This nine stanza poem is separated into sets of three lines or tercets. Schwartzman has not given this poem a specific pattern of rhyme or rhythm. The lines vary in length, end sounds, and the number of syllables.
One particular structural feature of this piece that is interesting is the length of the phrases. In some instances, such as from stanza three to stanza five, a sentence runs for almost eight long lines before ending. Often this style of writing creates a list-like pattern to the text. A reader is given a number of short phrases, piled up one after another that come together to create a vibrant vision of the world of the ibis. Schwartzman is trying to make the point that every feature on these lists can and does exist together in South Africa.
It is important for a reader to take note of the title of this piece and the significance it brings to the text. “Hadedah” is a large African ibis with grey and green coloring. It is noteworthy for the metallic shine on its wings. It lives throughout Sub-Saharan African, everywhere from grasslands to wetlands and even into the cities.
The poem begins with the speaker looking at the ibis and admiring its strength and precision. It is only violent when necessary. The bird is not a creature the speaker has taken a lot of time to understand and now he wonders why that is. They are common throughout South Africa, even living in cities. He follows one particular bird up into the sky where it joins others.
From here on the poem focuses on the land itself. The speaker describes the types of places the birds fly over. He speaks on the geographical features, cultural significance, and death present on the ground far below the birds. The last lines take the ibises away from South Africa and away from the world.
Langauge and Contrast
A reader should also take note of the fact that Schwartzman utilizes contrast in this piece to provoke a variety of emotions from a reader. Often lines contain two opposite features of a place or creature, such as at the Hadedah ibis itself. It is described with a strange but effective combination of words. One such instance is when he calls the ibis a “suburban cowboy.” He is acknowledging its wild nature, but also the fact that it has become accustomed to city life.
There is also a moment towards the end of the poem where Schwartzman goes through a few of the buildings and businesses that are below the birds as they fly. He lists churches right after “shebeen kingdoms.” A shebeen is a place that illicitly sells alcohol and in the area of South Africa. He is interested in describing how they are often found near one another.
The mood of this poem is an interesting one. It is in turn depressing and optimistic. Towards the end of the piece, the ibises rise up above cultural death below them and leave behind South Africa and the world itself. Although they leave the country, nothing has been solved. The world still sits as it did before they left.
It is likely the poet is trying to convey the difficulty inherent in being a part of South African culture and the way escape at times seems like the only answer. That being said, the poem does not portray South Africa as being somewhere one would necessarily want to leave. The entire first half of the poem is a peaceful contemplation of a beautiful bird that exists in and out of the city limits. While the second half is determined to fit in as much detail about the “lakes,” “mountains” and “rivers” as possible.
Analysis of Hadedah
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by referring to the ibis as a “flower-bed predator.” The use of the word “predator” imbues the ibis with power. More often than not, a creature described with this word embodies characteristics one should fear. The speaker tempers that initial reaction by adding that the ibis does not hunt animals or people, only flowers. Its domain is much more peaceful. That does not mean that it doesn’t go about its hunting with passion and ferocity though. It is incredibly focused.
The following phrases describe the way its beak works as a “piston.” The ibis “sinks” its beak into the ground as it hunts and,
spreads its legs like a suburban cowboy,
Once again this phrase is two-sided. The word “cowboy” might bring up images of a wild, free-ranging adventurer but it is transformed with the addition of “suburban.” This particular ibis is not as wild as it could be. It is less wild than it is adapted to its surroundings. Perhaps it has made its home amongst the outskirts of a city. This is only one of a number of constructing statements that follow. The poet is attempting to show the multifaceted nature of the area through the adjectives he chooses.
In the third line of the stanza, the speaker adds the word “levers.” This relates back to the mechanical image of the “piston” in the first line. The speaker clearly sees the bird as possessing some kind of structured movements. It is well-tuned and adapted to its life, like a machine.
Next, the speaker goes on to define for the reader what kind of bird this is. He says that it is “related to the ibis” and is seen as being “exotic.” The exotic nature of these birds comes to form the fact that they seem to have just appeared from nowhere. They have made their home amongst the speaker’s own but were not “named” until they appeared. There is no record of what they are or where they have come from. The range of the Hadedah ibis is large. It can be found throughout the countryside and within the city limits. One would encounter it no matter where they went.
