Robert Duncan

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"The Venice Poem" (1948)

My Mother Would Be a Falconress (1960)

My mother would be a falconress,
And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist,
would fly to bring back
from the blue of the sky to her, bleeding, a prize,
where I dream in my little hood with many bells
jangling when I'd turn my head.

My mother would be a falconress,
and she sends me as far as her will goes.
She lets me ride to the end of her curb
where I fall back in anguish.
I dread that she will cast me away,
for I fall, I mis-take, I fail in her mission.

She would bring down the little birds.
And I would bring down the little birds.
When will she let me bring down the little birds,
pierced from their flight with their necks broken,
their heads like flowers limp from the stem?

I tread my mother's wrist and would draw blood.
Behind the little hood my eyes are hooded.
I have gone back into my hooded silence,
talking to myself and dropping off to sleep.

For she has muffled my dreams in the hood she has made me,
sewn round with bells, jangling when I move.
She rides with her little falcon upon her wrist.
She uses a barb that brings me to cower.
She sends me abroad to try my wings
and I come back to her. I would bring down
the little birds to her
I may not tear into, I must bring back perfectly.

I tear at her wrist with my beak to draw blood,
and her eye holds me, anguisht, terrifying.
She draws a limit to my flight.
Never beyond my sight, she says.
She trains me to fetch and to limit myself in fetching.
She rewards me with meat for my dinner.
But I must never eat what she sends me to bring her.

Yet it would have been beautiful, if she would have carried me,
always, in a little hood with the bells ringing,
at her wrist, and her riding
to the great falcon hunt, and me
flying up to the curb of my heart from her heart
to bring down the skylark from the blue to her feet,
straining, and then released for the flight.

My mother would be a falconress,
and I her gerfalcon raised at her will,
from her wrist sent flying, as if I were her own
pride, as if her pride
knew no limits, as if her mind
sought in me flight beyond the horizon.

Ah, but high, high in the air I flew.
And far, far beyond the curb of her will,
were the blue hills where the falcons nest.
And then I saw west to the dying sun--
it seemd my human soul went down in flames.

I tore at her wrist, at the hold she had for me,
until the blood ran hot and I heard her cry out,
far, far beyond the curb of her will

to horizons of stars beyond the ringing hills of the world where
the falcons nest
I saw, and I tore at her wrist with my savage beak.
I flew, as if sight flew from the anguish in her eye beyond her sight,
sent from my striking loose, from the cruel strike at her wrist,
striking out from the blood to be free of her.

My mother would be a falconress,
and even now, years after this,
when the wounds I left her had surely heald,
and the woman is dead,
her fierce eyes closed, and if her heart
were broken, it is stilld

I would be a falcon and go free.
I tread her wrist and wear the hood,
talking to myself, and would draw blood.
Such Is the Sickness of Many a Good Thing (1968)

Was he then Adam of the Burning Way?
hid away in the heat like wrath
conceald in Love's face,
or the seed, Eris in Eros,
key and lock
of what I was? I could not speak
the releasing
word. For into a dark
matter he came
and askt me to say what
I could not say. "I .."

All the flame in me stopt
against my tongue.
My heart was a stone, a dumb
unmanageable thing in me,
a darkness that stood athwart
his need
for the enlightening, the
"I love you" that has
only this one quick in time,
this one start
when its moment is true.

Such is the sickness of many a good thing
that now into my life from long ago this
refusing to say I love you has bound
the weeping, the yielding, the
yearning to be taken again,
into a knot, a waiting, a string

so taut it taunts the song,
it resists the touch. It grows dark
to draw down the lover's hand
from its lightness to what's
Poetry, A Natural Thing

Neither our vices nor our virtues
further the poem. "They came up
and died
just like they do every year
on the rocks."

The poem
feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse,
to breed itself,
a spiritual urgency at the dark ladders leaping.

This beauty is an inner persistence
toward the source
striving against (within) down-rushet of the river,
a call we heard and answer
in the lateness of the world
primordial bellowings
from which the youngest world might spring,

salmon not in the well where the
hazelnut falls
but at the falls battling, inarticulate,
blindly making it.

This is one picture apt for the mind.
A second: a moose painted by Stubbs,
where last year's extravagant antlers
lie on the ground.
The forlorn moosey-faced poem wears
new antler-buds,
the same,

"a little heavy, a little contrived",
his only beauty to be
all moose.
The Song Of The Borderguard

The man with his lion under the shed of wars
sheds his belief as if he shed tears.
The sound of words waits -
a barbarian host at the borderline of sense.

The enamord guards desert their posts
harkening to the lion-smell of a poem
that rings in their ears.

-Dreams, a certain guard said
were never designd so
to re-arrange an empire.

Along about six o'clock I take out my guitar
and sing to a lion
who sleeps like a line of poetry
in the shed of wars.

The man shedding his belief
knows that the lion is not asleep,
does not dream, is never asleep,
is a wide-awake poem
waiting like a lover for the disrobing of the guard;
the beautil boundaries of the empire
naked, rapt round in the smell of a lion.

