TOP117-DES114

This Old Poem #117:

Robert Duncanís My Mother Would Be A Falconress

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/7/07

 

  Robert Duncan could have been a great poet. He sort of balanced between experimentalism and classicism. The problem is he never really made up his mind, one way or the other. He should have gone more into the classical vein and expanded it from within, but a lot of times his poetry descends into prose koans interspersed with a line or two of poetic sounding verse, such as his Ďpoemsí on The Structure Of Rime, which donít deal with the structure of rime.

  Hereís a bit from one of his most famous poems, Bending The Bow:
 

ďthere is a connexion working in both directions, as in
                    the bow and the lyreĒĖ
only in that swift fulfillment of the wish
                          that sleep
                    can illustrate my hand
                      sweeps the string. 

You stand behind the where-I-am.
The deep tones and shadows I will call a woman.
The quick high notes... You are a girl there too,
    having something of sister and of wife,
                    inconsolate,
and I would play Orpheus for you again, 

            recall the arrow or song
            to the trembling daylight
            from which it sprang.

 

  The connection between violence and art is assumed on the part of the reader, so ED never really develops anything- the Ďthingí the poemís about remains hazy. This is typical RD. While people who are a bit more sophisticated and/or versed in poetics (like myself) can manage poems like this the average reader is lost in quasi-allusion, and the dropping of poeticisms like the mention of Orpheus, to sway them that this must be a poem, rather than being persuaded by the poetís dazzle. While not as abstruse as a Charles Olson, nor the Objectivists, nor the later Languagists, RD never connected in the more immediate way a Robert Frost, or even Frank OíHara did.

  The online bio:

 

  Robert Edward Duncan (January 7th, 1919- February 3rd, 1988) was born Edward Howard Duncan in Oakland, California, the son of Edward Howard Duncan, a day laborer, and Marguerite Pearl Carpenter, who died at childbirth. His father could not afford to keep him, and he was adopted in August 1919 by Edwin Joseph Symmes, an architect, and Minnehaha Harris, who renamed him Robert Edward Symmes. After a psychiatric discharge from the army in 1941, the poet made a composite of his previous names to form the present one.

  Robert Duncan began writing poetry as a teenager in Bakersfield, when a high school teacher encouraged his creative endeavors. In 1938, after two years at University of California, Berkeley, Duncan moved to New York and became involved in the downtown literary coterie that had sprung up around Anais Nin. In New York Duncan took an active role in emerging arts movements, following the works of the Abstract Expressionists, the development of Picasso's brand of modernism, and the emergence of an American Surrealism as seen in the works of his acquaintances Roberto Matta and Hans Hoffman. During this time, Duncan launched the Experimental Review with Sanders Russell.

  In 1947 Duncan met Charles Olson, founder of Black Mountain College, and over the years that followed the two developed a relationship rooted in their literary interests. Olson introduced Duncan to Robert Creeley and, in 1956, invited Duncan to teach at Black Mountain College. During his time at Black Mountain Duncan composed most of the poems in his first mature collection of poetry, The Opening of the Field. Indeed, Olson's theory of "projective verse" and "open forms," which propose a poetry shaped by the poet's "breath" rather than by the traditional rules of meter and rhyme, seem to have directly influenced Duncan's "grand collage" concept of verse. Duncan, in effect, took Olson's idea of "breath" one step further, presenting the poem as a "compositional field" to which the poet might bring whatever he or she pleases.

  In 1941 he was drafted and sent to San Antonio for training. After a month of boot camp he declared his homosexuality and was discharged. "I am an officially certified fag now," he told friends. In 1943 Duncan had tired of male lovers and turned to Marjorie McKee for his first sexual encounter with a female. They married soon after and then divorced several months later following an abortion. A year later, after a brief sojourn in Florida, he became a gigolo in New York, he later told interviewers.

  Duncan returned to Berkeley to study medieval and Renaissance literature (1948-1950) following the publication of his first book, Heavenly City, Earthly City (1947). He enjoyed functioning as shaman of an emerging literature grounded in magic, polytheism, and sexual diversity, and he cultivated the role in weekly salons of the Moon Society. In 1951 Duncan met his lifelong lover, the painter and collagist Jess Collins, with whom he lived in San Francisco. Collins provided illustrations for many of his books, and the collage mode was central to both artists.

  His reputation as a major poet was established in the 1960s in three collections, The Opening of the Field (1960), Roots and Branches (1964), and Bending the Bow (1968), which contain many of the enduring masterpieces of mythopoetic verse. The 1960s brought him considerable recognition, including the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize (1961), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1963), the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine (1964), and three writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1985 he received the National Poetry Award. After a long struggle with kidney disease and dialysis treatments, Duncan died in San Francisco, in 1988.

