‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress’ is a poem written by American poet Robert Duncan, first published in the poet’s 1968 collection Bending the Bow.
Often regarded as one of his best works, this poem uses repetition, sound, and imagery to weave between the many opposing forces in the speaker’s painful relationship with his mother.
Explore My Mother Would Be a Falconress
‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress’ is a free verse poem about a son’s resentment for his overbearing mother and his guilt from breaking free of her control.
The speaker in ‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress’ is unspecific, but one can presume that it is the poet.
This speaker opens the poem by comparing his mother to a falconress, or falcon-keeper, and likening himself to a falcon. The falcon-speaker treads his mother’s wrist, obeys her commands to kill other birds, and wears a hood, adorned with bells, that blinds him from the rest of the world.
The speaker builds resentment as the falconress-mother constrains him, only allowing him to fly so far and ordering him to bring dead birds back to her undamaged. He explains that the hood she keeps on him “muffles” his dreams, keeping him in a state of total dependence.
In a culmination of the speaker’s frustration, he bites at his mother’s wrist, drawing blood and fighting his way free from her control.
After fighting his way free, the speaker fantasizes about how he wishes things were between him and his mother. In this dream, he obeys his mother out of love, and she is proud of him for flying freely.
However, in reality, the mother cries in anguish, her voice carrying even farther than the horizon, following the speaker wherever he goes. The speaker then breaks from the extended simile of the poem, explaining that his mother is dead.
Still, the thoughts of how violently he broke away from her haunt him as the speaker remembers how he drew blood from her wrist, causing her pain.
Structure and Form
‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress’ is a free verse lyric poem that uses sound, repetition, and stanza structure to create verbal imagery and rhythm.
While there are a few rhymes in the poem, there is no set rhyme structure. For the most part, the poet creates rhyme and meter using repetition of certain phrases like “My mother would be a falconress,” “I would draw blood,” and “bring down the little birds,’ just to name a few.
This repetition, which replaces meter and the need for rhyme, illustrates the speaker’s fixation and constant recollection of the events he describes.
This poem is an excellent example of lyric poetry, as it is intensely personal and emotional.
Robert Duncan’s ‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress’ exists in the language of metaphor and simile.
While the similes in ‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress’ do not use “like” or “as,” they are still similes. These use the subjunctive voice (would be) to compare the speaker’s mother to a falconress, or keeper of falcons, and the speaker to a falcon.
By breaking the very common conventions of simile, the listener can immediately tell that Duncan is attempting to do something altogether original with this poem, and indeed, he does.
One of the primary metaphors in this poem is the “little hood with many bells.” This hood represents the supreme and unwanted control that the mother has over the speaker. Like a cowbell, the “jangling” hood allows her to trace her son’s whereabouts, functioning a bit like a leash that limits the speaker’s movements. However, it also blinds the falcon-son, completely submitting him to his mother-falconress.
Overall, this poem’s central theme is mother-child relationships. However, this poem uses many other themes to illustrate how complicated these relationships can be.
The most dominant aspect of the speaker’s relationship with his mother is dependence and independence. The speaker ultimately attacks his mother due to her overbearing, often contradictory rules that control every aspect of his life. Additionally, the speaker harbors resentment for the way she forces him to be in a state of complete dependence on her.
The speaker also places great importance on freedom. Although he breaks free from his mother’s overbeating control near the poem’s end, he still lets his memories haunt him. Thus, he can never escape the guilt and resentment he harbors for his mother.
Sight is another essential theme of this poem, as the mother uses a hood to blind her falcon-son from his own dreams and reality. However, ultimately, sight becomes more integral to the poem as it becomes clear that the speaker is ruminating on the visual memories of his relationship with his mother.
My mother would be a falconress,
And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist,
would fly to bring back
from the blue of the sky to her, bleeding, a prize,
where I dream in my little hood with many bells
jangling when I’d turn my head.
