How To Cross Trump’s Swamp


Donald Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” while wallowing in swampish corruption himself pretty much sums up his major political tactic: whatever you are guilty of, accuse the other side of it. If you do this constantly enough and confidently enough, maybe you can at least confuse enough people to get away with it.

Given that public pressure succeeded last week in forcing the resignation of one of Trump’s swampiest cabinet members (EPA head Scott Pruitt), we all deserve a good swamp poem, so here’s one by Mary Oliver. “Crossing the Swamp” describes a depressed state, making it appropriate for how many of us are feeling these days. Miraculously, however, the speaker manages to hold on to a glimmer of hope.

As you read the poem, note how it feels like wading through a swamp, with each four lines representing a step. In the process, the poet loses her bearings:

Crossing the Swamp

By Mary Oliver

Here is the endless
   wet thick
      cosmos, the enter
         of everything—the nugget
of dense sap, branching
   vines, the dark burred
      faintly belching
         bogs. Here
is swamp, here
   is struggle,
         pathless, seamless,
peerless mud. My bones
   knock together at the pale
      joints, trying
         for foothold, fingerhold,
mindhold over
   such slick crossings, deep
      hipholes, hummocks
         that sink silently
into the black, slack
   earthsoup I feel
      not wet so much as
         painted and glittered
with the fat grassy
   mires, the rich
      and succulent marrows
         of earth—a poor
dry stick given
   one more chance by the whims
      of swamp water—a bough
         that still after all these years,
could take root,
   sprout, branch out, bud–
      make of its life a breathing
         palace of leaves.

Many of us, wading through Trump’s swamp, feel as though we are losing “foothold, fingerhold, mindhold” with a “black, slack earthsoup” pulling us under. To be sure, Oliver’s swamp is more positive than Trump’s in that it is nourishing (“rich and succulent marrows of earth”).  But in the poet’s drama, she feels like a dead stick and the swamp is a darkness that threatens to overwhelm her.

Only, miraculously, it doesn’t as, against all odds, she finds herself revitalized. If you are looking for hope, imagine that resistance to Trump is reinvigorating the American experiment. The founding fathers and mothers knew that freedom had to be fought for, and many are awaking to the fact that our liberty cannot be taken for granted.

We’re slogging through a dismal swamp. Pray that we come back and make of this country a breathing palace of leaves.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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