David Baker published his first book of poetry, “Haunts,” in 1985. That title, both noun and verb, says a lot about the tone and tenor of the poetry Baker has published in the 3½ decades since, a substantial career that is generously represented in “Swift: New and Selected Poems.” Baker’s poetic universe is a hushed, melancholy and at times ghostly place, haunted both by attachments to the past and by anxiety about its increasingly uncertain future.

The suffering and loss that pervade these poems is sometimes personal, sometimes global, at times even universal. The ongoing and all too frequently unacknowledged devastation of the terrestrial sphere lurks always in the background. Baker’s poems remind us that nature poetry can never be old-fashioned, because nature is never old-fashioned; it is, indeed, not even the same from one moment to the next. His writing is guided by a fundamental question: How do we understand nature in a world in which nature is no longer stable, in which anything we say about it is likely to be overturned or falsified by tomorrow’s breaking news? (As he writes in “The Osprey,” “what I / mean is, by the / time I tell you this it’s / gone.”)


(W. W. Norton)

Poet David Baker. (Katherine Baker)

“Can the ending of things ever be heard?” he asks in “Tree Frogs.” Baker’s project, in large part, has been to help us hear the inaudible and see the invisible, in order to let us come to terms with the world that sustains our lives and what we are doing to it. The first step in this process, perhaps, is realizing that we are continuous with nature. “The body is a wind,” he writes in “Waiting for News”; and, in the next line, “I see the sea. The sea is you.” In “Monarchs Landing and Flying”— a poem that in many ways exemplifies the music and texture of Baker’s writing and thought — he splits the scene between two ephemeral entities, a pair of human lovers and a kaleidoscope of migrating butterflies, each, it appears, insensible to the other.

Monarchs Landing and Flying

If they have come for the butterflies then
bless their breaking hearts, but the young pair is
looking nowhere except each other’s eyes.
He seems like he could carry them both
over the street on great wings of grief tucked
under his coat, while all around them float,
like wisps of ash or the delicate
prism sunlight flashing off the city glass,
the orange-yellow-black-wing-flecked monarchs.
Migrant, they’re more than two dozen today,
more long-lived than the species who keep
to the localized gardens — they’re barely
a gram apiece, landing, holding still for
the common milkweed that feeds their larvae,
or balanced on bridges of plume grass stalks
and bottlebrush, wings fanning, closing, calmed
by the long searchlight stems of hollyhock.
If they have come for the butterflies then
why is she weeping when he lifts her chin?
He looks like he’s holding his breath back—
or is he trying to shed tears, too? Are
any left? He’s got his other hand
raised, waving, and almost before it stops
the taxi’s doors flare on both sides open.
Nothing’s stirring in the garden, not us,
not the thinnest breeze among the flowers,
yet by the time we look again they’ve flown.

(Reprinted from “Swift: New and Selected Poems.” Copyright (c) 2019, 2015, 2009, 2005, 2001, 1998, 1994, 1991, 1985 by David Baker. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.)

Troy Jollimore’s most recent book of poems is “Syllabus of Errors.”