Poet's Corner: 'The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road' by Ada Limón
Who among us hasn’t seen a bird flying across the cloud streaked sky, or lifting suddenly off of a fence post as an omen, whether good or bad?
Famously, Samuel Taylor Coleridge warned in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” about the terrible omen an albatross offers a sailor, especially if he kills it. Here in Sonoma County, there are no albatross, but the great, lumbering bodies of great blue herons often appear majestically on the roadside as we drive by. The heron has long been considered a good omen representing wisdom, going all the way back to ancient Greece.
In Ada Limón’s poem, “The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road,” she invokes this ancient meaning and builds upon it with her own personal experience. The poem begins in the present, with the speaker contemplating the meaning of life when terrible things happen, seemingly without cause.
Some days “you wake up … full of crow and shine, and then someone has put engine coolant in the medicine.”
To find this wisdom, the speaker weaves her way back to a time when she was just a child living in the Valley of the Moon, when her stepfather had silently given up drinking by sitting alone in a lawn chair.
The heron, which they sometimes sighted on the drive to school, became a symbol of the wisdom and love that held them together, no matter what the circumstances were, and they told each other they saw it even when they didn’t.
It’s this wisdom, this sighting of love that the speaker carries with her into her future, that helps her understand who she is.
“The Great Blue Heron ?of Dunbar Road”
by Ada Limón
That we might walk out into the woods together,
and afterwards make toast
in our sock feet, still damp from the fern’s
wet grasp, the spiky needles stuck to our
legs, that’s all I wanted, the dog in the mix,
jam sometimes, but not always. But somehow,
I’ve stopped praising you. How the valley
when you first see it - the small roads back
to your youth - is so painfully pretty at first,
then, after a month of black coffee, it’s just
another place your bullish brain exists, bothered
by itself and how hurtful human life can be.
Isn’t that how it is? You wake up some days
full of crow and shine, and then someone
has put engine coolant in the medicine
on another continent and not even crying
helps cure the idea of purposeful poison.
What kind of woman am I? What kind of man?
I’m thinking of the way my stepdad got sober,
how he never told us, just stopped drinking
and sat for a long time in the low folding chair
on the Bermuda grass reading and sometimes
soaking up the sun like he was the story’s only
subject. When he drove me to school, we decided
it would be a good day, if we saw the blue heron
in the algae-covered pond next to the road,
so that if we didn’t see it, I’d be upset. Then,
he began to lie. To tell me he’d seen it when
he hadn’t, or to suppose that it had just
taken off when we rounded the corner in
the gray car that somehow still ran, and I
would lie, too, for him. I’d say I saw it.
Heard the whoosh of wings over us.
That’s the real truth. What we told each other
to help us through the day: the great blue heron
was there, even when the pond dried up,
or froze over; it was there because it had to be.
Just now, I felt like I wanted to be alone
for a long time, in a folding chair on the lawn
with all my private agonies, but then I saw you
and the way you’re hunching over your work
like a puzzle, and I think even if I fail at everything,
I still want to point out the heron like I was taught,
still want to slow the car down to see the thing
that makes it all better, the invisible gift,
what we see when we stare long enough into nothing.
Iris Jamahl Dunkle is Sonoma County’s poet laureate. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.