The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 389

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“My Mother Would Be a Falconress” is a seventy-one-line lyric divided into fourteen verse paragraphs of varying lengths. The poem looks and sounds traditional by Robert Duncan’s mid-career (1956-1968) standards. The medium length of the work developed out of its underlying compositional law; the text has been generated concentrically from a core statement that stresses again and again the indestructible relation between the speaker—the poet’s alter ego—and his mother’s will. There is an unwavering acknowledgment on the speaker’s part of his mother’s unquestionable authority. Her will to power is expressed by the verbal component of the nominal predicate “would be a falconress,” which, given the present-tense context of the whole poem, expresses her desire, determination, and single-mindedness of purpose. The complying speaker responds with total submission: “And I . . ./ would fly.” An experiment in pedagogy or coaching is taking place. Apparently, it is working smoothly and to the satisfaction of both trainer and trainee.

Imperceptibly, however, two correlative developments gather momentum. With every paragraph, the falconress lets her falcon fly a little farther beyond the circumference or horizon of the previous venture. In this way, she expands the territory of her hunting and at the same time strengthens her falcon’s range. A symbiosis of sorts more and more characterizes their relationship, but in spite of that there grows in him a desire to be on his own. Eventually, their antagonism becomes fierce, and the falcon behaves ruthlessly toward his mistress. He never achieves complete autonomy, however, and years after her death the pull of her will still tyrannically restrains and directs him.

The progress through these stages is minutely charted by the poet. The relatively few constitutive elements of the story are permanently reshuffled, reiterated, and only gradually and incrementally modified. With each additional verse paragraph, the reader edges forward toward some dimly guessed resolution. This movement could be described as a slow meandering. Certain statements or phrases are obsessively repeated as in a ballad. The speaker seems to be hypnotized by his own tale. Past, present, and future seem at times indistinguishably blended, and the verbal “would be” becomes a marker of habitual or recurrent action. As in any traditional text, the reader experiences a mixture of linear progression and concentric recurrence with a dramatic sense of impending resolution and closure.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 738

In a prose piece entitled “A Lammas Tiding,” Duncan gives the following account of the circumstances attending the composition of this poem: “I wakened in the night with the lines ‘My mother would be a falconress—And I a falcon at her wrist’ being repeated in my mind. Was the word falconress or falconness?—the troubled insistence of the lines would not let go of me, and I got up and took my notebook into the kitchen to write it out at the kitchen table. Turning to the calendar to write the date, I saw it was Lammas: 2 AM, August 1, 1964” (Bending the Bow, page 51; Lammas commemorates Saint Peter’s deliverance from prison).

This extraordinary confession—which is similar to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous account of the production of his “Kubla Khan”—goes on to inform the reader about other genetic details. Thus astrologically, Saturn, Duncan’s birth planet, was most brilliant between one-thirty and two, the very half-hour during which the poem was put on paper. Then, Duncan muses, William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), which he had been reading for several nights before going to sleep, most likely provided him with the key image of “the ravenous hawk,” which in turn triggered a comment from Duncan’s life companion, the painter Jess Collins. On and on, the train of associations or dream logic of the poem is disentangled thread by thread.

“Dreams ever betray our minds,” Duncan remarks on the same page, thereby suggesting that the remembered dream is a conscious fragment of the unconscious. Hence, as Freud indicated, it is possible to learn much about oneself and one’s mind from the verbal accounts of one’s own dreams.

This poem was communicated or “received.” The poet transcribed it in a state of trancelike wakefulness. There remained very little room for revision or rewriting. The text emerged like Athena from the head of Zeus, helmeted and with breastplate buckled on; or, more accurately perhaps, the poem’s body took its shape from the tenebrae of the poet’s reservoir of intuitions, archetypes, and recondite knowledge. Duncan was a visionary poet, a great integrator of religious myths and hermetic insights.

The poem was in a way a tribute to his foster mother, Minnehaha Symmes, who had adopted him when he was barely six months old. The affective link between them was so powerful that after Minnie’s death Robert continued to write letters and poems to her. It was in his adopted family that the future poet came into contact with esoteric, occult, and theosophical lore, thereby gaining access to the tradition of romantic mystics and mythmakers such as William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Gérard de Nerval, and William Butler Yeats. As a matter of fact, in spite of his strong ties with experimental postmodern groups such as the Bay Area poets (Jack Spicer, Kenneth Rexroth, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure) and the Black Mountain poets (Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov), Duncan came to regard his modernity more and more as an offshoot of the nineteenth century mind and sensibility.

“My Mother Would Be a Falconress” is a poem that fits the transcendentalism of this tradition in both rhetoric and sound.

The blood imagery, central to any initiatory myth or rite of passage, lends a lurid coherence to the poem, reinforcing its sense of medieval hierarchy and allegiance with its correlative patterns of obsessively repeated dominance and submission. On a more local scale, the “.” sign—larger than an ordinary full stop and placed at some distance from the end of a statement (after the eleventh and the thirteenth sections)—designates, in the poet’s own words, “a beat syncopating the time at rest; as if there were a stress. He the artist strives not for a disintegration of syntax but for a complication within syntax, overlapping structures, so that the words are freed, having bounds out of bound” (Bending the Bow).

The formal structure of the poem is determined by a moment of inspiration and grace. Both the relationship between the protagonists and the rhythmical phrasing have been communicated to the poem at once. The primary musical feeling about the fittingness of the verbal utterance is, in Duncan’s own words, “the criterion of truth in a poem.”

The poem’s circular restatements and its dialectical progress are compatible, and between them they create the singular complex beauty of the poetic field.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 99

Bertholf, Robert J. Robert Duncan: A Descriptive Bibliography. Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1986.

Bertholf, Robert J., and Ian W. Reid, eds. Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous. New York: New Directions, 1979.

Duncan, Robert. Interview. In Towards a New American Poetics: Essays and Interviews, edited by Ekbert Faas. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1978.

Faas, Ekbert. Young Robert Duncan: Portrait of the Poet as Homosexual in Society. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1983.

Johnson, Mark. Robert Duncan. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

O’Leary, Peter. Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Sagetrieb 4 (Fall/Winter, 1985).