Michael Swan is a widely published poet, who has been published in poetry magazines such as Acumen and The Frogmore Papers, as well as in BBC Wildlife magazine. His collection When They Come For You was published by The Frogmore Press in 2003, and his second collection The Shapes of Things was published by Oversteps Books in 2011. In 2005 he won The Times’ Stephen Spender Prize for poetry translation with his translation from the German of Rilke’s “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes”. He won The Poetry Society’s 2010 Stanza Poetry Competition, with his poem “I Wasn’t There”. As well as being a poet, Michael is a writer of English language teaching and reference materials.


(The joker god of the Native American pantheon in the South-Western United States: their equivalent of Dolos, Loki, etc)




Kokopelli’s out,
running in the rain,
dancing on the rocks,
blowing his flute
at those fat old clouds,
telling them it’s time to
lighten up a little,
laughing at the thunder,
letting the lightning
flow down his arms
and out of the ends of his fingers.

He runs down the mountain,
dances past the houses,
looks in the windows
gazes at the people
wonders, as usual,
what they’re all doing,
what it can all be about.

Unable to reach
a sensible conclusion,
he gives up, and dances
back up the hillside.

The rain trickles in
through the holes in his flute,
giving the music
a warm and comforting buzz.





The tourists are out,
visiting the ruins
under the expert guidance
of a loud archaeologist.
Kokopelli joins the group,
sharing their wonder
at his dancing petroglyph portrait.
Not bad at all, he feels,
when you consider
the kind of primitive materials
the artist disposed of.

The loud archaeologist
goes into generous detail
regarding the role
in the ancient assembly of gods
of the flute-playing joker.

Losing patience
with all of this nonsense
Kokopelli plays
a haunting ten-second riff.
For a moment the tourists see
the whole scheme of things
just as it was
in all its harmonious beauty.

The music dies away gently,
and the tourists move on.





Kokopelli gets out of bed,
sorts himself out, and decides
this is a very good morning
to go and wreck a train.
Now look, says his granny,
don’t you go and hurt
none of them innocent folk,
you hear?

Kokopelli dances
down to the tracks
and sits on a tree stump
practising scales
till the next train thunders round the bend
whistling and hooting.

He plays a few notes
and the rails curl up
shining like silver
in the morning sun.
Over goes the train
down the embankment
cars piled up,
one on another,
everything smashed into pieces,
clouds of steam rising
up to the sky,
heaps of tangled metal
pointing every which way,
wheels all over the landscape,
finest old train wreck
you ever did see.

Out climb the passengers
blinking in astonishment,
three hundred souls and
not a single scratch.
They walk along the tracks
peering at the wreckage
talking up a storm,
quite at a loss to account for
their happy escape,
got enough material
to keep them all chattering
till Saturday week.

Mightily pleased with his day,
Kokopelli plays them
a goodbye solo
and heads back home.
His granny hugs him
and gives him flatbread and chokecherries,
his favourites.



On the threads,
fine beyond description,
that hold all the world in place
Kokopelli dances.

Closing his eyes
just to show off,
he leaps from one to another,
stands on his hands,
hangs by his feet,
turns the most amazing
somersaults and cartwheels.

Finally, panting a little,
he slides down to earth,
and, ever so gently,
plucks at each thread
to check on its tension and pitch.

Everything, he finds, is in order.






Kokopelli falls
head over heels in love
with a small orange butterfly,
more deeply in love than befits
one of the Holy People,
but never mind that.

Massively smitten
he dances around his beloved
playing her exquisite music
from morning to night.
When darkness falls,
his sweetheart no longer visible,
he skips away home
and pours out his heart to his granny.

The butterfly flutters around
up there on cloud nine.
Clearly, she feels
the relationship’s long-term prospects
are not all that good.
not every young lepidopter
scores with a god.

She decides to relax and enjoy it.






Kokopelli sits on the rimrock
playing some real cool stuff.
He blows up a storm.
Eighty-mile-an-hour winds
gusting to a hundred and fifty,
pines coming down,
piling up in heaps,
ground squirrels
huddled in their burrows
praying to the ground squirrel god,
buffalo airborne,
streams flowing backward,
the world in serious trouble.

