There was nothing I could have done—
a flurry of blackbirds burst
from the weeds at the edge of a field
and one veered out into my wheel
and went under. I had a moment
to hope he’d emerge as sometimes
they will from beneath the back
of the car and fly off,
but I saw him behind on the roadbed,
the shadowless sail of a wing
lifted vainly from the clumsy
bundle of matter he’d become.
There was nothing I could have done,
though perhaps I was distracted:
I’d been listening to news of the war,
hearing that what we’d suspected
were lies had proved to be lies,
that many were dying for those lies,
but as usual now, it wouldn’t matter.
I’d been thinking of Lincoln’s
“…You can’t fool all of the people
all of the time…,” how I once
took comfort from the hope and trust
it implied, but no longer.
I had to slow down now,
a tractor hauling a load of hay
was approaching on the narrow lane.
The farmer and I gave way and waved:
the high-piled bales swayed
menacingly over my head but held.
Out in the harvested fields,
already disliked and raw,
more blackbirds, uncountable
clouds of them, rose, held
for an instant, then broke,
scattered as though by a gale.
Williams, who for three decades taught at Princeton, passed away last Sunday. His poems are sometimes challenging, always ambitious, and unusually sincere as they traverse public and private life. I think “Blackbird” is a good example of this ability, as well as of Williams’s knack for speaking with emotion and cunning intelligence in the same breath.
For many years, his poems and critical essays were included in The New Yorker. Most are worth a read, though the opening line of his tribute to his friend the poet Galway Kinnell resonates today:
About the death of any friend one feels sadness; with some, though, that sadness is tempered by gratitude, by a feeling of privilege to have been able to live in the world at the same time as the one who’s gone.
“Blackbird” is basically a mash up of Larkin’s “The Mower,” Bly’s “Awakening,” and “On Being Asked to Write a Poem against the War in Vietnam” by Hayden Carruth. If you want to stick with Williams, his “Repression” is a good place to start.
The photo: snapped outside Charlottesville, Virginia.