Though I grew up in the countryside and wandered in the woods as I grew up, I knew little about the names of things. I knew oaks from maples and robins from that which was not a robin. I knew pine trees and boxwood bushes. I knew what I thought were hawks but which were really turkey vultures.
On spring days after I was old enough to drive myself to school and back home again, driving along the interminably winding road that led to nowhere other than our house, I kept my eye out for hawks in the sky. We lived on top of a great ridge of hills overlooking the Ohio River. Most clear afternoons, I could see the hawks circling the air overhead, riding the thermals all afternoon. Park the car in front of the house and get out of the car and leave the door open to stand there on the warm asphalt and stare at the circling bird in a pose that I can only hope fits the definition of “transfixed.” Most of the time you are actually are transfixed. All of the time, I wish I also could fly away from heere, just like every bird I have ever known does.
I read what little I am able to find of Robinson Jeffers in that back end part of nowhere with only one small chain bookstore in it for thousands of people, not that any of them are complaining about the lack. I am satisfied anyway by “Hurt Hawk.” The bird in the poem is tragic and beautiful and strong and doomed, and therefore I feel tragic and beautiful and strong and doomed. Byronic, I think of myself, though I had read extremely little Byron by that point, or by now even. It was the idea of the thing: a caped and silhouetted figure standing against a clear night sky with the stars shining bright and no moon to be seen. Misunderstood by the whole world. For now, at least. After the silhouetted figure has passed on into the fields of memory, then and only then would the world recognize that a genius had lived among them.
This had replaced my earlier plans to go to live in Paris and be an artist and paint many pictures of sunsets. I liked the idea of being an artist, but as soon as I found poetry, I quit drawing without the proverbial second thought.
But my knowledge of birds was small, though I lived in the country. Neither parent was knowledgeable about nature, or even saw it as something that was more than an entity whose messiness had to be dealth with on an unfortunately regular basis. However, I had read somewhere that the undersides of the wings of a red-tailed hawk were white, and the whiteness clearly visible to a viewer. Turkey vultures, the book went on to say, had dark brown feathers on their wings’ undersides, just like the birds that I had been watching so closely.
This could not be, my mind rationalized. How can you be a misunderstood poet if you idolize turkey vultures? No, they had to be hawks. I just was not seeing them properly, a trick of the light. I persisted in this belief for years until I did actually learn something about birds and finally acknowledged the truth: I had been fascinated by the soaring flight of vultures, not hawks.
They are beautiful anyway. So I told myself then, and so I believe now. I can spot a turkey vulture from miles away when all I can see is the shape that the bird’s wings take against the sky, and the slight wobble in its flight path.