Quail (from danagoodyear.com)
What the heart, unsteady and ill,
is supposed to do.
And does: fly in missing-man formation,
resettle too nearby,
then scatter to confuse,
fleeing like one who secretly wants catching.
Hides to die. But doesn’t come to nothing:
ends a block of bony, vesselled ice
heaving, frostbit, in the chest.
Admittedly, I don’t much like the identification of love and death nowadays. I think it is too easy to romanticize romance and not properly weight those moments we are truly shattered. Still, Dana Goodyear’s is a credible, elegant, thoughtful voice. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hurt recently, or hurt by seeing friends get hurt.
The poem starts with an assumed definition. The heart should quail. What does it mean to quail? The heart doesn’t know, rather it assumes. If fulfills the definition by functioning unknowingly. “Unsteady and ill,” it might as well be a bird; a verb is a noun.
I think I’ve already said enough about “missing-man formation,” but “resettle too nearby” and “scatter to confuse” deserve extended comment. Re: resettle – the quail/quailing is a continual movement to what hurts. It is instinctive, habitual, and that’s what makes one wonder. We don’t have a way of saying “enough” to ourselves? Of making some losses final? We really don’t – “scatter to confuse” implies a number of things, not least that “fleeing” involves wanting to be caught. But I wonder about moving away from pain and not knowing where else to go. We can’t break habits because we don’t know where to. In which case, we scatter to confuse ourselves, to deny our reflex, our doubt, our dependence.
Does the heart exhaust all its warmth in quailing? “A block of bony, vesselled ice” seems to indicate so: a hardened monument to loss. Goodyear’s speaker tells us this is not nothing; I hesitate to say “dead.” “Heaving, frostbit, in the chest” – the heart is wounded, but where it should be. The self is conscious again in sorrow.