In stanza one of ‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress’ the speaker introduces the main simile of the poem. In this comparison, the speaker’s mother would be a “falconress” or a female falcon handler. The word “falconress” is not an actual word but a new invention from Duncan.
This poem only exists in the land of the metaphysical or esoteric, as it is similar to a dream. The verbs are almost all modified by “would,” placing the poem in the subjunctive voice, which expresses hypothetical thoughts.
However, “would” is usually accompanied by another clause that contains “if.” For example, let’s look at the sentence “If you read this poem, you would like it” makes perfect sense. But, if I removed the “if” clause, it would make less sense and only express half of the idea in the original sentence (e.g., “you would like it”).
So, Duncan removes all of the “if” clauses from this poem, only focusing on the “woulds,” thus creating a very abstract, unconstrained perspective that is out of context from reality. This fits well within the poem’s theme of constraint and freedom.
The speaker describes himself as the “gay falcon treading her wrist,” using a pun to express the jolly mood of the speaker and his homosexuality, as Duncan was a very outspokenly gay public figure.
The third line, “would fly to bring back,” almost contains everything you need to know about this poem. The speaker, as a falcon, fetches items for the falconress or mother, only to bring them back to her. While the speaker has the freedom to fly, he can only follow the commands of the mother-falconress and must always return. This dynamic of both freedom and control is what the poem will continue to explore in depth.
The speaker-falcon would fly into the blue sky, a metaphor for freedom, to fetch a “bleeding” prize or a smaller bird the falcon killed.
However, after fetching this prize, the falcon would always return to the wrist of his falconress, where he dreams in his “little hood with many bells / jangling.”
This hood is one of the main metaphors of the poem. Like a baby bonnet, it infantilizes the speaker, turning him into a child. However, it also has bells that ring any time he moves, which gives the falconress-mother a way to track her falcon-son. Additionally, it serves as a sort of mental prison, covering the head and eyes of the speaker-falcon, making him blind to the world around him.
My mother would be a falconress,
for I fall, I mis-take, I fail in her mission.
In stanza two of ‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress,’ the speaker hints at his frustration with the mother-falconress.
In this stanza, the mother allows the speaker to go as far “as her will goes,” indicating that she can dictate how far the speaker-falcon can fly away from her at any time. She lets the speaker go only as far as the end of her curb, and once he makes it to that spot, he falls back “in anguish” as if disappointed that he cannot go any further.
However, the speaker-falcon also states that he falls back out of fear for his mother-falconress, as he is worried that she will give him away or fail her.
Thus, the mother of this poem has complete emotional control over her son, and she treats him like a pet who must listen to and obey her commands. Her commands are often conflicting to the speaker. While he can fly away, he cannot fly too far.
Also, note that Duncan does interesting things with rhythm and meter in this stanza. Most of the stanza is in iambic meter with a few three-beat dactyls, but in line six, this steady rhythm breaks down with the stressed words “I mis-take.” This metrical change verbally illustrates the “mis-take” of the falcon.
She would bring down the little birds.
their heads like flowers limp from the stem?
In stanza three, the perspective gets interesting as the speaker further describes his mother’s rules.
The image of this stanza is that of the falconress and her falcon going out hunting together, killing smaller birds and bringing them down from the sky. However, the juxtaposition of the lines “And I would bring down the little birds. / When will she let me bring down the little birds,” forces the falconress-mother’s power and authority to dominate the scene.
The speaker can only “bring down” the smaller birds when the falconress-mother allows him to. However, when she does permit it, the speaker seems to see this occasion as a bonding experience, where he can share an activity with his mother-falconress.
Still, this activity is gruesome. Instead of bonding over tea and television, the falconress-mother commands her falcon-son to “bring down the little birds,” indicating that the mother wants her son to be the best at the cost of others. She instills him with a competitive, predatory nature that always makes him the winner. However, ultimately, she is the agent of success, finding gratification in watching her son take down the little people in life.
