Two Poems

Two Poems about Birds of Prey

Hello! It’s been a while since I posted, as I never really intended this to be a blog for general chat, but a way to keep a record of projects. I’ve wanted for a while now to start a close-reading series, and I hope this will be the first post of many.

I’ve always been interested in the way two poems on the same topic can be closely related or wildly different. Today’s post compares two poems that are each full of admiration for a bird of prey displayed by its keeper.

image from

Vahni Capildeo’s new collection Venus as a Bear (Carcanet, 2018, available here) contains many animal poems. ‘Day, with Hawk’ is the second poem in the collection. (Read the complete poem here.)

Like most of Capildeo’s work, this poem requires some unpacking, but as David Wheatley points out in his review for The Guardian, the reward is worth the effort. The poem attempts to describe the peregrine falcon but we learn, through an impressive simile of no less than fourteen words: ‘Like the fire from the bare twigs that twists / like a floral kiss on winter’s neck’, that the speaker is ‘stunned’ into cliché. Through ever more winding phrases, which drop just a few notes of description – ‘chestnut-stippled’, ‘light on the arm’ – we arrive at the final choice of epithet: ‘princely’. If simply used on its own, this word would feel like a cliché, but Capildeo’s expertise in the journey taken to reach this conclusion leaves us convinced that it is the only possible fit.

The peregrine is not only princely, but has been deified. The first capitalised pronoun, in line five, appears at the beginning of the line, and might be missed on first reading. But the second, in the middle of the ninth line, makes the situation clear. No wonder the peregrine is beyond description; even the adjective ‘princely’ is in the end rejected as being insufficient, as the poem’s penultimate line points out, with the phrase ’embarrassment of poets’.

But what is really interesting about this poem’s anguish at its own ineffectiveness is that the peregrine is not even present. To return to the opening lines: ‘Here among the witch-hazels I miss / the peregrine we met just once.’ There’s no suggestion that the speaker is having trouble remembering the falcon, rather, the sense is of a moment that created such a powerful, lasting impression that it haunts the speaker still.

Reading ‘Day, With Hawk’ reminded me of Helen Mort’s poem ‘Eagle Owl, Royal Mile’, one of my favourites in her second collection No Map Could Show Them (Chatto and Windus, 2016, available here).

(This poem is reproduced with the permission of the author)

Eagle Owl, Royal Mile

if its satchel-coloured eyes
could be bought
admit it
you would

if the autumn of its
plumage could be
gathered in
you would

if you could follow
its gaze

not the glance
from keeper’s glove
to coins
from rain
to audience

but that further
days deep
runway stare

you would long
to be its shadow
you would beg for air

and it would look straight through you
for a moment
as if you were there.

If Capildeo’s poem is a complex orchestral score, then Mort’s is a solo, exquisite, violin. The shortness of the lines and simplicity of the language might suggest this isn’t a complex poem, but again, a close reading has so much to offer. For example, consider how Mort sketches the context of the meeting with the very lightest of perfect strokes: ‘Royal Mile’, ‘keeper’s glove’, ‘coins’, ‘rain’, ‘audience’ are all it takes to bring life to the scene.

As in Capildeo’s poem, there is very little description. The speaker here is not trying to describe the owl, but has been entranced by its eyes which first appear, ‘satchel-coloured’, in the first line. Mort exactly captures the flitting predatory gaze in those few short lines of the fourth stanza, but the speaker is imagining another kind of look, the steady ‘runway stare’ of the freed bird. The masterful line ‘you would beg for air’ is not suggesting you will be out of breath, but that you would give anything to fly through the air with the eagle owl, to be its shadow.

Throughout this poem, the reader/the ‘you’ is distanced from the eagle owl. The poem is written completely in the conditional, ‘if’, ‘if’, ‘if’, echoes at the beginning of each of the first three stanzas. We want to grasp or possess it in some way, but it is completely out of reach. The closest we come is in the final stanza, where, if the owl’s gaze turns steadily on us for just a moment, we might be seen.

There is so much more, of course, that could be said about both of these poems, but I hope I have presented some of the flavour of each of them. I encourage you to get hold of both these brilliant collections if you haven’t already.

Let me know what you think, if you have any other favourite Bird of Prey poems, or if you have any requests or suggestions for poem pairings. See you next time!