Jan 15, 2011
Woodpecker Keeps Returning by Jane Hirshfield : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.
I’m pretty sure that in every encounter with a woodpecker, I’ve heard the bird before I’ve seen it, which leads to more careful observance of some grand trees. If I do sight the bird, it feels more special because it took patience.
Until last January, I’d never seen a pileated woodpecker, and I had no idea they were so large (like the crow, about 18 inches in length). Their attack on wood echoes; it sounds a lot more like a sledge than a tack hammer. Big bird, red crest, striped cheek, big drum: it’s almost too much drama to endure.
What if a woodpecker chooses the wood of your house for his searching, his hammering? Even the little Downy could become intolerable in no time. Jane Hirshfield’s short poem wonders about that and comes to a surprising conclusion in the final couplet.
Maybe the progression of experience goes something like this: Hear the bird, shoo the bird, surrender to the bird, become the bird—not only that bird but also his missing mate. And yet, at the same time, remain your human self. You and the bird are two ways of being in the world, but they can blend, become each other, at least for a time.
Surely this is connected to Hirshfield’s long and serious study of Zen Buddhism, but we don’t need to go there. An experience too big for logic has happened, but we don’t, or shouldn’t, need classes in Zen or biographies of Hirshfield to grasp it.
At the end of the poem, there’s something like an epiphany; by definition that’s more intuitive or even mystical than it is rational. I’m probably not supposed to be able to explain it all, but I want to.
For the sake of argument, let’s say my state of mind is representative of Hirshfield’s readers. Our uneasiness and feeling off balance—is that a good agitation, discomfort, dramatic tension for a reader to be left with, or is it just too open-ended, too much absence of resolution?
The poet James Richardson has said a poem should end by landing on one foot, not two. I like that metaphor. Does it describe the final couplet in Hirshfield’s “Woodpecker . . .” or does the poem not even land on one foot? I’m not being coy; I really don’t know what I think. Yet. So I'll come back, maybe several times. And that might be a statement of praise for the poem.
The Woodpecker Keeps Returning by Jane Hirshfield : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.