Pigeon Woman

Nature: Poems Old and New (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994)

Reviewed by Gary Lemco

At first glance, May Swenson’s 1959 poem “Pigeon Woman” depicts a social outcast, an elderly woman who conforms to a narrow, urban regimen, feeding city pigeons at precisely 1:30 every day, while no other human offers any interaction with her. From her appearance, the “round collar” and “flat gym shoes” (7-9) only emphasize her “lostness or illness or age” (31-32) that isolate or exile her to the front of the Public Library, where she conducts the simple ritual that perhaps bestows some order and meaning upon her neglected life.
Swenson, however, with her poet’s capacity to see beyond appearances, proffers a series of images and associations that illuminate the pedestrian occasion in a religious or beatific light. We note, immediately, that the pigeons appear “on the flagstones in front of the/ Public Library” (3-4) making “a sharp lake into which the pigeon woman wades” (4-5) at her standard, appointed time. The birds themselves have ingested the grime and aesthetically distasteful aspects of city life, since they project the “Slate, or dirty marble-colored, or rusty-iron-colored” (1-2) garb of the industrial wasteland. Passersby could easily dismiss the pigeon woman herself as a hapless “street person” or “urchin,” whose ridiculous outfit testifies to a feeble mind and complete lack of social demeanor. That she presents an “odd bird” herself the narrator confirms, stating that “It is for them she colors/her own feathers” (34-35).
Having entered the living “lake” of birds, with their “spinning, crooning waves” (12), the pigeon woman proceeds, among other activities, to “rinse her hands in them – the rainy greens and/oily purples of their necks” (25-27). She has become The Lady of the Lake, an enchantress now cleansing herself of the city’s pollution or baptizing herself anew each day in what the poet calls “A make-believe trade” (30) that redeems her existence. We note that early in the course of her enterprise, the pigeon woman has entered the temenos or sacred space with “Wide-apart feet carefully. . .(as if she’d just learned how/ to walk, each step conscious,/an accomplishment” (11-14). She trades “day-old bread” (21) for this time-defying, intimately subjective, return to childhood, so extending both her existence and that of the birds, a confirmation of Jesus’ “I am the bread and the life” (John 6:22-35) by her charity, or more precisely, by her “accomplishment.” Often does the poet reinforce the “bonds of love” (Song of Solomon 8:6) by her use of hyphenated word structures that make up the “fabric” of her life, knitted by the “purling” (37) of the birds as they come to her offerings in the spirit of devotion. Truly, pigeon woman has “cast her bread upon the waters” (Ecclesiastes 11:11) of the “lake of love” (38). Despite the obvious signs of advanced age and physical debilities, the “blue knots in the calves of her bare legs (uglied marble),/age in angled cords of jaw/and neck, her pimento-colored hair,/ hanging In thin tassels” (15-19) – surrounds a “balding crown” (20), a suggestion of innate royalty, akin to the purples of the birds themselves. She becomes Queen of the Birds, daily seeking the ‘laying on of hands” upon her loyal subjects, who “drain away in an untouchable tide” (29) to entice her, “in all/ weathers” (33-34) to further seeking of their blessings. The water imagery depicting the birds suddenly, at the very moment of the birds’ retreat from her empty hands, converts to fire, “the flints of love” (40) that retain the capacity for existential warmth and communion.
Swenson has transformed an otherwise expendable, urban-blight existence into amoment of remarkable grace, those pigeons, too often suffering the calumny “rats with wings,” having become the means of spiritual redemption. The pigeon woman, by her communion ritual, much like St. Francis among his birds, renews her bond with Nature by chirotony (2 Timothy 1:6), divesting herself of any “outcast” or “reject” status to having attained a shepherdship of a most uncanny flock. That the dramatic action of this daily ritual occurs in front of the Public Library creates the opportunity for a translatio studii for any person capable of extracting universal, spiritual content from a mundane event.

Gary Lemco, a music annotator and reviewer for Fanfare Magazine and Audiophile Audition, here submits an essay of 715 words on May Swenson’s “Pigeon Woman.” Dr. Lemco has a published book on Nietzsche, as well as published, scholarly articles in various journals and encyclopedias, on Hawthorne, Poe, Ellison, Henry James, Fitzgerald, Orwell, and D.H. Lawrence. Dr. Lemco hosts a classical radio program, “The Music Treasury,” weekly over KZSU-FM, Stanford University.