Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502

Love and death are both major themes in Kizer’s work, appearing in multiple variations, but here they are combined in a single poem. “The Great Blue Heron” not only confronts the hard fact of death (specifically of the mother, but by implication of all humankind) but also seems to ask, What is the meaning of death—and, perhaps, of life?

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Certainly the poet mourns for her mother, and in that sense this is also a poem of love. Mabel Ashley Kizer was a most uncommon woman for her time. She held two degrees in biology, taught at Mills College and headed the biology department at San Francisco State College, was a radical political activist and organizer, and did not marry until her mid-forties. In “A Muse,” the second prose section of her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Yin (1984), Kizer credits her mother as the source of inspiration for her writing. She notes with deep affection and respect that her “serious life as a poet” began after her mother’s death in 1955: “I wrote the poems for her. I still do.” Other portraits of her mother appear in the poems “The Blessing,” “The Intruder,” and “A Long Line of Doctors.”

In addition, this poem is an elegy, a serious meditation on the vanishing past and the despoiling of nature: “The pines and driftwood” have been “cleared/ From that bare strip of shore.” Kizer’s reverence for nature comes partly from her love of its beauty, which was encouraged by her mother; it was also influenced by her love for Chinese poetry, which again was nourished by her mother, who would read to her from translations of Chinese poets by Arthur Waley. In Chinese poetry, images taken from nature, rather than those from religion or myth, predominate.

In her essay “Western Space,” Kizer points out some of the differences between poets such as herself who hail from the American West (specifically, Washington State), and poets from the East. Characteristically “there is something about our great spacesthat makes us feel small, and fragile, and mortal,” she writes. “To live in the midst of this [natural beauty] is to livelike a fallen angel who sees paradise taken from him piece by piece.” She suggests that the destruction of nature’s beauty has created in Western poets “the impulse to conserve, to memorialize what is lost, to elegize what is dying before our eyes.” A reader can sense this concern as well in the speaker’s awareness of her changing landscape.

Ironically the heron, which in ancient Egypt was believed to be a sacred bird that housed the soul and symbolized the generation of life, serves here as death’s indifferent and inexorable messenger. Yet the heron is clearly part of the living world of nature. Perhaps the symbol of the heron has been used to reconcile the opposites of life and death as they coexist in the great cycle of nature. The poem’s speaker, whether she realizes this truth or not, remains heavy-hearted in her grief.

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