My Mother Would Be a Falconress

Cary Nelson: On "My Mother Would Be A Falconress"

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:

 

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[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.

 
 

Thom Gunn: On "My Mother Would Be A Falconress"

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.