This poem was included in ‘Morning in the Burned House,’ a collection of poems that explore history, mythology, love, nature, and more. The collection also included works like ‘Sekhmet, the Lion-Headed Goddess of War’ and ‘Bored.’ This poem is evocative of the way that all things transition from life to death and how a place’s history is there, but not there, at the same time.
Explore Vermilion Flycatcher, San Pedro River, Arizona
‘Vermilion Flycatcher, San Pedro River, Arizona’by Margaret Atwood is a poem about the power of nature and history.
In the first part of this poem, the speaker begins by describing a once-raging river that’s now nothing more than a trickle. This leads her into a discussion of a red bird that she describes as evoking “joy and the tranced rage of sex.” The speaker describes images of the past, murder, loss, and animals drinking from the same river throughout time. The poem ends with a discussion of dreams.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Vermilion Flycatcher, San Pedro River, Arizona’by Margaret Atwood is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of nine, eleven, and ten lines. The poem is written in free verse, meaning that the poet did not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Most of the lines end in very different words, like “intensely,” “broken,” and “cluster,” but there are some examples of rhyme to note. For instance, “trees” and “knees” are at the ends of lines two and three in stanza one.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of a few literary devices. They include:
- Imagery: a particularly interesting description meant to inspire the reader’s senses. For instance: “or white skin lying reversed / in the vanished water.”
- Personification: occurs when the poet describes something non-human by using language specific to humanity. For example, “He’s filled with joy / and the tranced rage of sex” refers to the bird’s red color.
- Metaphor: a description of two things that doesn’t use “like” or “as.” For example, the poet describes the bird’s color as “the bead of blood” from one’s stuck thumb.
- Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line of verse created through the poet’s use of punctuation or meter. For example, “and be ambushed. The red bird.”
The river’s been here, violent, right where we’re standing,
you can tell by the trash caught overhead in the trees.
Now it’s a trickle, and we’re up to our knees
in late-spring yellowing weeds. A vermilion
flycatcher darts down, flutters up, perches.
Stick a pin in your thumb, the bead of blood
would be his colour. He’s filled with joy
and the tranced rage of sex. How he conjures,
with his cry like a needle. A punctuation. A bone button
The poem begins with the speaker describing how the “river,” specifically the San Pedro River in Arizona, was violently raging. It had been “here,” she notes, right where they’re standing now. It carried debris into the trees overhead. But, now, things are different.
The river has declined to a trickle, and the area where the speaker and her companion are standing is in the middle of “Late-spring yellowing weeds.” This is an interesting example of juxtaposition. It compares the calmest time of the year for the river with a period that was far harsher and more dangerous.
As they’re standing there, presumably enjoying what’s likely a spring day, the speaker notes a “vermilion flycatcher” that’s flying overhead. It darts down into the weeds. The poet uses a memorable metaphor to describe the bird as blood red. She asks the reader to imagine what color their blood would be if they stuck a pin into their finger. But, rather than draw out a feeling of pain or fear, this image evokes joy and the “Rage of sex.”
This unique combination of feelings attaches symbolic importance to the color red. It’s what most people would imagine (passion and happiness) when they see the color. The bird’s call brings the speaker to a contemplative place where she considers history, tragedy, and death.
on fire. Everything bad you can imagine
is happening somewhere else, or happened
come at dusk to cross and drink
and be ambushed. The red bird
There is an example of enjambment between the first and second stanzas. The poet cuts off the sentence that begins with “A bone button” and continues it in line one of stanza two with “on fire.” The poet describes the bird’s color as reminding her of the dark history of the world and even of the place she’s currently standing. She thinks about how here, or somewhere else, something terrible has happened.
As the bird sings, she sees the murder in her mind. She sees deaths happening near here, and a man’s body, black or white, under the now “vanished” water. By imagining the “spear / or bullet,” she’s thinking about the history of murder and the various implements that one might’ve used.
She connects this memory of ephemeral violence with another natural image, that of a deer coming down to the same river and getting ambushed. The peaceful moment in the natural world is interrupted with violence, as (the speaker is likely alluding) many others throughout time in this place and many others.
is sitting in the same tree, intensely
bright in the sun that gleams on cruelty, on broken
that isn’t there is the same one
you could drown in, face down.
In the final few lines of ‘Vermilion Flycatcher, San Pedro River, Arizona,’ the speaker continues to focus on the “red bird,” or vermilion flycatcher, sitting in the same tree. The bird is there, as have similar birds throughout time, in the cruel gleam of the sun along with metaphorical “skull bone, arrow, spur.” The poet is again merging images of violence with nature.
The poet considers the imagined dead men again with vultures overhead ready to engage in the next step of the journey from life to death. She paints a strange but also expansive picture of humanity in these lines before moving back to the bird again. She speaks about the bird’s dreams and how it doesn’t experience dreams in quite the same way that humans do.
She directs her words to “you,” but she could be talking to anyone who has ever lived. She says that dreams are real within one’s mind. So real, in fact, that one could “drown” in a dreamed river. Here she alludes to the weight that thoughts, goals, ideas, and opinions have on humans. It’s very different from the way a bird dreams.
The main theme of this poem is nature. The poet speaks about and around nature while alluding to the way that it is always there through humanity’s ups and downs.
‘Vermilion Flycatcher, San Pedro River, Arizona’ is a lyric free verse poem in three stanzas. The poem does not use a cohesive rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
Atwood wrote this poem to speak about the way in which nature inspires and to discuss the history of natural places as human beings pass through them.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Margaret Atwood poems. For example:
- ‘Half Hanged Mary’ – describes the life and death of Mary Webster, a supposed ancestor of Margaret Atwood, who was hanged in the 1680s for witchcraft.
- ‘Siren Song‘ – published in 1974, the poem describes the sirens from Greek mythology, their song, and why they’re singing.
- ‘Crow Song‘ – a satirical poem that depicts humanity through crow-related imagery.