Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “All the Hungry Falcons,”
by Dion O’Reilly

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This poem, free verse in 26 lines, uses everyday diction, regular syntax, and punctuation, and no rhyme or meter to create an accessible reading experience that heavily relies for its soul-making work on image and sound. It sets up two fields of reference: a hunting falcon, and a speaker who identifies with its rapacious appetites. We are cued into this central concern from the start, with the poem’s first word, “appetite,” and with its title (“All the Hungry Falcons,”—emphasis added). The first six lines focus on falcons in the act of hunting, seen with telescopic precision right down to their eyes that, in an interesting paradox, “dilate” (expand) at the same time their appetite and vision “sharpen” (narrow). “[T]hey see / their feed, and they take it” the poem continues in lines 5-6. The tone is of intensity, keenness, and a focused sense of purpose and power, qualities the speaker seems to admire.

Next, “All the Hungry Falcons” makes a turn. Prior to this, the point of view is third-person omniscient, giving readers the power to see, like God, everything in the world of this poem. In line 7, it changes, and a more limited point of view is located in the first person, in the voice of the speaker (“I”). Instead of being out in an open field scanning for prey, we now occupy an interior room, able to see the box of “stories” the speaker has stowed under her bed. We don’t know what the stories are, but “box of banned books” suggests something dangerous and subversive, confirmed in the subsequent description of each story as “unforgiven” and an “arc of trouble and want.” That last word, of course, links up to the hunger and appetite mentioned above.

Falcons are dangerous and powerful, and we can tell already that the speaker, in her creative life, identifies with these qualities. The link is strengthened in the word “hunger,” a quality the speaker and birds share in line 11. The speaker’s hunger is different though, more poignant perhaps, because it has no chance of being satisfied, being for “what I’ll never have / or never have again.” What follows is a very precise list of what the speaker has lost: a mother, a sister, a brother, “certain men,” and even a city—one thinks of Portland or Seattle—where she once drank coffee in lots of rain. This part of the poem makes me recall Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art,” whose speaker likewise itemizes her life’s losses, from small things like lost hours and keys to larger ones like beloved houses, “two cities,” and even “vaster . . . realms” like “ two rivers, a continent.” [Source here]

In line 19, the poem makes another turn as sentence form changes from declarative (the speaker narrating her losses) to exclamatory (the speaker vocalizing a more profound sense of loss and change in “Oh, the world feels tidal”). Next, we see a return of her identification with the falcon, along with the hunger that binds them: “I can’t stop hunting,” she says, reminding us of the scene that opened the poem. As the poem goes on, the identification becomes complete and the speaker, in her search for “something intimate and fulfilling,” inhabits the body of a bird seeking  its prey. The poem, which opened in an earthbound place of longing and hunger closes in fulfillment, triumph, and flight: “I soar in, see it magnified, / everything itself only more so.” Nothing is lost, then—the world is what it always has been, and a sense of distance and perspective only magnifies its essence.

I want to talk a bit about music in “All the Hungry Falcons.” One recurrent sound is the nasal –n, in some 23 incidences by my count, beginning with the slant rhymes of “keen,” scan,” and “tunneled” in the first two lines. That sound gets picked up again in lines 8-14 (“banned,” “one,” “unforgiven,” and more), in line 18 (“rained and rained”), and again in lines 20-26 (“when,” “can’t,” “hunting,” “intimate,” “sun,” and more). To me, this persistence of nasals sound like what the word “keen,” used in line 1, literally means. What we have here is sound married to sense (or sound that enacts meaning), a device used very effectively to communicate a visceral sense of loss. You will also find a few striking examples of consonance, the alliterative device that repeats initial consonant sounds at the beginnings of words: “stowed my stories” (line 7), “rained and rained” (line 18), and “bright/burning” (line 22), as well as assonance or repeated vowel sounds (“see / their feed” in lines 5-6)—and even a full rhyme, of “turning” and “burning” in the poem’s last lines. Because “All the Hungry Falcons”  is not metered and does not use end rhyme, it can be easy to miss this subtle music, but you will hear it if you read the poem aloud or listen to the poet reading it at the link provided above.

Another literary device important to this poem is image, and just look at the many ways this author manages to show rather than tell us things. The falcons are described not in terms of what they look like but what they do, and visual images come with clarity and often a surprising punch. I love the “tunneled field,” an image whose charged participle conjures a teeming subterranean world of small creatures fleeing the falcon’s talons at the same time that it describes, vividly, the field’s corrugated surface. I love, too, the unexpected attribution of a very human quality—“unforgiven”—to an inanimate object, here each one of the reader’s “stories.” Yes, that is personification, readers, and artfully employed. The sensory contrast between dry, warm foam on the speaker’s lips and the wet weather in “rained and rained” is another image I enjoyed, as well as that “muzzle flash” of sun, strategically placed so that readers cannot help but welcome it, after all that rain.

Many people believe that the reason for poetry is to attempt to express the ineffable, and one huge ineffable in every life is an often-unarticulated or inarticulable sense of restless longing, of continually hunting prey that is, as in the poem, elusive and unnamed. For some, art is the solace, and the chalice we drink from when we feel this kind of thirst. And so it is for the speaker, who captures her seeking in her stories and—lucky us—in the lines of this lovely lyric poem.

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