May 29, 2012

David Wagoner, "To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire"

To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire by David Wagoner : The Poetry Foundation

[Please forgive the spastic spacing. Blogspot is having a tantrum.]
In David Wagoner’s “To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire,” the speaker imagines a specific and detailed revenge upon a farmer who’s violated most codes of decency or humility about humanity’s place in the universe. The farmer has made an arrogant, thoughtless display of his conquests over some of earth’s most beautiful creatures. What can a moral being do about that? For me, Wagoner’s apparent answer undermines the argument of the poem, in spite of some marvelous images of vengeance.


The speaker wishes the farmer terrible dreams, the details of which force the gun-toting farmer into an unsought empathy with his victims—and more awareness of the process of dying “alone in the wind” than he would experience on his own—without the Wagoner curse upon him.   


The farmer assumes he’s lord of all he surveys and can spend his free-floating anger on any of his god’s creatures. So there’s something delicious about Wagoner’s hanging him out to dry, piece by piece, tuft by tuft. He’d have the farmer think he’s finally dead, then realize there are still more pieces of him left to hang in the weather, “Your claws clutching at nothing,” until the processes of nature have completely blown him away. The farmer will be


                                                    frozen and thawed   
                And rained away, falling against the grass   
                Little by little, lightly and softly,
                More quietly than the breath of a deer mouse.


The man with the loud gun will hang and rot as quietly as a mouse.

That sounds so very fitting, but the problem for me after a couple of readings is this:  in dreaming of doing to the farmer what the farmer has done to the hawks, Wagoner runs the risk of sounding silly and pointless in his rage. “You offend nature; therefore, I shall wish you bad dreams. I don’t know if you’ll actually have bad dreams, and surely you’ll never become a moral human. You won’t even know I’ve wished nightmares upon you, but I will know, and I guess that’s enough.”


As good as this imagined revenge might feel for a moment, the farmer will never feel it; he will wake from each nights’ sleep as refreshed (perhaps) by his own venom and thoughtlessness as he always was.


Imagined vengeance as creative in its details as Wagoner’s is surely pleases at some level. But in the end it is impotent, a perfect illustration of the country expression, “piss in the wind.”


Once, a long time ago, I went to a conference on counseling teens. It was led by five Harvard shrinks, one of whom gave a talk about anxiety and worry in adolescents. A self-proclaimed wit, the psychologist said, “Worry is like masturbation; it feels good while you’re doing it, but it doesn’t really get you where you want to be.” Elsewhere in his speech was a more serious, perhaps more useful axiom: “Worry precipitates action.”


Does that mean David Wagoner—or his speaker—should mosey over there and beat up the offending farmer instead of indulging—masturbatorily—in an American-Gothic variety of voodoo? I doubt it.


If there’s a useful lesson here, it might be the pointlessness—but also the inevitability—of our human need for vengeance, which is the trashy cousin of justice and morality.  However, neither Wagoner nor his speaker seems aware of the futility of such empty gestures.


Consider the logic: “In my imagination, I made you pay; therefore, you have paid.” Isn’t that a reasonable paraphrase? And isn’t it full of holes? What good does it do anyone to lie awake wishing injury to an offending, murderous farmer if that farmer doesn’t know or feel that injury. All the shame and humiliation you’ve wished upon him as been for naught—and probably poisoned your own sleep.


One might argue that there’s an element of magical realism in the poem, and we’re to think it’s plausible that the bad farmer will indeed be terrorized by nightmares because the speaker wished it so. However, I see no evidence that Wagoner has put us in a world full of magic, so we’re back to Square One, being asked to think that wishing makes it so. 


“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.”  Theology and modern psychology are full of wisdom (and clich├ęs) about the pitfalls of vengeance, but that rage is such a natural and human instinct that we seek it time and time again, plunging into personal wildernesses that are neither beautiful nor good, that are more like the impotent fury of a child’s tantrum.


After the fourth or fifth step toward imagined revenge, the whole project probably stops feeling satisfying. But how we withhold those steps is anyone’s guess.


I wonder if I’m the only one who finds this problem in a poem that’s otherwise so appealing in its details of poetic justice. I think of the old verse:  “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.”


To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire by David Wagoner : The Poetry Foundation





Pasadena Adjacent said...

When I first read the title, I thought it was referencing the idea of putting predators on display for other predators to fear. Like plastic owls on rooftops or crucifixions on one's way to Rome.

"Justice" meet your trashy cousin "Anger" and his date "Fear"

Banjo52 said...

PA, thanks. I did consider that explanation, but i"m not sure how much it changes anything--maybe tilts toward a defense of the farmer?

RuneE said...

To me the poem started out in anger with a crescendo when the roles were reversed and the "flying farmer" met his destiny, followed by an intentionally quiet, soft "landing" - meaning there is nothing more for you. All is quiet.

You may well be right in your interpretation of this as a futile attempt at vengeance. I prefer to step back a pace or ten and look upon it a bit more metaphorically: Not one, bur many species of birds, animals and plants suffers from the destructive power of our species. What would we do if the roles were reversed? The author reversed them for us.

Jean Spitzer said...

I love the raptor with trees as background, beautiful.

I think, since this is a poem addressed to a specific person, it was meant to be read by that person.

An elegant protest letter to a neighbor, literally.

Brenda's Arizona said...

I like Jean's explanation.

The bottled up anger at the dude with his trophies... Damn him!

Wagoner's 'dream' doesn't appease the farmer's action. Nothing can. Nothing can be done, but by doing nothing, something is being done.

So dreaming of doing revenge is the only revenge.

Anonymous said...

Not surprisingly, I see a simple theme. I've heard it suggested that man is the only beast who kills in anger. (And here I lump domestic animals in with "man," as they've learned our ways and caught some of our emotional diseases.)

And as evidence, I offer this:
You’ve had strange appetites now and then,
Haven‘t you. Funny quickenings of the heart.
Impulses not quite mentionable
To the wife or yourself.

Banjo52 said...

Thanks, everyone--and I hope we're not finished. You've all got my windbag turned on again, so I'll once again make my response a new post, probably today.

Kitty said...

Hi Banjo,
I'm visiting you much too late again. I will have to come back and read the poem and the commentary because now you have my interest piqued!!
hope you are well!
best, k

Lovers' Lane