 

  On to the poem in question:

 

My Mother Would Be a Falconress

 

And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist,
as she sends me as far as her will goes. 
When will she let me bring down the little birds,
pierced from their flight with their necks broken,
their heads like flowers limp from the stem?

I tread my motherís wrist and would draw blood.
Behind the little hood my eyes are hooded
and her eye holds me, anguisht, terrifying.
She draws a limit to my flight.
Never beyond my sight, she says.

Yet it would have been beautiful, if she would have carried me,
to bring down the skylark from the blue to her feet,
sought in me flight beyond the horizon. 

of stars beyond the ringing hills of the world.

  Now, onto the-     whoa! Wait a minute, you say. Thatís a pretty good poem. What gives? Whoops, I did it again! I gave you the revised version 1st, before the original. I want the reader to really look at what works in this poem- a nice conceit, stark imagery and metaphor, a little classicism in the mother/violence/blood trope, and then reminiscence, and wish, in the dream to soar to a personal sky, a newer form of violent love.

  With that in mind I want the reader to look at the original. Iíve underlined the egregious clichťs, but look at the repetition of the themes and statements- as if repeating them will lend them depth, as if an average reader cannot get the manifest and trite point of the poem, on the difficulties of the Oedipal relationship. This need to pound things into a readerís mind is a flaw that oddly goes hand in hand with RDís penchant to want to experiment. In short, he generally missed both objectives, and a gray mushy soup was left:

 

My Mother Would Be a Falconress

 

My mother would be a falconress,

And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist,
would fly to bring back
from the blue of the sky to her, bleeding, a prize,
where I dream in my little hood with many bells
jangling when Iíd turn my head.

My mother would be a falconress,
and she sends me as far as her will goes.
She lets me ride to the end of her curb
where I fall back in anguish.
I dread that she will cast me away,
for I fall, I mis-take, I fail in her mission.

She would bring down the little birds.
And I would bring down the little birds.
When will she let me bring down the little birds,
pierced from their flight with their necks broken,
their heads like flowers limp from the stem?

I tread my motherís wrist and would draw blood.
Behind the little hood my eyes are hooded.
I have gone back into my hooded silence,
talking to myself and dropping off to sleep.

For she has muffled my dreams in the hood she has made me,
sewn round with bells, jangling when I move.
She rides with her little falcon upon her wrist.
She uses a barb that brings me to cower.
She sends me abroad to try my wings
and I come back to her. I would bring down
the little birds to her
I may not tear into, I must bring back perfectly.

I tear at her wrist with my beak to draw blood,
and her eye holds me, anguisht, terrifying.
She draws a limit to my flight.
Never beyond my sight, she says.
She trains me to fetch and to limit myself in fetching.
She rewards me with meat for my dinner.
But I must never eat what she sends me to bring her.

Yet it would have been beautiful, if she would have carried me,
always, in a little hood with the bells ringing,
at her wrist, and her riding
to the great falcon hunt, and me
flying up to the curb of my heart from her heart
to bring down the skylark from the blue to her feet,
straining, and then released for the flight.

My mother would be a falconress,
and I her gerfalcon raised at her will,
from her wrist sent flying, as if I were her own
pride, as if her pride
knew no limits, as if her mind
sought in me flight beyond the horizon.

Ah, but high, high in the air I flew.
And far, far beyond the curb of her will,
were the blue hills where the falcons nest.
And then I saw west to the dying sun--
it seemd my human soul went down in flames.

I tore at her wrist, at the hold she had for me,
until the blood ran hot and I heard her cry out,
far, far beyond the curb of her will

to horizons of stars beyond the ringing hills of the world where
the falcons nest
I saw, and I tore at her wrist with my savage beak.
I flew, as if sight flew from the anguish in her eye beyond her sight,
sent from my striking loose, from the cruel strike at her wrist,
striking out from the blood to be free of her.

My mother would be a falconress,
and even now, years after this,
when the wounds I left her had surely heald,
and the woman is dead,
her fierce eyes closed, and if her heart
were broken
, it is stilld

I would be a falcon and go free.
I tread her wrist and wear the hood,
talking to myself, and would draw blood.

 

  While what the rewriteís last line says is not exactly shockingly original it is phrased in a newer way, and very well. Not so with the originalís. Now, Iíll do something that sometimes frustrates readers- Iíll let them come to their own conclusions as to why the rewrite is superior. You know it is. So do I. Itís obvious. Read!

 

Final Score: (1-100):

 

Robert Duncanís My Mother Would Be A Falconress: 40

TOPís My Mother Would Be A Falconress: 70

 

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