A Chicken Hawk Goes Home

Bob Murray

North of Eden Press is thrilled to announce the publication of Bob’s new book about his journey through this work.

An accomplished musician with two CDs already out, Bob is also an incredible writer. Written with tenderness, Bob chronicles his journey with humor and a deep honesty.


A former English teacher at the high school level, I’d often begin a school year or semester-length class by reading this James Wright poem:

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

This piece is rich in so many different ways—the diction’s muted quality, the radical tone shift, the ambiguity. Watching students respond to it was always entertaining, to say the least. Initially I’d invite them to consider just the title, which invariably led to discussions about setting, the unusual way in which it gets fully detailed before the poem ever officially begins. Often someone would accuse it of being top heavy, or just plain weird—after all, it is a rather wide-brimmed hat for a peanut-sized poem. That’s one of the things I love about it though, the way Wright toys with us as readers, not only with the title but throughout the poem. He intentionally lulls us into a kind of dusky siesta—that is, until he heaves us out of our hammocks with that alarming final line.

I have wasted my life, announces the speaker, and my students would often respond with something like…What? At the very least, they’d be perplexed, and I’d watch several of them quickly rereading, trying to assimilate what just happened. And then the real fun would begin--the speculating and hypothesizing about just how it was that this James Wright dude managed to fritter away his life. Over the years I’ve heard everything from…he was a lazy no-good who obviously accomplished nothing during his life…to…he didn’t spend nearly enough time in a hammock.

Up until recently I was quite fascinated by that argument, willfully egging on students to make a case and substantiate it by way of passages from the poem. And I must confess to a certain smugness about directing that scene—you see, I was quite convinced that I knew exactly what James Wright’s speaker was feeling. Obviously he had not wasted his life, and the proof was subtly folded into the crease of that large-brimmed title. Considering multiple meanings of the word lying, and in particular the one that denotes the telling of untruths, I decided that Wright was the willful perpetrator of a well-crafted deception designed to ensnare and shock his heavy-eyed readers. Hence the provocative yet wholly ironic statement of the final line. And by way of further proof, well, only a real poet, I concluded, someone with the ability to feel at a very deep level, could see with such profound precision. Only a real poet could convey that soft-lit beauty and accordingly, this James Wright dude had clearly not squandered his precious days on this planet. Such was the completed puzzle, the fait accompli that I’d dangle in front of my young impressionables for their collective amazement before they blinked and shuffled off to French class.

Truth is, back then I had no idea how James Wright or his speaker actually felt about anything. And the reason for that is so obvious to me now that it borders on the absurd—my own capability to feel so limited that it was almost impossible for me to either sympathize or, God forbid, empathize in any real way.

It’s quite astounding to consider this now, to know that I’ve read this poem hundreds of times and only recently been able to genuinely connect with any of its feeling content. Astounding to know that, for all my self-professed aptitude and expertise in the area of comprehending poetry, I was capable of only a very shallow, superficial read. All the theorizing about the poem’s wit and chicanery was just a projection of my overactive mind in pursuit of a literary riddle to solve, which of course kept me firmly anchored in my head—focused exclusively on the artifice of the poem, far afield from any feeling whatsoever. Were it not for the benefit of a few years and a lot of bone-wrenching personal work, I’d still be right there in that professorial pose, wire-rimmed reading glasses halfway down my nose, scanning the room for rapt attention and approval.