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Poetry Moment: Julia Spicher Kasdorf and 'Swallows Over Bellefonte'

Julia Spicher Kasdorf
Julia Spicher Kasdorf
Poet of “Swallows Over Bellefonte,” Julia Spicher Kasdorf

This is Poetry Moment on WPSU, a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. I’m Shara McCallum, the 2021-22 Penn State laureate.

Today’s poem is “Swallows Over Bellefonte” by Julia Spicher Kasdorf.

Spicher Kasdorf is the author of four books of poetry, her most recent being Shale Play, a collaboration with photographer Steve Rubin. “Swallows Over Bellefonte” comes from Spicher Kasdorf’s previous book, Poetry in America. As with much of her writing, the poem reveals her deep connection to Pennsylvania—to its history and to its valleys and vales. Born in Lewistown of Mennonite heritage, Spicher Kasdorf teaches at Penn State University.

In “Swallows Over Bellefonte,” the poet freezes a moment in time that expands our understanding of who we are as individuals tied to the past, while giving us an intimate snapshot of a mother-daughter relationship in the here and now of the poem’s present. All of this comes through the rich details Spicher Kasdorf notices and captures.

Here’s “Swallows Over Bellefonte”:

Look at the birds, she points, as they swoop
         and chirp over our town where every cornice
                  refers to the past and anything that matters

                  has already happened: seven governors,
         iron ore and the foundries that forged
trans-continental railroads and civil war, wire

for the cables that strung Brooklyn’s bridge
         from its arches and stretched the wings
                  of the Wright brothers’ flying machine—

                  even Amelia Earhart stopped here for lunch,
         once. The swallow’s tails, sleek as Cadillac fins
or boomerang coffee tables, black as pillbox hats

at the wake for a slain head of state.
         Hear them singing? I ask. We lie on our backs
                  on playground slides next to the brick high school

                  built in ’42. The toxic pie of a fall-out shelter sign,
         faded, still hangs by the gym door.
They’re having fun! she cries.

I know that whatever happens only happens
         here, now, in this town where a man
                  guarded the big spring for weeks after 9/11,

                  and a HAZMAT team raced to the mall to scrape
        white powder that turned out to be a breath mint,
crushed under someone’s boot. Not that I can keep the sun

from sliding behind Purdue Ridge, staining the clouds
         an uncanny orange. Good job, birds,
                  she sings beside me, Good job.

That was “Swallows Over Bellefonte” by Julia Spicher Kasdorf.

"Swallows Over Bellefonte" from Poetry in America by Julia Kasdorf, c. 2011. Aired by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.

Shara McCallum was the 2021-22 host of "Poetry Moment" on WPSU.