Also note that while the first two stanzas were six lines long, this stanza only includes five lines. Here, the poet breaks the poem’s expected structure, indicating that the speaker is questioning authority and planning to break the rules.
I tread my mother’s wrist and would draw blood.
talking to myself and dropping off to sleep.
In stanza four of ‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress,’ the speaker’s inner turmoil comes to the forefront.
While, in the first stanza, the speaker described the little birds as “a prize” bleeding, here, we find the phrase “draw blood” connected with the “mother’s wrist.” The speaker’s discontent and frustration are rearing their head here as he grows resentful of his mother’s control over him.
The poet’s slant rhymes “blood” with multiple repetitions of the word “hood,” implying that the handcuff-like, jingling bonnet the mother puts the speaker in is inextricably connected to blood. Here, the speaker uses allusion to refer to the bonds of his bloodline, illustrating that he will never be able to fully break away from his mother’s control since they are related.
Under the physical hoods of the bonnet and the speaker’s eyes, there lies another hood — silence. Like the other hoods, this silence keeps the speaker in submission to his mother-falconress. However, despite this silence, the speaker can still talk to himself in his mind as he dreams.
For she has muffled my dreams in the hood she has made me,
I may not tear into, I must bring back perfectly.
Stanza five of ‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress’ is far longer than the preceding stanzas, and the lines are longer, too. Here, with the additional lines and words, the poet uses repetition to heighten the speaker’s emotions and convey a flustered, frustrated tone.
In expressing this frustration, the speaker explains that the mother-falconress has “muffled” his dreams with the bells on his hood, indicating that her control has made his dreams seem unattainable.
In the next lines, the speaker emphasizes the semi-contradictory rules that his mother-falconress imposes on him. These contrasting ideas, while very different from each other, are very familiar to anyone with a parent.
The first set of contrasts is in the mother’s pride and her punishments.
The falconress-mother seems to be a show-off with a prize pet here, as “She rides with her little falcon upon her wrist.” By calling himself little, the speaker implies that the mother only sees him as a status symbol or a cute little pet. However, the following line, “She uses a barb that brings me to cower” is dark and disturbing, as it implies that she uses corporal punishment to keep her son-falcon in line.
Next, the speaker contrasts the freedom and mobility his falconress-mother gives him with the constraints of always having to return.
Then, finally, the speaker explains that he must bring down the little birds to her, but he “may not tear into” them and “must bring [them] back perfectly.” As a bird of prey, the falcon consumes other birds, but in this stanza, the mother’s control over her falcon-son is so pervasive that he cannot follow his natural instincts. He must obey at all costs. This sets up a contrast between individual instinct and obedience.
I tear at her wrist with my beak to draw blood,
But I must never eat what she sends me to bring her.
Stanza six takes a significant turn as the falcon-son is fed up. He tears “at her wrist with [his beak to draw blood” as she stares at him with a look of “terrifying” rage.
However, despite the falcon-son’s fears “that she will cast [him] away,” the mother-falconress only becomes more strict. Instead of granting him the freedom he dreams of, she takes even more freedom away and “draws a limit” to his “flight.”
The speaker also states, “She trains me to fetch and to limit myself in fetching,” indicating that the mother teaches the falcon to do things that he is only allowed to do when she says it’s okay.
Likewise, she “rewards” him with “meat,” but can never eat the “little birds” that she commands him to fetch. Here, the speaker stresses that the falconress-mother’s control forces him to defy his instincts to follow her commands.
Yet it would have been beautiful, if she would have carried me,
straining, and then released for the flight.
Stanza seven of ‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress’ is a dream, or a fantasy, revealing the falcon’s true wishes. In this stanza, the falcon-son imagines what it would be like to coexist happily with his falcon-mother.
In this fantasy, he still wears “a little hood with the bells ringing.” This line indicates that, in an ideal world, he wouldn’t mind if the falconress-mother was in control of him.