(The barbarians have passt over the significant phrase)

-When I was asleep,
a certain guard says,
a man shed his clothes as if he shed tears
and appeard as a lonely lion
waiting for a song under the shed-roof of wars.

I sang the song that he waited to hear,
I, the Prize-Winner, the Poet Acclaimd.

Dear, Dear, Dear, Dear, I sang,
believe, believe, believe, believe.
The shed of wars is splendid as the sky,
houses our waiting like a pure song
housing in its words the lion-smell
of the beloved disrobed.

I sang: believe, believe, believe.

I the guard because of my guitar
belive. I am the certain guard,
certain of the Beloved, certain of the lion,
certain of the Empire. I with my guitar.
Dear, Dear, Dear, Dear, I sing.
I, the Prize-Winner, the Poet on Guard.

The borderlines of sense in the morning light
are naked as a line of poetry in a war.
Childhood's Retreat

It's in the perilous boughs of the tree
out of blue sky the wind
sings loudest surrounding me.

And solitude, a wild solitude
's reveald, fearfully, high I'd climb
into the shaking uncertainties,

part out of longing, part daring my self,
part to see that
widening of the world, part

to find my own, my secret
hiding sense and place, where from afar
all voices and scenes come back

-the barking of a dog, autumnal burnings,
far calls, close calls- the boy I was
calls out to me
here the man where I am "Look!

I've been where you
most fear to be."

Bending The Bow

We've our business to attend Day's duties,
bend back the bow in dreams as we may
til the end rimes in the taut string
with the sending. Reveries are rivers and flow
where the cold light gleams reflecting the window upon the
surface of the table,
the presst-glass creamer, the pewter sugar bowl, the litter
of coffee cups and saucers,
carnations painted growing upon whose surfaces. The whole
composition of surfaces leads into the other
current disturbing
what I would take hold of. I'd been

in the course of a letter - I am still
in the course of a letter - to a friend,
who comes close in to my thought so that
the day is hers. My hand writing here
there shakes in the currents of... of air?
of an inner anticipation of...? reaching to touch
ghostly exhilarations in the thought of her.

At the extremity of this
'there is a connexion working in both directions, as in
the bow and the lyre'-
only in that swift fulfillment of the wish
that sleep
can illustrate my hand
sweeps the string.

You stand behind the where-I-am.
The deep tones and shadows I will call a woman.
The quick high notes... You are a girl there too,
having something of sister and of wife,
and I would play Orpheus for you again,

recall the arrow or song
to the trembling daylight
from which it sprang.
An African Elegy

In the groves of Africa from their natural wonder
the wildebeest, zebra, the okapi, the elephant,
have enterd the marvelous. No greater marvelous
know I than the mind's
natural jungle. The wives of the Congo
distil there their red and the husbands
hunt lion with spear and paint Death-spore
on their shields, wear his teeth, claws and hair
on ordinary occasions. There the Swahili
open his doors, let loose thru the trees
the tides of Death's sound and distil
from their leaves the terrible red. He
is the consort of dreams I have seen, heard
in the orchestral dark
like the barking of dogs.

Death is the dog-headed man zebra striped
and surrounded by silence who walks like a lion,
who is black. It was his voice crying come back,
that Virginia Woolf heard, turnd
her fine skull, hounded and haunted, stopt,
pointed into the scent where
I see her in willows, in fog, at the river of sound
in the trees. I see her prepare there
to enter Death's mountains
like a white Afghan hound pass into the forest,
closed after, let loose in the leaves
with more grace than a hound and more wonder there
even with flowers wound in her hair, allowing herself
like Ophelia a last
pastoral gesture of love toward the world.
And I see
all our tortures absolved in the fog,
dispersed in Death's forests, forgotten. I see
all this gentleness like a hound in the water
float upward and outward beyond my dark hand.

I am waiting this winter for the more complete black-out,
for the negro armies in the eucalyptus, for the cities
laid open and the cold in the love-light, for hounds
women and birds to go back to their forests and leave us
our solitude.

. . .

Negroes, negroes, all those princes,
holding cups of rhinoceros bone, make
magic with my blood. Where beautiful Marijuana
towers taller than the eucalyptus, turns
within the lips of night and falls,
falls downward, where as giant Kings we gathered
and devourd her burning hands and feet, O Moonbar
thee and Clarinet! those talismans
that quickened in their sheltering leaves like thieves,
those Negroes, all those princes
holding to their mouths like Death
the cups of rhino bone,
were there to burn my hands and feet,
divine the limit of the bone and with their magic
tie and twist me like a rope. I know
no other continent of Africa more dark than this
dark continent of my breast.

And when we are deserted there,
when the rustling electric has passt thru the air,
once more we begin in the blind and blood throat
the African catches; and Desdemona, Desdemona
like a demon wails within our bodies, warns
against this towering Moor of self and then
laments her passing from him.

