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On "My Mother Would Be A Falconress"

Thom Gunn

In "My Mother Would Be A Falconress," from Bending the Bow, the mother appears as a distinct and close figure, no less mythical for her clarity. The images of her as Falconress and him as the obedient little falcon who is later to break away from her enable Duncan to dramatize the whole series of conflicts involving possessiveness and love on the one hand and freedom and the need for identity on the other. Every detail is strangely right, showing how his life is patterned by her contradictory demands: she holds him by the leash of her will, but she sends him out into the world on fierce errands, to kill the little birds, but be is to return with their bodies without eating them himself, but she rewards him with meat. Her ferocious love keeps him in her control by its very inconsistency.

She lets me ride to the end of her curb
where I fall back in anguish.
I dread that she will cast me away,
for I fall, I mis-take, I fail in her mission.

And the pattern that she has created is still retained. Years after her death, he still longs both to be her falcon and to go free. It is a startling poem both for what it is and for what it suggests. It suggests, for example, the ferocious goddess who demands sacrifices as her due; and on the other hand it embodies a perfect example of what Gregory Bateson calls the double-bind (typically used by the mother) which he sees an the principal cause of a common type of schizophrenia. Yet these are only implied in the poem, where the mother is merely, completely herself, so living that she is impossible to deny.

This poem, too, originated in dream. A version of its first two lines came to him in sleep, as he records in the prefatory note. And at one point, he the falcon even dreams within the dream.

I have gone back into my hooded silence,
talking to myself and dropping off to sleep.

But there is a sharpness of focus to the poem that makes it unusual in Duncan, much of whose success elsewhere in his later work depends on the changing or even blurring of focus. I find it unprecedented in his poetry.

From Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous. Ed. Robert J. Berthoff and Ian W. Reid. Copyright ゥ 1979 by New Directions.

Cary Nelson

Duncan's "My Mother Would Be A Falconress" is. . . introduced by a prose note that recounts its genesis in an aural compulsion: "I wakend 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 falconess?--the troubled insistence of the lines would not let go of me, and I got up and took my notebook. . . in the poem there is another curious displacement upward, for the bell which is actually attacht to a falcon's leg by a bewt just above the jess, in the dream becomes a set of bells sewn round the hood, a ringing of sound in the childhood of the poet's head" (BB, 51). In effect, Duncan displaces his psychological motivation into a pre-eminently verbal process--the echoing of the poem's first line.

The poem begins by challenging the words "falcon" and "falconer." "Falconer" is not mentioned, but we recognze in "falconress" the failure of the established noun to cover both its male and female counterparts. The OED lists no feminine form for falconer; Duncan's coined term is an invasion by sound to deprive a word of its authority. The paternal command, signature for father and self, fails or falters. As Duncan writes in a more recent passage:

And I was immersed into the depths of the Water,

let down by that man who stood for my Father

into the Element before Intention


(or, in another version, cast into the Flood

drownd in the rage of the Mother of What Is)

In "My Mother Would Be A Falconress" the flood is a confusion of sound: "For she has muffled my dreams in the hood she has made me, / sewn round with bells, jangling when I move." This passage is a narrative version of the poem's verbal situation. The poem's title recurs as the opening line of both the first and second stanzas. Both that line and the second ("And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist") are controlling aural resources, undergoing repetition and variation that builds to an incantatory rhythm.

Against this verbal imperative, the poem's story exerts only limited pressure. The speaker's wish to be a falcon is derivative; he would be falcon to her falconress. He would tread her wrist, then take flight to bring her a bleeding prize. But he must not damage his prey; he must bring it back with its neck broken but otherwise perfect. Then a strain of resentment enters. If she will not honor his instinct, instead limiting his flight and controlling his lust to hunt, he will turn on her and seek her blood. At the end of her will's tether, he spies a land beyond these hills where falcons nest. He would go free, but even when she is dead, he cannot break her hold on him:

My mother would be a falconress,
and even now, years after this,
when the wounds I left her had surely heald,

and the woman is dead,
her fierce eyes closed, and if her heart
were broken, it is stilld

I would be a falcon and go free.
I tread her wrist and wear the hood,
talking to myself, and would draw blood.

These are the last two stanzas. In them, the will to take flight returns to the first line, becoming itself a function of the line's enactment. The narrative developments are variations of the key words and phrases introduced in the opening stanza. . . .

In this first stanza, he treads on her wrist, wanting to bring back a bleeding prize. In the first line of the fourth stanza, the wish is condensed: "I tread my mother's wrist and would draw blood." Wrists themselves can bleed, but the suggestion that he might attack his mother is still constrained by the opening context, in which the only blood is that of his prey. Furthermore, the third stanza details the hunt's violence, thus also helping to block the suggestion that he will turn on the falconress.

