The Swan as Metaphor for Love

by Amelia Gray, recommended by Joyland


Sometimes, trying to identify what, exactly, makes a piece of writing work is quite difficult, which is why people like me make the foolhardy decision to dedicate their lives to the study and production of literature. Other times, a piece’s magic is so obvious that it becomes performative, incantatory, almost beyond interpretation. Amelia Gray’s “The Swan as Metaphor for Love” falls in the latter category. There’s a word for what makes this story so good — diction — but to reduce its power to a literary term seems to me a missing of the point. What I really want to draw your attention to is the better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be phrase “some fuck teenager,” which appears in the parenthetical aside that is the story’s third paragraph. How I admire this some fuck teenager and the “half a can of beer” he or she has contributed to the pond scum Gray describes. How I have agonized over the source of his or her power. The some fuck teenager is the closest humans come to having a representative character in the story; otherwise, we’re relegated to a general disempowered “you,” as subject to the whims of the genus Cygnus as the “entire schools of larval amphibians” Gray memorably describes swans “slurp[ing] up.” Given the richness and density of her stomach-turning prose, how dull would it be if I argued that Gray is saying love’s intrinsic grotesquerie shapes the atavistic terror it evokes? Although tempted to dump my own gone-flat Natty Ice into the primordial lit crit ooze, I’d rather let the story’s discomfiting ecosystem diagram speak for itself.

“The Swan as Metaphor for Love” appeared in Joyland Los Angeles in 2012, prior to my tenure at the magazine; full credit for its selection goes to then-editor Matthew Timmons. The intervening three years have not dimmed the story’s vibrancy, nor cracked its weird power. “This is a banal phrase, ‘pond scum,’ one that is easily ignored,” Gray writes, “but look closer.” Too many cooks might spoil the broth, but when spoilage is a given — as it is in all intimate encounters with the vile ick we call love — some fuck teenager is all you need.

Lisa Locascio
Los Angeles Section Editor, Joyland


The Swan as Metaphor for Love

“The Swan as Metaphor for Love”

by Amelia Gray

A swan’s foot, like a duck’s, is a webbed claw. In traversing swan shit and mud, these claws naturally gunk up and reek. Nobody in the history of the world, save another swan, has licked a swan’s foot while that foot was still attached to the swan. The feet resemble rabid bats in their sickly color and texture.

Moving north on the swan’s undercarriage, one will find an eroded civilization of swan shit and pond scum. This is a banal phrase, “pond scum,” one that is easily ignored, but look closer. Swans eat grasses, sedges, and pondweed, each teeming with murk. They will also eat insects, snails, and a fresh shrimp if they’re near one.

Pond scum is more of the same: swan shit, fish shit, frog shit, half a can of beer from some fuck teenager, plastic, photosynthetic residue, algae, permanent bubble, hexagon patch freed from its soccer ball, arthropod corpse. All attached to the swan in its idiot float through its stagnant little inland sea.

Swans eat tadpoles. A swan will slurp up entire schools of larval amphibians, process them, and shit them out, and then sometimes it will sit in the shit or walk through it, and here we are. Anyone who claims that a swan is a majestic and noble creature has never seen a swan up close.

Swans will attack you if you are nearing their young or their nest, if you are trying to have a conversation with their mate. They have jagged points on their beaks, which resemble teeth but more closely resemble a plumber’s saw, which plumbers call a Tiny Tim. If you try to take a swan’s picture he will strike you with his beak. Too much attention enrages a swan. The swan has a long neck and will strike at you. The swan will bite you and tear your flesh.

Swans mate for life, which is maybe ten or fifteen years. Someone found a swan once that was twenty-four years old and probably it was mating for life, which everyone made a big deal out of even though the swan was not even old enough to rent a car. The swan wasn’t yet acquainted with life enough to silently hyperventilate in its bed. The swan didn’t have a bed. The swan was too stupid to have a bed and if it did it would fill the bed with swan shit.

That’s all for today about swans.

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