blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

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).

Chase Dimock

Read within the contemporary context, the word “gay” in the second line “and I, her gay falcon treading her wrist” sticks out awkwardly and causes the line to stumble to its conclusion. To flat out declare that a character is gay in 2013 would violate the sacred creative writing principle of showing instead of telling. A mainstream audience from 1968 would have made no such pause. After all, the theme song from “The Flintstones” promised its 1960s audience that they would have “a gay old time”. But, queer men and women of the era, or those heterosexuals in the know, would have paused and wondered whether or not Duncan was sneaking in a double meaning, perhaps even making this one three-letter word the key to unlocking the troubled source of the complex relationship between mother and child depicted in the poem.

From Duncan’s notes on the genesis of the poem (marked above in MAPS as Virginia Wallace-Whitaker), we know that the association of the term “gay” with a sexual connotation was deliberate. Yet, Duncan stresses that with using “gay”, he wants to evoke the history of the term as a signifier of sexual liberation and being “free from any structure”, before it was attached specifically to homosexual men. Citing the French poet Baudelaire’s use of “gai” in his poetry as inspiration, Duncan declares, "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.” The Stonewall Riots launched the modern American gay liberation movement one year after the publication of this poem, and the term “gay” would be introduced to the public as the preferred term for a homosexual male. Promoting the term “gay” was a rhetorical tactic that sought to disassociate modern gays from the clinical history of the “homosexual” as a psychologically disturbed and genetically inferior being and to reinforce the pursuit of open happiness and pride, previously assumed to be unachievable to the melancholic, outcast homosexual.

One would be tempted to view Duncan as a precursor to the promotion of “gay” with this poem as the story of a gay male unable to flee the confinement of his parent’s control. Yet, this reading would ignore the deeply conflicted relationship Duncan had with the word and the concept of gay politics and culture. In his landmark essay, 1944’s “The Homosexual in Society”, Duncan argues for the normalization of homosexuality and the end of its persecution. But, counter to how we now view the creation of gay communities and lgbt interest groups as integral to the growing acceptance of homosexuality in society, Duncan voices his distrust and disgust with exclusionary, class-conscious gay groups and salons that view homosexuality as special and even superior to heterosexuality:

Among those who should understand those emotions which society condemned,   one found that the group language did not allow for any feeling at all other than         this self-ridicule, this “gaiety” (it is significant that the homosexual’s word for his      own kind is “gay”), a wave surging forward, breaking into laughter and then             receding, leaving a wake of disillusionment, a disbelief that extends to oneself, to life itself.
Not only did Duncan view the willful segregation of gay men as antithetical to the project of sexual freedom, but he also saw the characteristics of gay culture, including the self-parody of camp, as a symptom of an internalized feeling of inferiority and oppression. For Duncan, the gaiety of camp was overcompensation for a true lack of personal happiness and the valorization of male-male affection over heterosexual relations appropriated from Ancient Greece was a typically juvenile defense mechanism of the rejected to then reject the rejecters. Elitist senses of superiority and exclusivity would not liberate sexuality in society as a whole; it would just create stifling counter-societies that would mimic the same oppressive power dynamic enforced by mainstream society onto its own members.

While Duncan admits that he specifically intended a sexual meaning to the use of “gay”, he never speaks about how this “gayness” of the falcon operates. Clearly, the freedom that Duncan wishes to rehabilitate in “gay” before it was specifically homosexual is not present in the hooded bird. In the Twenty-two years following the publication of “The Homosexual in Society”, after having found successful domestic relationships and emerging as a major poet of his time, Duncan may have eased up on the personal feelings of bitterness and exclusion that motivated his perceptive, but nonetheless harsh condemnation of the values of his homosexual peers. In a 1959 update to the essay Duncan restates his wariness of “the sinister affiliation offered by groups with whom I had no common ground other than the specialized sexuality”, but revises his thesis to clarify in circumspection that “he was at the threshold of a critical concept....Love is dishonored where sexual love between those of the same sex is despised; and where love is dishonored there is no public trust.” “Public trust” for a homosexual, in Duncan’s eye, was “to be respected as a member of the political community for what one knew in one’s heart to be respectable!”, meaning that the secretiveness of the gay “groups” was antithetical to the larger project of social recognition and the pursuit of the freedom to love on one’s own terms that concerns people of all sexual orientations.