The first three lines [in the thrid stanza] are almost identical. The changes read like a litany of prescribed variations, ritually embroidering an unchanging theme. The fifth stanza concludes with a comparable intonation, reasserting the insistence of the pattern: "I would bring down / the little birds to her / I may not tear into, I must bring back perfectly." Then, in the first line of the next stanza, the anger reaches for its voice: "I tear at her wrist with my beak to draw blood." Yet the fury cannot take flight; it cannot become a separate vehicle of the falcon-son's will. Every word in the line, as well as the rhythm of the line as a whole, has prescribed connotations. Each sound echoes what has gone before. Even the falcon's eventual desire to break loose from the falconress springs from her own will for flight. It is "as if her mind / sought in me flight beyond the horizon."

The words for an isolate, individualized self cannot be found. Each verbal gesture incarnates the total order of the poem, as if every word branched out from a single trunk. Toward the end of the poem, Duncan gives explicit evidence that the maternal entanglement is verbal [1]. When the falcon flees, it is as if the falconress's own remorse at his violence sought relief:

I flew, as if sight flew from the anguish in her eye beyond her sight,
sent from my striking loose, from the cruel strike at her wrist,
striking out from the blood to be free of her.

The changing forms of the verb "to strike" almost encompass and obliterate the narrative dimensions of the act. If the main drama is clearly verbal, then the poem is not a parable intended to unveil a psychological truth. Indeed it is not a parable about language. From Duncan's perspective, the poem has no referential purpose, no allegorical message. It is an instance of the will speech has to break free of the mothering ground of language, a will itself a function of that ground.

This is a richly echolalic poem, using perhaps as much repetitive and self-referential language as a poem can without becoming pure content-free sound. Yet it exists at the edge of that void. It courts that Lady of "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" whose embrace is emptiness. Each elaboration, each unfolding phrase, renders the center progressively more vacant. The variations are cancellations. The exuberance of the language becomes a decorous melancholy:

The ever emptying cup,            the vital

source that solaces no thirst's throat

Poetry is of this natural vacancy:


[1] Duncan's own mother died shortly after his birth, and he was later put up for adoption. There is therefore a specific sense in which his relationship with his biological mother is exclusively verbal, For all of us, however, the language of family relationships is invested with substantial power.

 By Cary Nelson. From Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright ゥ 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Virginia Wallace-Whitaker

My poetry has been described as "free verse written without rhyme or measure." But this is just the contrary to where my poetry goes. Let me take as an example a poem of mine which was written as fast as I could write. I値l tell you why, and then I値l read the poem to you. Then we'll go back and look at it. I woke up about two in the morning with a line in my head: "My mother would be a falconress and I her falcon treading her wrist." Ordinarily, if lines in a poem come to me, and I'm not ready, it kind of intrudes upon my day. I long ago learned to tell them to go away. But at this point I realized I couldn't go to sleep unless I wrote these things謡hatever was going to come out of the line. So I got up, just in order to get that written as fast as I could.

. . .

My mother would be a falconress,
And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist,
would fly to bring back
from the blue of the sky to her, bleeding, a prize,
where I dream in my little hood . . . .]

The first lines are often given me預nd out of that I build. Usually I知 awake, but what impresses me is that coming immediately into operation is the dance of my own mind: its own sense of invention, the bringing in of the pattern, the recognition of pattern, and the development of pattern. And that whole pleasure is the place where my mind attends溶ot the content of the poem at all.

One of the great mistakes made in analyzing my poetry is to think of the psychological or political or historical. My main field would be the history of ideas. My political, psychological, historical feelings all flow in and freely inhabit the structure, but the structure's the thing that's always important to me.

And so, I知 attending to structure as I go through "My mother would be a falconress." Notice that I stuck in the word "gay" ("and I, her gay falcon . . .") myself. This shows that I, naughty me, sometimes rewrite. I intruded upon the poem. Everything else is intact. But I stuck in that word and in a sense, said: "Okay, poem, I値l do this and (if you don't like it) you can hit me." But I didn't stick it in while I was writing it down, but later. Before "gay" was used in the new homosexual liberation front, it meant something very important. In Baudelaire when we see the word "gai" in Oiseau dans les Bois, this "gai" is the same (word) you'll find throughout poetry. Poetry owns this word and eventually we will have to be sure that it again means what it meant, which is "free." Free from any possible structure. "Gai" could be taken over by the gay liberation because it originally meant you were sexually free, not paying attention to whether your sexual partner was male or female, not checking out the charge for it. At the time of the Saturnalia you were gay and you wore a costume which was two different colors, like you see clowns wear. Such costumes existed throughout the medieval era, and at the very beginning of the tradition of poetry to which I belong, which is the one with the figure of the falconress and the falcon. They flow into this content, which the troubadours proposed and Nietzche picked up.

