Perhaps it’s cheating to suggest that my two favorite poems in the first 200 pages of Jeffers’ Selected Poetry are “Shine, Perishing Republic” [ a poem I cited much earlier on my blog, certainly one of the best protest poems I’ve ever read] and “Hurt Hawks” because they are both widely anthologized. Considering the other choices, it’s not surprising that they were excerpted.
Of the two, “Shine, Perishing Republic” is by far my favorite, a snap shot of much of my own attitude towards trends in America that I find particularly disturbing, though my “love of man” seems to extend somewhat farther than Jeffers’ love does.
I also find much to admire in:
The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.
He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.
I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk;
but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.
We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.
What fell was relaxed, Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.
It’s not accidental that many team mascots are birds of prey, because they symbolize a freedom and independence many of us can only dream of, not to mention their place near the top of the food chain, especially important in sports, though perhaps less important in real life.
That said, I’m still a little uncomfortable with the lines “I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk.” and “You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him.”
I’ll have to admit that I identify with the first line to a certain extent. I’ve said that I’d be more apt to kill a man than a deer, at least a man who was breaking into my house or one who threatened me. I can’t imagine any circumstances, other than hitting one on the highway, where I’d kill a deer. I’m afraid if I had to do my own personal killing, I’d be limited to eating fish and vegetables. The more bothersome phrase is “except the penalties,” for I can’t imagine wanting to kill a man where there would be penalties.
The other line, the one about “you communal people” is even more bothersome because it would seem to imply that most people aren’t as noble as a hawk because they depend on each other. I suppose that would mean that wolves are inferior to hawks, too, because they run in packs. Or that a Red-Tail Hawk is superior to a crow because crows flock together.
I value my independence as much as anybody I know, sometimes to the point of annoying others that I truly love, but I still recognize the common good as more important than my own personal good.
I’m not the only person who’s ambiguous about this poem. Various opinions on it are offered here.