The Great Black Heron
Since I stroll in the woods more often
than on this frequented path, it’s usually
trees I observe; but among fellow humans
what I like best is to see an old woman
fishing alone at the end of a jetty,
hours on end, plainly content.
The Russians mushroom-hunting after a rain
trail after themselves a world of red sarafans,
nightingales, samovars, stoves to sleep on
(though without doubt those are not
what they can remember). Vietnamese families
fishing or simply sitting as close as they can
to the water, make me recall that lake in Hanoi
in the amber light, our first, jet-lagged evening,
peace in the war we had come to witness.
This woman engaged in her pleasure evokes
an entire culture, tenacious field-flower
growing itself among the rows of cotton
in red-earth country, under the feet
of mules and masters. I see her
a barefoot child by a muddy river
learning her skill with the pole. What battles
has she survived, what labors?
She’s gathered up all the time in the world
–nothing else–and waits for scanty trophies,
complete in herself as a heron.
- by Denise Levertov
This poem reminds me a bit of The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by William Butler Yeats, and its lulling phrase, “for peace comes dropping slow”. This poem seems to be about peace and calm, but it is not.
Russians, Vietnamese, war, labors, battles, Hanoi, “under the feet/of mules and masters” – those are not peaceful images for one who was alive during the era of the Vietnam war, as Levertov, a passionate anti-war voice, was well aware. The voice of the poem describes herself as more typically walking through a pathless wood, introducing a further element of disorder to a poem which appears to be about peace.
The peaceful final image is particularly and wonderfully deceptive. Herons do not stand still by ponds to serve as ornithological yard ornaments – they are hunters. When a small fish, frog or other “scanty trophy” appears in range, it jabs it long bill into the water and kills it. Levertov’s choice of a “black heron” reinforces the death imagery – true black herons are African birds, and are an unlikely choice for a North American poet who wasn’t trying to bolster a point.
This poem is not about peace – it is about endurance and strife appearing to be peace. She celebrates the woman not for her peacefulness, but for her strength, tenacity and survival.