Kokopelli skips
across the shattered landscape,
grins at the buffalo,
and trots up the stream bed
little feet flashing
driving the trout
into an aquabatic frenzy.

After half an hour
he loses motivation,
lets it all die down
and takes himself off
for a peaceful evening at home.





Kokopelli decides
it’s time to paint a picture.

The walls of the canyon,
the river and the rock tower,
require an extensive canvas
as big as the walls,
the river and the tower.

He makes a good start,
but it’s very heavy going
and the wind causes
all sorts of problems.

Suddenly the god has a god-like
flash of inspiration.
Who needs a canvas?

He paints the walls of the canyon
straight on the walls,
the stream on the stream,
the tower on the tower,
the trees on the trees.

Insects, buffalo and clouds
get the same treatment.

The old bald eagle
tries to be difficult,
but the swift-footed joker of the gods
isn’t having any of that.
The eagle gets an eagle
painted all over it
before it can open its beak.

After a long and busy day
Kokopelli heads off home
spattered with paint but happy.




Kokopelli is trying
to learn bilocation,
a useful accomplishment
for any young god
who may on occasion
need a reliable alibi.

‘What do you mean
impregnating your daughter?
At the time in question
I was in Oregon
causing an earthquake.
I can produce
a number of witnesses.’

Bilocation is tricky
(try it yourself).
Kokopelli has trouble
remembering where
and indeed who he is.

But summoning up
all of his mental powers
he centres himself
paces majestically
towards the edge of the canyon,
meets himself coming up
over the rimrock,
and runs for his life.




The scholars are back from vacation.

Kokopelli creeps up behind one
as she works at her desk
and steals a look over her shoulder.
Archetypes, he reads,
analytical frameworks,
anthropomorphic conceptions,
Anasazi: the evidence.

The Anasazi he knows.
He was the one
who led them away
when they ran out of water.
His portrait keeps watch
on their ruins.

But as for the rest –
and she’s only reached A!

Vastly impressed
he tiptoes away.

For a moment
she almost fancies she hears
faint and receding
sweet beyond bearing
the sound of a flute.




Kokopelli encounters a moment
of serious angst –
not at all his usual style.

What am I here for? he asks.
What is my place in creation?
How do I relate to
the People Above,
the Earth Surface People,
the rain and the wind
the deer and the buffalo?
What do all of them need
with a flute-playing joker?

These thoughts are disturbing.

Happily, three calm notes
low and sustained
suffice to dispel them.






is out telling fortunes.

He says to the rabbit
‘You will have numerous children.’
The rabbit is pleased.

He says to the wolf:
‘You will meet with an elk’
and gives the elk
the same information.
The elk seems less pleased than the wolf.

The coyote, a trickster himself,
but a good-hearted soul,
offers Kokopelli
a glimpse of his fate in return.
Kokopelli declines.

When he tells the fortunes
of the wind and the desert,
the dust-devils swirl,
and what Kokopelli says
to the wind and the desert
only they know.





Kokopelli happens to see
a lady walking home in the rain.
She is altogether gorgeous
and very very wet.

Always the gentleman
Kokopelli shapes his flute
into a large umbrella
which he holds up, unseen,
over the lady’s head.

For the rest of her homeward journey
she walks, drying rapidly,
inside an invisible zone
where no rain falls.
She is bathed in the perfume
of numberless desert plants
and accompanied by
strange sweet music.

Much too soon for Kokopelli
the lady arrives at her home.
My goodness, Alice,
says her mother,
as she walks in the door
I was sure you’d be utterly soaked.

It’s perfectly simple,
says Alice,
you just have to dodge the raindrops.





wants to put everything right.
Look, he says,
I can’t spend all of my time
dancing and playing
paying no attention
to what’s going on.
These days,
a god must be committed,
needs to get involved,
play his little part.

Down he goes, armed with his notebook,
takes a good look at it all,
sees the ravaged landscapes,
studies the rivers and the wells,
listens to the speakers,
walks through the ruins,
visits the camps,
gazes at the women
and the dying children,
finishes up
with a full-scale tour of the battlefields,
where he takes copious notes
of the condition and alignment
of the corpses.

Time, he decides,
warming his butt
on the barrel of a 25-pounder
and shaking his head,
time for a little break.

he says to himself.
when I feel stronger …





Kokopelli is down in the market
playing ‘Find the lady’
with the tourists.

