Master of the Swans, responsible for supervising all swans in the kingdom. In the five days of the actual "Upping," the overseers travel in wooden boats, once elaborately decorated for the purpose. Birds are removed from the river in order to be marked so as to distinguish ownership, the marks accomplished by cutting or branding on the mandible, leg, foot, or wing; sometimes beak marks are cut with a sharp knife that produces a scar. Pinioning, or clipping the swan’s wings so it could not fly, was declared illegal in 1978 because of protests from animal rights groups, but the overall ritual of marking continues --much to the consternation of the latter.

The eating of swan has, however, for the most part become unpopular. As far back as 1738, swan’s flesh was described as "blacker, harder, and tougher than that of a goose, having grosser Fibres hard of Digestion, of a bad melancholic Juice. . ." (As quoted in Peter Scott, The Swans: Boston, 1974, p. 174). Apparently tastier are tender young cygnets, fattened on malt and barley; they are still consumed, seasoned with nutmeg and shallots, then moistened with port wine sauce, at the Dyers' and Vintners' annual feast.


Though some shape-shifters are primarily creation gods, who once having created something grant it a stable form, most often they are tricksters, who continue to change forms, sometimes to help human beings but often just for for the hell of it.

One such malevolent trickster is Shen Nong of Chinese legends. Sometimes he manifests himself as a human being with the head of an ox, but he can transform himself into scorching winds that gave rise to forest fires. Slavic water-spirits disguise themselves as floating logs, green-skinned, weed-slimed, and covered with warts ; at night they prowl the lakes and rivers, dragging humans underwater to serve as their slaves. In contrast, Shakespeare’s tricksters, such as Puck or Ariel, seem as manicured and proper as British gentry.


If you’re keen about gematria (word-number correspondences) and the mystical bonds of letters with objects and qualities, S will not disappoint: the Hebrew equivalent (samekh) means a prop and has a numerical value of 60; the Greek sigma means psychopomp (he who conducts the souls of the dead into the afterlife), has a numerical value of 200, and, for some godforsaken reason, corresponds to the human genitalia, presumably male.

More lyrical the correspondence between the Runic sigel and the juniper tree or the Runic stan with the blackthorn tree and sacred stones. There is no precise equivalent between the S and the signs of the Celtic Ogham alphabet; the closest is the straif associated with the thrush, but rest assured that the Gaelic suil refers to a willow tree and has a numerical value of 15. So there. In matters more mundane, S.,= Sabbath or Saint; Saxon, School, Sea; an indication to "mark" or "label" (medical); ss (in prescription)= half; ss., =to wit; namely; used in legal documents to verify place of action; abbreviation for shortstop in baseball . . .

And though S stands for sarcoma, sadism, schizophrenia, sarcophagus, satyriasis, savagery, smarmy, sulk, Sobibor, schlemiel, schmuck, streptococcus, and Schutzstaffel or SS, it also stands for star grass, sex, sapphire, saxophone, silver, Stradivarius, sauterne, sally lun, satori, shalloon. . .



Sustaining the boundaries between self and subject matter--whether characters, images, places, actions, ideas, or feelings--is what distinguishes the writer from what he writes about. Unlike Dxui, Shakespeare never became Hamlet or Lear, even in his most intense creative moments, when he "conceived" and "gave birth" to them, entering metaphorically into their flesh.

As a writer, I might occasionally wish to break out of those boundaries and become one of my characters or even the tree I’m extolling in a poem, but always there’s that crucial distance between us. Always. Otherwise I’d be a tree, or psychotic, or perhaps both--which may or may not create that world-wide audience every writer dreams about.

And though applying Keats’s notion of negative capability is imperative for the writer--i.e. entering into the essence of the Other--never can we be more than an occasional guest, even if the host is wholly a product of our own imagination. A pity. . .At least much of the time: how lovely it would be to shift my shape so it fits, say, the mind and body of the tango dancer, a character is one of my recent stories; to glide, as she does, with sexy elegance and grace across a polished floor in the arms of some darkly handsome Argentinean. Or to shift into a lilac in full bloom, a bird-of-paradise, the color blue, the sea itself. Of course, with my luck, even if I acquired this magical ability, I’d likely find myself transformed into a bag lady, a leper, a landfill, the color brown. . .


That swan sculpted from ice, both grotesque and vested with a luminous beauty. I’ll never forget the first time I saw such a thing as a kid. It was the centerpiece of the dessert table at a cousin's elaborate wedding reception. All night I kept waiting for the swan to melt; even a droplet or two would have sufficed. But it remained intact, totally dropless, like a person with a disorder of the sweat glands that prevents him from emitting moisture on even the hottest days. Now that I think back on it, I wonder if that swan had really been carved from ice or whether it was a trick, a cleverly disguised work of glass.

Swans are often linked with clouds since both were privileged to tow the chariots of the gods. Especially translucent clouds. In ancient India, the Apsaras, or holy dancers, sometimes were interchangeable with both clouds and swans. In one tale, someone noticed feathery white clouds moving in procession across the sky; he assumed they must be swans gliding over water and created the legend of a cosmic lake whose water were sufficiently pure for the bathing rituals of the holy dance maidens. One reason for the swans’ whiteness was their preference for feeding on pearls, which have long been boiled and liquefied to create a potent tonic. Black swans, however, which are always ominous, apparently do not feast upon black pearls.


The other night I dreamed I was the letter S, my curves so large they extended beyond the bed. I was looking for the letter H, so together we could form such lovely sounding words as shallow and shoon, the latter the archaic plural of shoe. But instead a C and Z arrived, and I realized we were supposed to spell out words only in Polish. When I woke up my back ached from its arched curve and I couldn't recall a single Polish word though I know we formed several.

Better to dream one has been transmuted to a swan, even a gray cob or ugly duckling. . .


© 1999 Barbara F. Lefcowitz

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Author bio:

Barbara F. Lefcowitz has published six books of poetry, a novel, and individual poems, stories, and essays in over 350 journals. She has won writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. Also a visual artist, she currently lives in Bethesda, Maryland. The essay published here is part of a series of "Triads," in which the author juxtaposes three seemingly disparate objects or ideas and tries to work out their interconnections. For another example of her work published in The Barcelona Review click here


navigation:                     barcelona review #15             November  1999 to January 2000
-Fiction Ian Wild - The Woman Who Swallowed The Book of Kells
Gotzy - Gotzy's Story
Greg Chandler - The Ghost of Sharon Tate
Alice Mullen - Glo-bug
Javier Marķas - Fewer Scruples
-Essay Barbara Lefcowitz -Swans, Tricksters, The Letter 'S'
-Quiz Samuel Beckett- win a book
Answers to last issue's Nabokov quiz
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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