That’s because, unlike in reality, the falconress-mother would take him to the great falcon hunt, and he would be free to fly “up to the curb of [his] heart from her heart.” This gorgeous line, which recalls the lines “She lets me ride to the end of her curb / where I fall back in anguish,” indicates the speaker’s feelings that his mother’s commands keep them from loving each other.
If she let him fly freely, he would fly between his mother’s heart and his own, joining them together.
Additionally, the falcon-speaker would not kill the little birds in the sky for his mother-falconress. Instead, he would voluntarily bring back the “skylark from the blue to her feet,” keeping it alive, then releasing it.
Thus, there would be no blood, no savagery, and no killing. Instead, without having to compete with others to get her approval, they would simply observe the other birds, then let them go.
My mother would be a falconress,
sought in me flight beyond the horizon.
Stanza eight rephrases the poem’s opening lines in continuation of the speaker’s fantasy. This time, though, the speaker is the falconress-mother’s “gerfalcon raised at her will.”
The title gerfalcon, the largest of the falcons, gives the speaker dignity and majesty that the self-critical phrase “gay falcon” does not. Likewise, this majesty comes only because, in the speaker’s dream, he is “raised at her will,” or chosen by his mother.
The speaker-falcon can fly freely, as his mother finds pride in his independence and ambition.
In keeping with the theme of sight and blindness, the mother “sought” in her falcon-son “flight beyond the horizon. Here, through the eyes of the mother, she sees who he truly is and is proud of it.
Ah, but high, high in the air I flew.
it seemd my human soul went down in flames.
In stanza nine of ‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress,’ the speaker awakes from his dream, saying “Ah, but high, high in the air I flew” in an apostrophe to the listener. In this line, the speaker returns to reality, where he has just drawn blood by biting his way free from his falconress-mother’s hand.
After pulling loose, the speaker flies “far, far beyond the curb of her will,” to “ the blue hills where the falcons nest.” The speaker, then, now that he is free, does not have to obey his mother, and he can stop denying himself of his true nature and his dreams. He can be a falcon, finally.
As he flies, he looks upon the setting sun, and “it seemd [his] human soul went down in flames.” This human soul is a metaphor for the speaker’s obedience. While he is a falcon, his mother the falconress gave him a human soul by forcing him to follow human rules.
I tore at her wrist, at the hold she had for me,
far, far beyond the curb of her will
In stanza ten, although the speaker has just explained that his “human soul” seemed to go “down in flames,” it is apparent that he is still fixated on his mother. He repeats himself, recalling how he “tore at her wrist” to break away from her hold. He’s also fixated on blood, as he describes how her “blood ran hot.”
However, in this memory, the speaker recalls how he “heard her cry out, / far, far beyond the curb of her will.” By calling out beyond this boundary, the mother’s will seems to break. Without her son-falcon, it serves no purpose.
to horizons of stars beyond the ringing hills of the world where the falcons nest
striking out from the blood to be free of her.
Stanza eleven culminates in imagery as the falcon, free of his hood, can finally see things for how they are. The lines lengthen here, displaying the vastness of the “horizons of stars beyond the ringing hills” and breaking free from the expected format.
However, he only sees this wide world as his mother’s voice echoes out through the sky, tainting the world with “anguish beyond her sight.” This cry of pain travels even beyond the falcon’s sight, deep into the stars. This voice, then, serves as a metaphor for the speaker’s mother’s anger, which continues to follow the speaker everywhere he goes.
While this “anguish” follows the speaker, it also seems that his guilt follows him. He recalls how he “tore at her wrist with my savage beak,” describing it as savage in self-criticism. Likewise, his strike seems “cruel,” and the image of red blood strikes his memory repetitively — note the striking repetition of the word “strike” in this stanza.