Now, what the speaker has taken the time to notice the birds, he sees that they take up the same space. The speaker and his intended listener/s live in the same area, South Africa. Likely in the East Rand region, as it features later on in the poem. They are “inhabitants” on common ground.
The speaker says that up until this point the most that the listeners “have said” in regards to the Hadedah ibis is that they,
[…]were omens and make a very loud, uncivilized noise
Here the speaker contrasts the harsh noise of the ibis with something more ethereal, an omen. He knows them for what they portend, anything from a good harvest to coming rain. This knowledge exists alongside the more contemporary, that they make loud noises. Something about the bird has piqued his interest. It is likely the fact that he knows so little about it and that it is a common sight in his day to day life. The poet is encouraging a closer analysis of life with these lines. One is able to pass by something every day and never take the time to know what it is or what it might symbolize.
While his imagination is focused on the bird’s nature and origin, his eyes follow it as it joins into a flock and flies over his home.
In the next three lines, the speaker describes the actions of the birds in the sky. They are graceful in their movements, especially for their size. They “bank” and climb up above the “lopped horizon.” A reader should take note of the variety of adjectives the poet makes use of here. The birds are described beautifully, but also somewhat dangerously. They “slice” through the “Fat clouds” and “cut through jacaranda,” a genus of a flowering plant common in tropical and subtropical areas.
Here the speaker is giving the reader details about the bird, but also about the region, it is flying through. From this point on it becomes clear that the poem has a greater focus on the area than on the bird itself. The poet is attempting to say something about South Africa and use the ibis as a larger metaphor for what it is like to reside there.
In the fifth stanza, the speaker uses the ibis to describe the “East Rand gold towns.” This is a reference to the urban part of the Witwatersrand. This area is merged with Johannesburg in and is known for its gold-bearing reef. It was the trigger of a gold rush in the 1880s.
The speaker describes the smells of this area. One can pick up “wood fire” and “anthracite.” These are industrial smells. (Anthracite refers to a hard variety of coal.) The speaker is looking down, from the eye of the ibis, on the mines of the region, especially those in the water. He can see the “Mine heads” as they “wink…in dumps and streams.” They appear to him as “steel fly eyes.” They are multifaceted, hard, and functional like steel. But they are also alive like a fly’s eyes. This description shows the alluring nature of the material and how one would be unable to avoid looking at it.
In the next stanza, the speaker returns to the birds as they “climb” over the people below. They leave behind the gold and can look down to see,
[…] people singing
Home in trans and other people talking softly
There is hope in the population below or at least a forward-thinking momentum. They are looking toward the future, if somewhat tentatively. As they travel they contemplate what will happen “Next year.”
The ibises continue to fly. Now they can see the “neon paradises,” or cities below and the “shebeen kingdoms.” This is a reference to establishments, usually unlicensed that sell alcohol. These sights come together with “corrugated churches on earth.” All parts the city merge when seen from above. The usually divided form one mass of life.
In the last lines of the seventh stanza, the birds stop climbing, “level out” and leave everything in the city behind. No longer will they look down on the “thatch” or and “bougainvillea,” two different types of plants. The speaker has repetitively emphasized the nature of the scene. It is clear that the natural elements of the area are important to his overall picture.
There is also the “private Edens” to leave behind. They are less like Eden than they should be. No matter, they are always there alongside the “dunes, rivers, mountains.” The birds are traveling out of the city now and into the denser countryside. Here they can see “lakes, jungles, ancestral homes.” The whole history of the area is displayed on the ground. To one who can rise above and look down, it is clear.
The ninth stanza begins with the speaker noting that the birds can also see the,
Of sleeping culture,
This is a reference to the long history of death in the area. From the slave trade to the massacres of the 1800s and 1900s, up to the apartheid.
The lines to take the “hadedah” ibises out of the region of South African and then out of the “world” entirely. These common, little regarded birds are used as a vehicle to take a reader through the history of a region, past to present. Then move up and away from the deep troubles that still exist. They move through a recovering country that is looking toward the future.