The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581

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“On All That Glides in the Air” is a short lyric poem of forty-two lines divided into three unequal stanzas originally written in Swedish. The title of the poem suggests a casual meditation on the joys of floating through the air. When a bird in flight appears to be resting, it is considered to be “gliding,” an apparently effortless motion. However, a closer examination of the poem’s three stanzas suggests that “gliding” has multiple meanings, many of which are not as benign as they appear on the surface.

The first line in the first stanza implies that the narrator is expecting to die soon because he says, “My grave is still nowhere to be seen.” With no clear resting place, the narrator is forced to continue searching and gliding. He is joined in the latter activity by other beings: companion gliders, companions at rest, and even those who are already dead. The image is of a vast landscape in which all beings, both dead and alive, join together in one continuous motion. Although the speaker admits that there is no word to express the image that he sees in his mind’s eye, he compares this gliding to the sailing of a balloonist through the sky in an “ocean of air.” The speaker abruptly shifts to the second-person point of view in a warning to the reader: “this ocean of air is yourself.” In one quick turn of phrase, the speaker moves from a dreamy, peaceful image of a hot air balloon floating through exterior space to a chilling reference to the loneliness of interior space.

In the second stanza, the narrator contemplates the precarious border between life and death as he recalls an early-morning experience in a diving pool. The view from the high dive is both exhilarating and terrifying. Looking at the deep, clear water gives the sensation of floating through the air, but there is also an awareness that an uncontrolled fall so far from the water would mean almost certain death. In this context, the speaker thinks of gliding as a multilayered experience whereby one falls and glides at the same time, the fall turning into a glide that is somehow aided by an unknown force. However, there is no assurance that the fall will be broken, so exhilaration becomes inseparably mixed with fear. The recollection of the view through the swimmer’s goggles reminds the speaker of another way of seeing, the way that observers see a two-dimensional Renaissance canvas. Because of the technique of linear perspective, the canvas appears to create a three-dimensional world. Not surprisingly, it is the depiction of birds in flight that most interests the speaker. He says that the birds come alive precisely because they are placed in a kind of in-between state, “between earth and air, between light and shade,/ between water and land.” The birds, looking “like reckless punctuation marks,” are not unlike human beings struggling to discover their interior existence that they can never see or completely understand.

In the last stanza, the narrator continues contrasting images of positive and negative with “signs” gliding over “white pages” and “rooks” (black birds of prey) gliding over “snow.” However, at issue is more than just a comparison of good and evil. The narrator returns to the landscape image where “everything” is both gliding and standing “as the angels stand/ in an unthinkable motion,” just as the world itself, although it appears to be immobile, is actually in continual rotation.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 319

In “On All That Glides in the Air,” Lars Gustafsson’s most obvious technique is the repetition of words and phrases. For example, the word “glide” is used six times, “glides” is used twice, and “gliding” is used four times. Another repetition is the phrase “ocean of air,” which is used three times. These are important images that lead to the poem’s central concept. Another device is counterpoint, which, in music, refers to the combination of two or more independent melodies into a single harmonic texture. Gustafsson uses words and word variations to create a kind of rhythm. For example, “swimming becomes gliding” and “living with all that lives” are variations of sound that contribute to the poem’s central paradox that humans are all parts of one whole. Another poetic technique is the use of simile, which the speaker uses to compare his movement through the air to the motion of a hot air balloon through the sky. In still another image, Gustafsson likens the apparent flight of birds in a Renaissance painting to “reckless punctuation marks.” Finally, the motion of all humanity is compared to the nameless “flight of the world.”

What makes the poem intriguing and gives it tension is the use of irony or the contrast between expectation and fulfillment. The first stanza begins with a familiar description—the soaring motion of birds as they move through the sky—and ends with a suggestion that the great expanse is actually interior rather than exterior. In the second stanza, the narrator suggests that the trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye) that painters use to create linear perspective is also a trick that humans use to fool themselves about the true nature of existence. The third stanza, which begins with yet another gliding image, ends with a haunting pun on “flight” to suggest that the world both glides and escapes humans in the same motion.