Raymond Carver, “Hummingbird”

Maybe I’m naive, but loving relationships seem like hard work, requiring a combination of thoughtfulness, awareness, and sacrifice not easily obtained, let alone found.

I guess that’s why I’m still not entirely comfortable with love poetry. I’ll read those poems and think about what the poet means by “love,” but poems of the carpe diem subgenre or ones that depict loving and being loved as a space where nothing could ever go wrong don’t feel entirely honest to me.

Raymond Carver’s “Hummingbird,” though, sounds absolutely perfect. It begins with an imperative—Suppose—through which lover and beloved can forge a shared space from imagination and memory. It continues, detailing a strange ritual that seems to be the product of a religion with one devotee, maybe two at most:

Hummingbird
Raymond Carver

for Tess

Suppose I say summer,
write the word “hummingbird,”
put it in an envelope,
take it down the hill
to the box. When you open
my letter you will recall
those days and how much,
just how much, I love you. 

Suppose I say summer, / write the word “hummingbird:” the image presented is cloying but relatable. If you’ve listened to a song you really like and found yourself singing the lyrics involuntarily, you understand what’s happening with “summer” being spoken. The poet is in such a good mood that the mood speaks.

Thus begins a ritual. Speech becomes writing, but he doesn’t write “summer.” He writes “hummingbird,” an animal almost lighter than air feeding on summer’s nectar. It isn’t enough, apparently, to recall a mood or memory. Something has to live and buzz within that mood or memory.

That, I believe, is the significance of the ritual. Speech moves to writing, writing moves to action: [I write the word “hummingbird,”] put it in an envelope, / take it down the hill to the box. The action is twofold, as the “hummingbird” is enclosed, then given as invitation. Enclosure and invitation are a nontraditional way of evoking “soul,” a being we hold to be enclosed within our bodies and to which we hope others would accept our invitation.

The ritual points to what is living within. Just as summer lived within him, the hummingbird lives within their memories of summer, the space created by the one word letter/poem lives and breathes. To that end, Carver’s “down the hill” is not a throwaway phrase. It’s a descent, a hint that what matters is this earthly life, the days then and the days now—this is heaven.

His poem is not simply carpe diem, but one which wants to show how lovely past experiences can build into a loving present. When you open / my letter you will recall / those days and how much, just how much, I love you.

I think it’s believable and beautiful enough, but part of me is skeptical. I’m used to people in love fighting about money, struggling to relate to each other, arguing about each other’s ambitions. This excerpt from the opening of Jennifer Chang’s “About Trees” had me thinking about love, growth, and pain:

What I would say about certain trees

is that to master love one must be devastated by it.
Certain trees know.

A poem has nothing to do with fact,
though both are made things.
I explain that certain trees know
certain facts, but what poems.

To master love one must be devastated by it—this, Chang tells us, is written all over certain trees.

Certain trees know. I confess that I personally don’t. I’ve been hurt and humiliated, lost in self-doubt and wishful thinking for months, sometimes years. I don’t know that I was devastated, but I was barren. It’d be hard for me to say I was of use, if I was someone something good could grow from. Still, I wouldn’t say I was “devastated”—that seems to be loss and pain on an entirely different scale.

Trees master love, but they can wear the signs of their devastation. If I think of Carver’s poem, there isn’t a trace of mastery of love in this sense. I wouldn’t say “Hummingbird” is born of privilege, though it can speak to a privileged set of circumstances. What of a love that wrestles so intimately with grief? Does it demand a different language? A poem has nothing to do with fact, though both are made things.

Maybe it’s that gap—the fact that love has to speak both joy and loss—that means we need both “Hummingbird” and “About Trees.” Maybe only trees themselves, who live wearing their past, can bridge that gap. But not language itself, our artifacts of love. I explain that certain trees know certain facts, but what poems.



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