Afterlife by Laurel Smith
I just love this poem by my wonderful colleague--the whip-smart, ever-patient Laurel Smith, who is currently an MFA candidate at Hamline University.
The poem begins with the "Old Ones" who believe the heron is the manifestation of human misdeeds. Smith doesn't linger here long, beginning her second stanza with "But" and making the surprising, beautiful turn toward the personal. She writes, "But in this life, I have been human" and the strangeness of the line pulls us farther to the next image, not human at all, "crouching in pools of evening/by streams of night" and we see that she is both heron and woman, human and bird. The speaker pushes the comparison even further, though, when she tries "to bathe the humanity from my lifelines." The human world is one of "regret and longing," and earth a place of sorrow and tears.
In the second stanza, the speaker enumerates the heron's gifts--beauty, grace, power. Though her touch is light, the speaker's critique of society'spressures on women is clear. "My body has cried out to be long and graceful" she says. And it's not just pressure to be graceful and beautiful, she suggests. She must also be good. The good woman would not become a heron, of course, living as she would without sin. But the poem takes issues with all of these expectations in embracing the heron's life.
The next stanza soars as the speaker inhabits the heron's flight. The sounds in the line "Scissor-slicing precisely through tissue paper skies" is gorgeous, almost airborne with its S's and long I's. In this metamorphosis the speaker, as she takes wing, leaves the earth and the human behind, and in her flight she is free and "need[s] nothing but wings in the night." In this flight, she is beautiful, and the poem's sounds mimic the beauty and freedom of her flight.
Of course, earth awaits her. But when the poem ends, the speaker is defiant. She will take the heron's life anytime--it's worth whatever it costs. The old ones might not approve, but the speaker doesn't care. She is ready to leave the constraints of this world behind.