My mother would be a falconress,
were broken, it is stilld
In stanza twelve, the listener learns what this poem is really about. Here, the speaker explains that the falconress is the soul of the speaker’s mother and not his real mother. His real mother, “the woman,” is dead. The falconress, then, is the idea of his mother that still exists in his mind, haunting him like a ghost.
Most notably, however, we get an “if” statement in stanza twelve. Thus far, the poem has only existed in the realm of “would.” Grammatically, it is incorrect to use a “would” statement without an “if” statement. Thus, the speaker has been keeping us in the blue, so to speak, as the poem had no context until this stanza.
The only if statement is this: “if her heart / were broken, it is stilld.” With this statement, we can understand that the speaker is using this poem to recall a memory. This recollection functions much like a dream, taking the speaker back to a time when he broke his mother’s heart by leaving and disobeying her.
While he, at that time, broke away from her control and direct influence, she followed him. Her memory and the scene of the moment flashback to him, swooping into his memory like a falcon resting on a handler’s wrist. Although she is now dead, he is still left with this painful memory and the guilt of leaving her.
I would be a falcon and go free.
I tread her wrist and wear the hood,
talking to myself, and would draw blood.
In stanza thirteen, the speaker seems to regress back into his memory, still torn between his personal identity and his mother’s will. He jumbles statements from the previous stanzas, finding no realistic way to compromise between himself and his mother’s wishes.
However, this stanza begins with the line “I would be a falcon and go free,” unlike the line “My mother would be a falconress,” which the poet has used four times previously. Here, the speaker puts importance on his own identity, but still through the lens of the falcon-falconress relationship. He states that he would still “go free” given a chance to do it all again.
However, he also states that he would “tread her wrist and wear the hood, / talking to myself, and would draw blood.” This rhyming couplet suggests that the speaker has still found no resolution, as he still suggests that, given the opportunity, he would put himself back into the position of being his mother’s pet, deprived of sight and free agency.
This conclusion implies that as long as he lives, the speaker will always feel guilty about breaking free of his mother’s control. Ultimately, though, he wishes he had found some middle ground between drawing “blood” and going “free.”
The meaning of ‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress‘ is that memories, however bitter or painful, come back to haunt us. The speaker in the poem, although he eventually breaks free from his mother’s control, never becomes free from the memory of his mother. Additionally, the speaker never loses the guilt he feels for hurting her after angrily breaking free from her control.
The tone in ‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress‘ by Robert Duncan is frustrated, contemplative, sad, and triumphant. The mix of emotions that the speaker feels in this poem is very broad, and his love for his mother and fear of losing her keep him resentfully under her ultimate control. However, the frustration builds in each verse as the speaker breaks free. Still, even years after this event, the images and guilt haunt him.
‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress‘ was written in 1968 as a part of Robert Duncan’s collection “Bending the Bow.”Duncan was a very successful poet associated with the modernists and the Black Mountain poetry movement. However, as a fan of the imagist HD, he favored deep, meaningful lyric poems with compressed language.
While ‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress‘ is not explicitly a LGBTQ+ poem, it does contain a subtext of queerness. Duncan was one of the earliest prominent poets to speak about and publish writing about being a gay man in America, and many of his personal experiences leak into his lyric poetry.
If you enjoyed ‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress’ by Robert Duncan, you might enjoy:
- ‘A Stone is Nobody’s’ by Russell Edson – a remarkably similar poem about how a man capturing a stone is similar to a mother/son relationship.
- ‘Eden Rock‘ by Charles Causley – an imagery-heavy poem about the difficulty of leaving one’s family.
- ‘Caged Bird’ by Maya Angelou – a famous poem that compares the speaker to a bird trapped in a cage.
Additionally, if you enjoyed this poem’s exploration of the son-mother relationship, I highly recommend reading the short story The Terrapin by Patricia Highsmith. It is a slightly disturbing and emotional tale of a young boy who builds resentment for his domineering and controlling mother. I give it a 10/10 but prepare for an emotional ending.