Saturday, October 09, 2010

`You Have Your Eye on a Small Elusive Detail'

I’ve organized an informal hawk watch among the younger kids during recess. I got the idea last week when a kindergarten girl pulled on my hand and pointed at the sky. A hundred meters above us drifted a red-tailed hawk trying to look lazy and harmless. The day was sunny and cool, and he seemed to be riding the man-made thermals created by pavement, buildings and automobiles. A boy insisted the bird was an eagle, the only diurnal raptor kids seem to know. I explained that eagles are hawks but that information impressed no one.

Now I carry a notebook in my orange traffic vest and record our noontime sightings – five in four days, not a bad tally for a residential neighborhood. A small group, mostly girls, competes to see the first bird, and I’ll do almost anything to discourage whining, fighting and tetherball.

I’ve never paid much attention to the Irish poet Eamon Grennan, so I’m catching up by reading his Out of Sight: New & Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2010). He would be a more interesting poet if he used more stringent metrics and rhyme but he pays attention to details and makes for amiable company. Here is his hawk poem, “Detail”:

“I was watching a robin fly after a finch--the smaller
chirping with excitement, the bigger, its breast blazing, silent
in light-winged earnest chase -- when, out of nowhere
over the chimneys and the shivering front gardens,
flashes a sparrowhawk headlong, a light brown burn
scorching the air from which it simply plucks
like a ripe fruit the stopped robin, whose two or three
cheeps of terminal surprise twinkle in the silence
closing over the empty street when the birds have gone
about their business, and I began to understand
how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small
elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth
strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.”

Grennan’s account of the hawk strike is closely observed and convincing – “a light brown burn / scorching the air.” The depiction of poetic inspiration as a sort of death is a complicated metaphor I haven’t quite understood. The poet seems to be both predator and prey. I wonder how the kids on the playground would react if they witnessed Grennan’s scene, if they would even understand it. As a reader, I understand “being carried off.”


William A. Sigler said...

I agree this is prose line-stopped as verse, but I do not read here a poem’s creation as analogous to either robin or sparrowhawk. It is rather about empathy for the scene, as a human - how meticulous observation of detail can reveal in the blink of an eye that heart-charging, mind-expanding, panic-inducing thought they call the poetic—like those optical-effect paintings of dots that suddenly shift as your eyes change focus into ships, horses, Elvis. In that moment when empathy overtakes the habits of mind, one becomes both the predator (“the heart cries out” as speaker) and prey (“carried off” as hearer/reader).

Hawks like children observe far more about us than we observe about them. We swivel uneasily upward in awe of their freedom while they breezily frequent our haunts – they’ll hang around garbage dumps, power lines, freeways, they don’t seem to care – hovering in a kind of ghost world where humans are too preposterous to exist. Hawks have been a symbol since at least Sumerian times of communication from the beyond, so poets have always looked to them for messages on how to live. For me, the most important message is the hawk’s unbelievable restraint: it has the ability to shred anything, but it is always efficient, never careless with its power.

A bit of all this rides “the man-made thermals” (a lovely phrase) of “The Hawk” by William Butler Yeats, an Irishman whose poetic bonafides can’t be questioned. Oh, to stay in a rapture of raptors, and not have to pray to the sky.

“Call down the hawk from the air;
Let him be hooded or caged
Till the yellow eye has grown mild,
For larder and spit are bare,
The old cook enraged,
The scullion gone wild.

I will not be clapped in a hood,
Nor a cage, nor alight upon wrist,
Now I have learnt to be proud
Hovering over the wood
In the broken mist
Or tumbling cloud.

What tumbling cloud did you cleave,
Yellow-eyed hawk of the mind,
Last evening? that I, who had sat
Dumbfounded before a knave,
Should give to my friend
A pretence of wit.”

zmkc said...

The children would probably react much as these poor kindergarteners did in London on witnessing a feral pelican: