Change through Syntax
Something a little different today. The other night, I brought this poem to my class because of the syntax. Beautifully, remarkably, the syntax creates its own narrative arc. I learn so much from poetry because poets place such pressure on language to do more, evoke more. Though I don’t write many poems, I move what I learn from poems into prose.
Take a moment and read the poem. Before you resist, consider what one of my students said the other night: “I never knew how to read poetry, but now I read them as sentences.” That’s a perfectly fine approach, and it works well with this poem.
Someday I Will Visit Hawk Mountain
By M. Soledad Caballero
I will be a real birder and know raptors
by the shape of their wings, the span of them
against wide skies, the browns and grays
of their feathers, the reds and whites like specks
of paint. I will look directly into the sun, point and say,
those are black vultures, those are red-shouldered
hawks. They fly with the thermals, updrafts, barely
moving, glide their bodies along the currents, borrowing
speed from the wind. I will know other raptors,
sharp-shinned hawk, the Cooper’s hawk, the ones
that flap their wings and move their bodies during the day.
The merlins, the peregrine falcons, soaring like bullets
through blue steel, cutting the winds looking for rabbits,
groundhogs that will not live past talons and claws.
I will know the size of their bones, the weight
of their beaks. I will remember the curves, the colors
of their oval, yellow eyes. I will have the measurements,
the data that live inside their bodies like a secret
taunting me to find its guts. Or this is what I tell myself.
But, I am a bad birder. I care little about the exact rate
of a northern goshawk’s flight speed. I do not need
to know how many pounds of food an American kestrel
eats in winter. I have no interest in the feather types
on a turkey vulture. I have looked up and forgotten
these facts again and again and again. They float
out of my mind immediately. What I remember:
my breathless body as I look into the wildness above,
raptors flying, diving, stooping, bodies of light, talismans,
incantations, dust of the gods. Creatures of myth,
they hang in the sky like questions. They promise
nothing, indifferent to everything but death.
Still, still I catch myself gasping, neck craned up,
follow the circles they build out of sky, reach for
their brutal mystery, the alien spark of more.
The poem has three parts, and in each section, the syntax changes.
At the beginning of the poem, the narrator focuses on the future and her ideal self. The sentences are full of balance (twos) and series (threes), creating an eloquent rhythm and music.
“I will be a real birder and know raptors by the shape of their wings (1), the span of them against the wide skies (2), the browns and grays of their feathers (3), the reds and whites like specks of paint (4).”
It’s a cumulative sentence, with four modifiers referring back to the base clause; more specifically, we learn how the narrator will know raptors. Within the modifiers, Caballero uses balance with “the browns and grays” and “the reds and whites.”
“I will look (1) directly into the sun, point (2) and say (3), those are black vultures (1), those are red-shouldered hawks (2).”
Caballero uses series with three verbs and then balance with “black vultures,” and “red-shouldered hawks.”
This syntactical structure continues until we reach harsh reality: “But I am a bad birder.”
Now, Caballero uses simple sentences. They are stripped of the eloquence provided by balance and series, and the rhythms turn blunt.
“I care little about the exact rate of a northern goshawk’s flight speed.”
“I do not need to know how many pounds of food an American kestrel eats in winter.”
But the poem turns again when the narrator remembers. Syntactically, too, the poem changes, and now we’re in the realm of four or more, which creates heightened emotion, the irrational, and the essence of being human, which is subjective experience.
“What I remember: my breathless body as I look into the wildness above, raptors flying (1), diving (2), stooping (3), bodies of light (4), talismans (5), incantations, (6) dust of the gods (7).”
The final sentence of the poem repeats this technique, sounding like an aria, a song to the natural world:
“Still, still I catch myself gasping, neck craned up (1), follow the circles they build out of sky (2), reach for their brutal mystery (3), the alien spark of more (4).”
As prose writers, we can use this technique of varying the syntax and balance and series to create different rhythms that signal a turn or a change. The reader’s ear picks it up, and the sense of change comes not only through content but sound.
What else do you see in this poem?
What inspires you?
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