Their spellbound eyes
follow each of his movements
with the greatest attention,
but the lady
is by no means a lady,
she is mostly the seven of spades.
And in front of the trickster
the dollars accumulate.

At the back of the crowd
Kokopelli’s granny shows up.
He catches her eye,
throws down the cards on the table,
and makes himself scarce.





Kokopelli is giving an interview.
This was set up
by the junior god
in charge of public relations
following concern
that the pantheon’s image
is not what it was.

The team are excited.

The cameras start rolling,
the questions begin.

So, what’s it like up there?
How do you guys spend your time?
Can you see the future?
What’s your greatest ambition?
Can you read minds?
Do you get a kick
out of causing earthquakes?
Do you ever have regrets?
Do you have normal appetites like us?
What do you eat and drink?
Do you have sex
with your divine siblings?
Have you ever had a human woman?

‘Appetites like us?’
Kokopelli closes his eyes.
‘What have these guys been smoking?’

He sits playing
for a couple of hours
until they give up.

None of their filming comes out.





Kokopelli is besieged
by an crowd of ill-tempered farmers
shouting and waving their fists.
They wish to discuss failing harvests,
pests, drought, livestock diseases,
and continual duststorms.

A fat woman
elbows her way to the front
and makes an offensive suggestion
involving his flute.

An evil-looking, smelly old man
is chanting and sticking large pins
into a wooden effigy
of an all-too familiar figure.

Honestly, asks Kokopelli,
who’d be a god?
Times are good, what do you get?
A couple of corn dollies, maybe,
and one or two odd bits of offal.
When times are tough, you’re simply
the nearest available target.

His attempt at calming their mood
with a sensitive flute solo
has little if any effect.
He gives up, makes a note
to send them a present of rattlesnakes,
and disappears upwards.






Kokopelli is out
running with the wild horses.

He races with the foals
but always lets them win.

When you grow up
he tells them
you will thunder across the plains,
shaking the earth,
while your beautiful manes
stream in the wind.

In the evening
when they all settle down
he tells them the old stories.

The mares stand close to the little ones
and listen as well.

The stallion stands farther away
as is fitting.
But not so far off
that he can’t hear the stories.






Kokopelli sits on the rimrock
enjoying the sun
and practising
a tricky bit of fingering.

The surveyors are leaving
with such of the records
as they have managed to salvage.

Problems from the start!
No two repeated readings
ever the same.
Natural features
seeming to shift
from moment to moment.
Almost as if
light was going round corners.

The radio giving
no contact with base,
only occasional snatches
of unsettling music.

And the rockfall
that trashed the pickup
beyond all repair.
And the flashflood
way above the floodline,
where it seemed no water
could possibly come.
And many other things.

Only one possible conclusion:
development work in this sector
not recommended.

Leaving the scene of disaster,
neither of them tells the other
– afraid to sound crazy –
that he hears the sound of a flute
playing away in the distance
high above the trail.

Kokopelli takes a break,
displaces a landmark or two
farther down the canyon,
and returns to his fingering.





reads of a spirit named Puck
who claims he can put a girdle
right round the earth
in well under 45 minutes.

Ha! says the flute-player.
Half an hour max!
Just you watch.

Things, as so often,
do not work out as expected.
In the event
he is over five months on the road.

His passage is eased in most places
by his Worldwide Pantheon Pass.
Mind you, the habits
of some of those overseas deities …

He sees many things
he is glad to have seen
and some he is not.
While travel has broadened his mind,
he’s inclined to believe
it may have been better off narrow.

Sunspot activity
over Siberia
completely disrupts navigation,
and he ends up in Irian Jaya,
where he spends an interesting week
touring the cultural highlights
with a local fertility god.

In the fullness of time
coming to his own place again,
he cannot hold back his tears
at the sight of red rock, cactus,
and thunder-clouds over the mountains.

Hugging his granny
so tight she can’t breathe,
he gives her a gorgeous necklace
that he bought from a man in a tent
in Himachal Pradesh
who swore that the diamonds were real.
And what if they’re not? Who cares?

East, west, says Kokopelli,
eating his flatbread and chokecherries,
home’s best.

© Michael Swan