Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Swan Swan Hummingbird

In 1986, when R.E.M. released Life’s Rich Pageant, I was 13 and not nearly cool enough to know about R.E.M. But by the time I was 18, I’d met a girl with far better taste, who turned me on to a number of things, including R.E.M. She gave me a tape with Life’s Rich Pageant on Side A and Murmur on Side B. (Kids, ask your parents if you don’t know what a cassette tape is.) It’d be going too far to say it changed my life, but fair to say it give me a soundtrack to some of the best, and worst, moments of my life for the next two decades.

Life’s Rich Pageant contains a humble song, “Swan Swan H,” that stands out not just from the rest of the album, but from the whole of R.E.M.’s catalog (though it’d fit in quite nicely with today’s Decemberists). It begins with a simple old folky 12-string guitar, and Michael Stipe’s haunted words.

Swan, swan, hummingbird
Hurrah, we’re all free now
What noisy cats are we
Girl and dog he bore his cross

The lyrics go from there on a long chain of poetry that, to this day, I can only understand on an emotional level. Some sources say that the song is “about the Civil War” but that’s as much insight as I’ve ever found.

I listened to the song so often, it just became part of my subconscious. I learned how to play it and would often serenade myself with it on lonely nights in between cigarettes. I owned a 12-string acoustic for a time in college, so I could play it right. I had to sell that guitar later when money was tight. I still miss it.

Skip ahead to now and the song is still with me. It plays when my wife calls, the only custom ringtone on my iPhone, because it was the song that reminded me most of Heather. (Or did I marry Heather because she reminded me of the song? Either way, they’re both gentle, beautiful, and deep.)

I don’t believe that songs have to be perfectly understood to be enjoyed. The lyrics wander, with layers of references no one could fully understand unless they’re Michael Stipe. But of all the song’s mysteries, the one I’ve thought about most is the first three words. What the hell does “Swan Swan Hummingbird” mean? Now, after 20 years of it rattling around in my head, I think I finally know.

Swan, swan, hummingbird
Hurrah, we are all free now
A long, low time ago, people talk to me

I’ve been trying to wake up earlier lately, using my iPhone as an alarm clock. I was getting tired of being woken up by the buzzing, so I shut vibration off and then realized I could set a ringtone to play instead. Of course, I picked “Swan Swan H.”

This morning, as the alarm was beginning, the song entered my mind as I was still somewhere in between sleep and reality. And in that synesthesia, for the first time, I saw the words as literal shapes: a swan, a swan, and a hummingbird. And you know what those shapes look like? Musical notes. Maybe even the first three notes of the vocal melody.

I jumped out of bed and drew this on the whiteboard in the hallway, my eyes still adjusting to the light.


Could this be it? An insight to what those words mean, finally, after 20 years of wondering? Could I be right? Only Michael Stipe would know for sure. (Confidential to MS: Email me. I’m “fraying” at the gmail dotcom.)

I take a lesson from this experience. Some mental puzzles have long timeframes. So long that, sometimes, when I’m feeling down, it can seem like nothing’s making any progress. But that’s not true. I’m working things out as fast as I can. Sometimes that’s just not very fast. Some things have to simmer. Some questions can’t be answered without a few more years under your belt. That’s just the way it works. So be patient. The goal isn’t to figure everything out right now. The goal is just to survive long enough to have a chance a finding an answer or two.

A pistol hot cup of rhyme,
The whiskey is water, the water is wine

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.