Poetry wasn’t part of my married years. Not until later did I begin reading it regularly. But I do remember one idle evening in our East 47th Street apartment, lounging around on our stylish gray couch with black and white floral throw pillows, when for some reason we decided to puzzle our way through Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover:” Who knows why? Perhaps to remind ourselves of how ridiculously abstruse poetry could be.
to Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
…..dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon in his riding
…..Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
in his ecstacy! then off, off forth on swing,
…..As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
…..Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
….Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chavelier!
….No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
…..Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
You can’t ignore the music of that. But what captured us was the bird. At the time we had the novices’ enthusiasm for birding. We joined walks in the Central Park Rambles and sat in on the celebrity hawk watch of the Fifth Avenue Red-taileds nesting in a bundle of sticks atop a gray window archway under the roof of an austere residence with a sidewalk green canopy spotted white seven stories below. (Living in Manhattan, those hawks had an army of Jewish grandmothers watching after them. When one bird lifted its tail over the nest edge, the lady on the bench beside me announced, “He’s flung a poop!”)
On country weekends at my in-laws we brought binoculars. We rode the subways forever out to Jamaica Bay to learn shorebirds. And on one occasion friends invited us on a day drive to a country school with its own farm to watch a falconer fly his bird like a circus animal from a medieval fair. Grounded, the bird wore a little leather hood that imposed calmness by blocking its sight. But released that creature seemed as efficient as a fighter jet. It flew circular laps above our heads to gain speed and height, as the falconer controlled the action by offering a length of rope with bait tied to the end. (At the first sight of the falcon the pigeons on the nearby barn roof had flocked off for the hinterlands.) At the top of its laps the falcon treated us to that thrilling moment when it turned inwards and tucked its wings like a snow sled to race down the air. It swooped right over our heads, close enough to hear the tiny bells tied to its legs. At the last moment it missed the meat laid on the ground, jerked away by the rope. It flew at ankle height between the falconer’s spread legs and skimmed low over the crowd on the other side to begin rising into its next round of laps.
The Hopkins recreated the thrill of watching that bird. More so, we knew, than mere prose would. But what exactly was a Windhover? Certainly not a species listed in my Peterson Eastern Birds. So we turned to our Oxford English Dictionary, a two volume set in a slipcase with a drawer for the magnifying glass to read the tiny print. The OED had been a gift from my wife’s parents, deeply learned Upper West Siders eager to encourage both of us in our careers on magazine editorial staffs. Alas, we’d barely cracked the blue spines on those heavy volumes. We were in magazines not academia. We used dictionaries to check spellings not word etymologies. But what better excuse to open the OED than this Hopkins poem loaded with arcane words, staring with Windhover? And within moments we were chuckling with delight. An earlier name for the Windhover was Windfucker. Who knew birding could be so bawdy? That surprising obscenity proved to be just what we needed to take Hopkins a little less seriously so we could enjoy him a whole lot more. And that funny discovery became one of those shared moments that may seem silly and small to outsiders but that bind a marriage together as a world unto its own. At times I’ve told other birders about the Windfucker, but nobody appreciated the name the way we did. Even after we’d divorced and become good friends instead, it remained one of the tiny nostalgic treasures of our years together, our little secret.
So I was chagrined to find the following poem in Stuart Bartow’s new book, Questions for the Sphinx, a collection that mines his fascination with stars, moths, birds, fishing, the night, and several alluring but dangerous figures of Greek mythology. Stuart is an old-fashioned poet in the best sense. Only one poem is about a mall, and in that poem he fantasizes about the mall sinking like an ocean liner into a marshland so that “the lilies and leeches and turtles / will surface again.” He loves to engage, instead, with the mysteries of the larger, wilder world that lies beyond our control. He cherishes the poetic tradition, yet he writes about lived experiences. There must be a dozen poems in this book that I’d like to blog about—gems about moths, owls, a bug zapper, a taxidermist—but here’s the one I couldn’t resist. It taught me much more about Windfuckers than I knew. If only my former wife was still alive to enjoy it…
Obsolete, a “windfucker” was a kestrel,
a windhover, so named for the way
it undulates in the air. In 1599
Nashe wrote, “The kistrilles or windfuckers
that filling themselves with winde, fly against
the winde evermore.” In 1602 M.S. Rawl
mentions in Narcissus: “I tell you,
my little windfuckers, had not
a certain melancholye engendered
with a nipping dolour overshadowed
the sunne shine of my mirthe, I had been,
pre, sequor, one of your consorte.”
In Silent Woman Ben Johnson writes,
“Did you ever heare such a wind-fucker
as this?” referring to the piercing
pitch of the kestrel’s cry. By 1609
has the soaring noun become an insult?
How could Will have failed to employ the word?
George Chapman in his Iliad preface claims,
“There is a certain envious Windfucker,
that hovers up and downe, laboriously
ingrossing all the air with his luxious ambition.”
The word then vanishes from plays and poems,
from everyday poetics of common speech.
Or does it really, my rakes and rapscallions,
bullyrooks and windfuckers? What say you?