(Poetry for Students)

Birds and Transcendence

Transcendence, a state beyond material constraints, is a term often used to describe the spiritual. In Kinnell’s poem, landscapes of nighttime hillsides, ruined buildings, snowdrifts, and bonfires are populated by a bird flying by, a man, a cow, and a rooster. The narrator’s outward observations turn inward to the ruined eaves of his inner self, where a different storm rages, a relentless wintry death. The narrator draws the strength to reconnect himself to creativity from the words of his brother and the example of the rooster. In an interview for Contemporary Literature with Thomas Gardner, Kinnell describes his fascination with bird imagery as the inevitable tension of the bird’s liminal state: “like everyone, I experience the contest between wanting to transcend and wanting to belong.”

The scene is set in the first section when the narrator observes a lone, last bird “crosses over,” wording which is suggestive of the threshold between the living and dead. The airplane of the second section is a man-made bird and, again, the narrator experiences a moment of wonder, faced with a thunderhead that bears a resemblance to his brother, looking down on the lightning-illuminated ocean. The third section goes right to the heart of the narrator’s impending transformation. Here, his brother tells him of a bonfire that “can light the great sky” with the condition that the bonfire’s fuel is man himself. Section 4 draws a parallel between the bird images and the narrator. This section is set in the narrator’s internal landscape, which he describes as in ruins. In line 30, the narrator writes, “our torn wings, our ink-spattered feathers,” an illusion to quills, to writing, as well as age and the avian. The fifth section lacks bird references, but this section is intended as a pause, a breath, in the cadence...

(The entire section is 773 words.)