Edited by Anthony and Ben Holden
Contributors to the book were asked to write a little about why they chose a certain poem. Here is my contribution, and the poem I chose.
I chose Robinson Jeffers’ “Hurt Hawks” because it always makes me cry. I’ve never yet got through the last lines without choking up. Jeffers is an uneven poet, and this is an uneven pair of poems, intemperate and unreasonable. Jeffers casts off humanity too easily. But he was himself a kind of maimed, hurt hawk, and his identification with the birds is true compassion. He builds pain unendurably so that we can know release.
Fearing the weakness tears so humbly, helplessly display, we’re proud not to cry. But many of us cry hard at the death of an animal, in life or in books — maybe because the animal’s humbleness and helplessness in dying is not ours, or we can pretend it’s not ours? Such tears are liberating, and the poet makes them a gift of release into freedom and a fiercer, truer pride.
The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.
He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.
I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk; but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bones too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.
We had fed him for six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance. I gave him the lead gift in the twilight. What fell was relaxed,
Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.
Robinson Jeffers, “Hurt Hawks” from The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt. Copyright © 1938 by Robinson Jeffers, renewed 1966 and © Jeffers Literary Properties.
Source: The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (Stanford University Press, 1988)
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