Liberal Arts

The Poet's Perspective: 'Death of the Owl' an exercise in grief

Robin Becker, the 2010-11 Penn State laureate and professor of English and women's studies at the University, is sharing several of her poems via video during the 2010-11 academic year, aiming to engage people "in the deep pleasures of poetry -- language crafted and shaped from words, the 'ordinary' material we all use every day," to explore how and why poems move us.

"The Poet's Perspective" is a weekly poetry video series scheduled to appear during the fall 2010 and spring 2011 semesters on Penn State Live and in Penn State Newswires. Prior to each poem, Becker offers her thoughts about what inspired her to write the piece, then poses a question to consider. Below and in the video link of "Death of the Owl," Becker uses language and symbolism to help her come to terms with an accident and her grief from it.

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In this poem, I make use of phrasal and syntactical repetition to show the symbolic importance Native Americans place on the parts of body. Here, a highway accident has left an owl dead in the road. The poem became a way for me to honor and exorcise my sorrow. In my research, for example, I found Native legends that incorporated the tail and breast feathers; I learned that mythic characters took on owl qualities. Finally, I found consolation in these stories.

Question to Consider: If you were to research the beliefs, material culture and symbols of a religious or social tradition other than your own, what might it be? To what other cultures are you drawn and why?

Death of the Owl

She said someone will come for the wings
and snap them off, whole.
Someone for the claw, foot of a prayerstick.
Someone will come for the eyes,
like the woman from Cochiti Pueblo
who replaced her own with the raptor's.
Every part will be used:
the short tail feathers
that cover the arms and torso
of Owl Boy taken from his parents
and changed into a bird.
Nothing is wasted.
No time to stop, I said.
Right behind you, she replied, someone
who needed the feathers of the breast
to place beside the restless child
and induce sleep.
Someone who needed the undertail
feathers for a good peach crop.
I saw the wings lift,
heard the head crack,
no time to swerve --
the bird hunched in the highway
drawn by something dead in the road --
before she hurtled into metal.
A shaman who required the feathers
for her hair was coming
to gain power over illness,
and someone claimed the remains
of the Burrowing Old who lives in the underworld
and speaks with the dead.
Someone who wanted an audience
with the Bringer of Omens,
the Priestess of Prairie Dogs,
was coming, she said,
right behind you.

"Death of the Owl" is from All-American Girl, by Robin Becker, © 1996. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the publisher.

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View Robin Becker's schedule of appearances at online. To read or watch videos of previous poems in the series, click here. To listen to an occasional podcast series where Becker and a small group of students and faculty discuss one of her poems, visit "Liberal Arts Voices."

To watch a video of Robin Becker reading 'Death of the Owl,' click on the image above. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated March 21, 2011