Thus the gai scienza is the spirit of romance. This is the romance of the troubadors, an idea of love which had never existed before in the history of man and which only exists in love stories. Even ordinary love stories all belong to this gai scienza, this gay science: the science of being free, through love.

But none of that enters as I知 beginning to compose. If I had to think up all this I would be as far from writing poetry as you are from dancing. If you're still mentally going 1,2,31,2,31,2,3, you ain't got it, kid, 'cause you may have learned those numbers but it's only when they are in your feet, and you aren't consciously putting them there, that you start to flow, that you are with it.

What I feel of the pattern of the poem, I壇 say I致e drawn in large part from Dante and Shakespeare. They draw from their love of this movement of body, so close to dance.

[Duncan now turns to the blackboard.] The moment this word "fly" appeared, then the syncopation of that was

to bring back
from the blue of the sky

When "sky" appeared, the measure appeared. Measure is a feeling of the internality of a piece. I know I have to produce it. I recognize that I am still with the form and that these words are markers of both rhyme and measure.

If you recognize that you've heard a sound before (in a poem), you'll have the feeling that you expected that sound. If the sound is recognized as different, you must also be in the same form.

Measure is a feeling of the internality of a piece. [Duncan circles


It doesn't mean that you don't rhyme. A rhyme is what sets up a rhythm of expectation. And if you're working in it, from all directions . . .

Here痴 where we get a rhythm going. [Duncan draws a rectangle around "falconress."] This is an absolute. Both of these. [He underlines "falconress" and "falcon."] "Fal . . . fal . . . ." First place . . . [He circles the word "My"], second place . . . [He Circles "I"] and suddenly here [at the word" fly"] this is where the stronger accents guide you. [Duncan draws a box around "And I" and "would fly."] And this is the thing that's already here [he circles "fly"], already there [another circle around "sky."]

The rhyme "mother" / "her" and so forth, means that "sky to her" is all in the shadow of "my mother." "Moth-, mothe-" comes in here and "-errrrrr." All of it built in!

Now, where do I get that? I don't have any time to think it up when I知 writing. I知 writing as fast as I can possibly write. And reading as fast傭ut meanwhile, not reading and thinking. I知 writing reading in order to go back to sleep.

And when I woke up I had no idea what would be on that page. I was worried about this: had I said falconess instead of falconress, an Oedipal sort of thing? It was not clear. It was clear in the written down poem, but it was not clear in my memory.

Understand, I was forced by my own body to write: you have to because if you don't, you're going to have the pain of a long sleepless night, and we'll leave you with these two lines; they won't develop at all.

The lines came to me, in my head. There are times when the lines come to me just beyond the ear. Shakespeare has repeated references to whispering going on right outside the ear. As a child, it was frightening when lines came because they were hallucinatory.

. . .

But let's go back to "My mother would be a falconress." On one level this business of a son . . . and it's very clear there's a pun in here . . . ("And then I saw west to the dying sun," "it seemed my human soul went down in flames"). And there's a mother. The mother is universal. A friend of mine, who taught high school for years, gave this poem to her high school class. Almost all the girls in the class were quite frightened by the poem because they were at a place where they had some of these feelings in relation to their own mothers. And, if a mother is a threat, they all begin to see that as women they are going to be this kind of threat. I知 not always going to be a falconress and hope that the man will always be a falcon and fight his way free from my wrist. They were looking around that high school class and thinking, "How do I manage to get through this shark pool?" Because enough of these feelings are about breaking from their own mothers' wrists. The breaking away is very important in the emergence of the person. And the men got that idea right away. So this could be called the Ideal High School Poem. I always thought the Marquis de Sade should be read in high school. When you really mean something, the news will sometimes get through.

This poem is intricate. When I went back to read it in the morning, I thought, my goodness, my mother謡ho used to do show riding, horseback riding揺ad also toyed with the idea of wanting to do hunting. When I was ten, we went out into the desert to where a party from the Smithsonian was going to photograph falcon nests. I said to myself that morning of the poem悠 was once really there in the landscape and saw the falcon's nest. And, more than that, I saw something quite fearsome: my mother more and more projecting all around her the thought that she would just love to be a falconress. I think about all that: to be a noble, fighting around . . . with chargers . . . and those ladies, with their hunting predators. At ten, then, my mommie was no longer paying any attention to me at all. She was off on a trip of her own.

But let's say these are things that can emerge in a biography, and they illustrate themselves in the poem. Another one is a quite frightening incident in my childhood. My mother tried to train me to at once love animals and at the same time kill them. To be real about the meat you eat.

. . . Now I want to talk about one last thing hidden in this poem: the figure of my crossed eyes. My mother's sight climbs the horizon and the falcon (who is Horus, who is the sun) flies out from the eye and flies to the horizon and leaves a one-eyed god and flies beyond sight.

from "Robert Duncan on 'My Mother Would Be a Falconress.'" SAGETRIEB 8.1-2 (Spring-Fall 1989).

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