The notes Amy Clampitt appended to “The Kingfisher” are probably the best starting point for a discussion of the poem’s themes. On the face of it, her comparison of the work to a novel, episodic in form, and her mention of a “piece of cloisonné” would appear to be at odds, for one implies narrative movement, the other a static form. (Cloisonné is a technique for applying enamel to metal, as for jewelry.) However, while the poem is organized chronologically, the love affair itself does not go anywhere. As the persona points out in the sixth stanza, every meeting had the same pattern. However well it began, each encounter went wrong. Thus the love affair and the poem describing it are both more like cloisonné, with its repetition of colors and forms, than like a narrative that moves to a conclusion.
In the notes, Clampitt also amplifies her parenthetical comment on the poet Dylan Thomas, thus stressing one of the themes that is repeated in each of the episodes, that of destruction, decay, and death. For example, the lovers walk near a convent that is in ruins and later meet in a cemetery. The male lover makes a “wreck” of Stravinsky’s music and of the evening. Later, he is said to have “mourned” as one would a death, evidently over the loss of “poetry” and because he sees himself aging. The death of Thomas, which is mentioned parenthetically, occurred the same week and in the same city as the lovers’ Sunday morning meeting. His death could certainly, in a sense, be considered another death of poetry.
These symbolic references reinforce what is evident throughout the poem: that however “dazzled” the lovers were, the relationship was doomed. Even that first “gaudy” evening evidently became “frantic,” and the second evening depicted was wrecked by a quarrel which revealed not only dissimilarities in taste but also insensitivity or downright malice on the part of the male lover. At the zoo, the two were isolated because they used different headphones; moreover, the male lover seemed focused only on his own feelings, not hers.
The use of the kingfisher in the title and in the final stanza is therefore highly ironic. As the poet explains in her notes, the bird has long been a symbol for marital devotion and for serenity. In the story told by the Roman poet Ovid, a human couple, Ceyx and Alcyon, were so devoted that when Ceyx was drowned, his wife Alcyon plunged into the waves to join him. The sympathetic gods changed the two into kingfishers and made them immortal. Ever since, Ovid continues, there has been a period of seven successive days each year when the seas are calm, for that is the period when Alcyon is brooding over her nest as it floats on the surface of the water. From this story comes the term “halcyon days,” or, in Clampitt’s definition, a time of “general peace and serenity.” Clampitt uses mythology not to indicate a parallel but to underline the ironic difference between what one hopes for in love and what one generally gets. With their “halcyon” hue, the peacocks seemed to forecast a happy outcome for the lovers, and even now the kingfisher looks like “felicity afire,” but the reality is that there has been a death of love. The kingfisher, then, is not a symbol of serenity but of the persona’s plunge through incomprehension into “uninhabitable sorrow.”