“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.