And I cry, Hear!
Hear in the coild and secretive ear
the drums that I hear beat. The Negroes, all those princes
holding cups of bone and horn, are there in halls
of blood that I call forests, in the dark
and shining caverns where
beats heart and pulses brain, in
jungles of my body, there
Othello moves, striped black and white,
the dog-faced fear. Moves I, I, I,
whom I have seen as black as Orpheus,
pursued deliriously his sound and drownd
in hunger's tone, the deepest wilderness.

Then it was I, Death singing,
who bewildered the forest. I thot him
my lover like a hound of great purity
disturbing the shadow and flesh of the jungle.
This was the beginning of the ending year.
From all of the empty the tortured appear,
and the bird-faced children crawl out of their fathers
and into that never filld pocket,
the no longer asking but silent, seeing nowhere
the final sleep.

The halls of Africa we seek in dreams
as barriers of dream against the deep, and seas
disturbd turn back upon their tides
into the rooms deserted at the roots of love.
There is no end. And how sad then
is even the Congo. How the tired sirens
come up from the water, not to be toucht
but to lie on the rocks of the thunder.
How sad then is even the marvelous!
Achilles' Song" (1968)

I do not know more than the Sea tells me,
told me long ago, or I overheard Her
telling distant roar upon the sands,
waves of meaning in the cradle of whose
sounding and resounding power I

Manchild, She sang

--or was it a storm uplifting the night
into a moving wall in which
I was carried as if a mothering nest had
been made in dread?

the wave of a life darker than my
life before me sped, and I,
larger than I was, grown dark as
the shoreless depth,
arose from myself, shaking the last
light of the sun
from me.

Manchild, She said,

Come back to the shores of what you are.
Come back to the crumbling shores.

All night
The mothering tides in which your
Life first formd in the brooding
light have quencht the bloody
Splendors of the sun

and, under the triumphant processions
of the moon, lay down
thunder upon thunder of an old
longing, the beat

of whose repeated spell
consumes you.

Thetis, then,
my mother, has promised me
the mirage of a boat, a vehicle
of water within the water,
and my soul would return from
the trials of its human state,
from the long siege, from the
struggling companions upon the plain,
from the burning towers and deeds
of honor and dishonor,
the deeper unsatisfied war beneath
and behind the declared war,
and the rubble of beautiful, patiently
workt moonstones, agates, jades, obsidians,

turnd and retrund in the wash of
the tides, the gleaming waste,
the pathetic wonder,

words turnd in the phrases of song
before our song ...or are they

beautiful, patiently workt remembrances of those
long gone from me,
returned anew, ghostly in the light
of the moon, old faces?

For Thetis, my mother, has promised
me a boat,
a lover, an up-lifter of my spirit
into the rage of my first element
rising, a princedom
in the unreal, a share in Death


Time, time. It's time.

The business of Troy has long been done.

Achilles in lreuke has come home.

And soon you too will be alone.

--December 10, 1968

Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein

that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.

She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words
that is a field folded.

It is only a dream of the grass blowing
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun's going down

whose secret we see in a children's game
of ring a round of roses told.

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,

that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.

"Passages" (1968):

"Passages 1-30" appear in Bending the Bow (1968); "Passages 31-37" appear in Ground Work (1984), along with three other unnumbered "Passages"; Ground Work II (1987) contains an additional 13 "Passages."

The Torso: Passages 18

Most beautiful! The red-flowering eucalyptus
the madrone, the yew
Is he...

So thou wouldst smile, and take me in thine arms
the sight of London to my exiled eyes
Is as Elysium to a new-come soul

If he be Truth
I would dwell in the illusion of him

His hands unlocking from chambers of my male body

such an idea in man's image

rising tides that sweep me towards him

_. . .homosexual?_

and at the treasure of his mouth

pour forth my soul

his love commingling

I thought a Being more than vast, His body leading
into Paradise, his eyes
quickening a fir in me, a trembling

hieroglyph: At the root of the neck

the clavicle, for the neck is the stem of the great artery
upward into his head that is beautiful

At the rise of the pectoral muscles

the nipples, for the breasts are like sleeping fountains
of feeling in man, waiting above the heat of his heart,
shielding the rise and fall of his breath, to be

At the axis of his mid hriff

the navel, for in the pit of his stomach the chord from
which first he was fed has its temple

At the root of the groin

the pubic hair, for the torso is the stem in which the man
flowers forth and leads to the stamen of flesh in which
his seed rises

a wave of need and desire over taking me

cried out my name

(This was long ago. It was another life)

and said,

What do you want of me?

I do not know, I said. I have fallen in love. He
has brought me into heights and depths my heart
would fear without him. His look

pierces my side . fire eyes .

I have been waiting for you, he said:
I know what you desire

you do not yet know but through me .

And I am with you everywhere. In your falling

I have fallen from a high place. I have raised myself

from darkness in your rising

wherever you are

my hand in your hand seeking the locks, the keys

I am there. Gathering me, you gather

your Self .

For my Other is not a woman but a man

the King upon whose bosom let me lie.


"The Structure of Rime" (1968)

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