- Heavy upon My Eye: Reading Carolyn Kizer’s “The Great Blue Heron” As My Mother Is Leaving
It is hard to tell whether Carolyn Kizer’s “The Great Blue Heron,” one of her more mysterious and sad poems, is an elegy for a person or a landscape. Or for both at once. In the region of Scotland where my mother’s family originated, as in cultures throughout the world, particular hills and caves embody the legends that hold the culture of the people. And even in today’s WEIRD (Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic) nations, to use psychologist Steven J. Heine’s term, we are still people; all of us still hold, not as buried as we think, the knowledge that a landscape’s wisdom is deeper and more lasting than that of our mortal selves. On a larger scale than a body’s meanings and wisdom are the meanings and wisdom of the places our bodies still know they belong to.
This is why human experiences with the natural world make such a necessary and perennially challenging subject for a contemporary poet from the developed world. Our overly built and overly transient cultures have robbed us, both individually and tribally, of long-held meaningful connections to particular landscapes. And yet each of us has an embodied soul that is designed to feel such a connection. Our souls need that. They reach for it and pull us toward it.
As I wandered on the beach I saw the heron standing Sunk in the tattered wings He wore. . .(1–4)
In lamenting both mother and landscape at once, Kizer’s poem reminds us of the connections between self, land, tribe, and memory that so many of us are lacking—making it harder than it should be for us both to love and to mourn.
And yet “The Great Blue Heron” also reminds us that a poem itself provides a [End Page 66] kind of landscape for those of us who may have no places in our lives capable of really connecting us with each other and ourselves. In the third and final stanza, she writes:
Now there is only you Heavy upon my eye. Why have you followed me here, Heavy and far away?(43–46)
I count Carolyn Kizer as a dear friend and mentor of twenty-five years. I wasn’t in touch with her often, but at four or five crucial junctions in my career she was there—writing an enthusiastic, unsolicited letter about the manuscript of my first book, reviewing the book when it came out, and encouraging me to trust my most authentic voice in a key aesthetic decision about my second book. I write this essay in the wake of Carolyn’s recent death and also as my own mother, Maggie, at ninety-four, is starting to fade from her loved ones due to memory loss. A prolific and brilliant self-published poet, she was my first poetic guide. I’ve been editing a book of her poetry, her fourth, enjoying its beauty, racing to finish it before it’s too late for her to recognize and enjoy its publication. I want her to have it, to hold it, to know it’s there while she still can, because she knows full well that poetry will remember her. Of course it will. After all, who was the mother of the Muses?
Kizer’s poems, far-seeing feminist that she was, often involve women and memory. There are the tales commemorating heroines (mythic or actual women such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife Fanny) to save them from oblivion; there are reminiscences in tribute to friends (Kizer is undoubtedly one of the great poets of women’s friendship); there are memories of her daunting, courageous mother, who seems to embody for her a connection to the heart of nature that is chthonic and unfathomable. In “The Intruder,” she describes the defeat of her mother’s efforts to be linked to nature’s weirdness—by the “pallid, yellow” lice she found in the wrinkled wings of a bat. But in “The Great Blue Heron,” the mother is completely clued in, almost a shamanic figure...