Given this context, I have to wonder if some of his dislike of “gay” as exclusionary elitism is projected onto the falcon subjugated to the mother’s command and call. If we are to read some of Duncan’s bitterness and ambivalence toward to the term “gay” into the gay falcon, the mother/son relationship becomes an allegory within an allegory for the willful subjugation of the gay man who retreats into his underground salons instead of challenging his position in society. The proud, decorated falcon perched on his master’s arm is internally conflicted because, while he believes to a certain degree in his majestic beauty and raw power, he also knows that he is leashed and his skillful hunting of other birds is merely done in the service of the master. The falcon is king amongst birds, the special, elite gay, but every act of might and majesty is encompassed by the will of the master—the gay salon, bar, and neighborhood and its patrons are subject to the sodomy laws and moral condemnation of the law in spite of how sexy, intelligent, and sophisticated they may act in their gay spaces. This “I” of this poem could be the voice of another gay male, or it could also be Duncan confessing a certain degree of his own “gayness” in the form of his lesser attributes.

Furthermore, it is also crucial to consider how the relationship between a mother and her gay son has been and continues to be a well-traveled trope in lgbt culture and literature. Psychologists of Duncan’s era commonly blamed homosexuality on a coddling and domineering mother, assuming that an overbearing female influence would cause a man to grow up “soft” and unable to formulate the dynamic, independent manhood associated with properly masculine men. From this perspective, one could read the poem as Duncan perhaps suggesting his mother was responsible for how he turned out. But, given Duncan’s relatively well-adjusted stance toward his homosexual identity, such an accusation is unlikely, and the animus toward his mother is either independent of, or at least not solely determined by such a belief. Instead, it is more likely that this desire to violently break free from the mother is not due to anything specific to this individual woman, but instead a projection of an inner frustration at the inability of the narrator to break free himself. The assumption that the close, but emotionally fraught relationship between a gay adolescent and his mother would be the product of deficient mothering ignores that, in many cases, the power dynamics of the relationship are determined by the child himself. The queer male child perhaps identifies more prominently with the mother’s gender identity, her interests, and her behaviors, and that he clings to her not because he is forced, but because she is a closer model to what he internally feels than his father or whatever male models he is obligated to emulate. Yet, while the queer child may identify through the mother’s femininity, he does not want to become a woman, but a subject for which he is denied any proper models and is told is unacceptable and impossible. Thus, the relationship with the mother is contentious because she is at once a loving nurturer and a role model for non-conventionally masculine feelings and behaviors, but she is also seen as insufficient and susceptible to the blame for the gay child’s problems. This ambivalence perhaps, informs the relationship of the falcon to the falconress in which the falcon remains loyal and loving despite harboring a deep desire to injure the falconress and depart on his own.

I must also include reference to Glenway Wescott’s 1940 expatriate novel The Pilgrim Hawk as a precedent for a gay writer to use the falcon/falconer relationship as an allegory for discussing sexual freedom. Thus, there was an already queer resonance with the image of the falcon circulating within the gay imaginary by the time Duncan wrote this poem. “The Gay Falcon” was also the name of a 1941 B-movie staring George Sanders as Gay Lawrence, a.k.a. “The Falcon”, a playboy and amateur detective. Oddly enough, it is this antiquated use of the term “gay”, which at one time referred to the sexually libertine lifestyle of men unencumbered by domestic duties, that Duncan claims to have wished to evoke with the “gay falcon” treading his mother’s wrist.

Return to Robert Duncan