Piercing the Clouds of Unknowing: Ciona Rouse’s “Red-Shouldered Hawk”

The spiritually inclined 20th century psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of “synchronicity” is in the driver’s seat with this post. After I began assembling another selection for this blog’s “Brilliant Songs” series, I thought the better of ignoring the long-deceased Dr. Jung’s clear message to me across space and time to veer over into the poetry realm instead.

Perhaps I should explain.

My blogging friend over at Loren Webster.net is a longtime birder whose post the other day featured, among other winged creatures, the gorgeous portrait of the red-shouldered hawk that you see below. After admiring its fierce, self-possessed bearing before retiring for the night, I awoke the next morning to my customary and most welcome “Poem-a-Day” from the American Academy of Poets gracing my email in-box.

And what do I find there? The heading, “Red-Shouldered Hawk by Ciona Rouse.”


Jung developed his concept of “synchronicity” to mean a subjective linking of two objectively unrelated events. Sure, there’s no direct causal connection between Loren featuring the very species of hawk that would be the title of a poem emailed to me the very next morning. But the fact that it feels important and amazing to me elevates what would otherwise be mere coincidence into something psychologically and even spiritually inspiring, and thus a lovely example of synchronicity at play.

So much for the inspiration behind this post. And now to this most felicitous poem, printed here in full before it serves as fuel for some discussion below.



                   RED-SHOULDERED HAWK

                           By Ciona Rouse

We met in the middle of the street only to discuss
the Buteo lineatus, but we simply said hawk
because we knew nothing of Latin. We knew nothing
of red in the shoulder, of true hawks versus buzzards,
or what time they started their mornings,
what type of snake they stooped low
and swift to eat. We knew nothing.
Or, I should say, at least I knew nothing,
and he said nothing of what he knew that day
except one thing he said he thought, but now I say
he knew: I’m going to die soon, my neighbor said to me
and assured he had no diagnosis, just a thought. He said it
just two weeks before he died outdoors just
twenty steps away from where we stood that day—
he and I between the porch I returned to and twisted
the key to my door to cross the threshold into my familiar
like always I do and the garage he returned to
and twisted some wrench probably on a knob of the
El Camino like always he did every day when usually
I’d wave briefly en route from carport to door
sometimes saying “how’s it going,” expecting
only the “fine” I had time to digest. Except today
when I stepped out of my car, he waved me over to see
what I now know to call the Buteo. When first I read its
Latin name, I pronounced it boo-TAY-oh
before learning it’s more like saying beauty (oh!).
I can’t believe I booed when it’s always carrying awe.
Like on this day, the buzzard—red-shouldered and
usually nesting in the white pine—cast a shadow
upon my lawn just as I parked, and stared back at us—
my mesmerized neighbor and me—perched, probably hunting,
in the leaning eastern hemlock in my yard. Though
back then I think I only called it a tree because I knew nothing
about distinguishing evergreens because I don’t think I ever asked
or wondered or searched yet. I knew nothing about how they thrive
in the understory. Their cones, tiny. And when they think
they’re dying, they make more cones than ever before. How did he
know? Who did he ask and what did he search to find
the date that he might die, and how did he know
to say soon to me and only me and then, right there
in that garage with his wrench and the some other parts
unknown for the El Camino and the radio loud as always
it was, stoop down, his pledge hand anxious against his chest
and never rise again? And now the hemlock, which also goes
by Tsuga canadensis, which is part Latin, part Japanese,
still leans, still looks like it might fall any day now, weighed
down by its ever-increasing tiny fists. And the Buteo returns
each winter to reclaim the white pine before spring.
Most hawks die by accident—collision, predation, disease.
But when it survives long enough to know it’s dying, it may
find a familiar tree and let its breath weaken in a dark cranny.
And my neighbor’s wife and I now meet in the middle,
sometimes even discussing birds but never discussing
that day. And I brought her roses on that first anniversary
without him because we sometimes discuss a little more
than birds. And the Buteo often soar in twos, sometimes solo.
So high I cannot see their shoulders, but I know their voices
now and can name them even when I don’t see them. No matter
how high they fly, they see me, though I don’t concern them.
They watch a cottonmouth, slender and sliding
silent in tall grass. And the cardinals don’t sing.
They don’t go mute, either. They tink.
Close to their nests and in their favorite trees, they know
when the hawk looms. And their voices turn
metallic: tink, tink, tink.


The Nashville-based Rouse (pictured at the top of the page) is a poet and teacher who manages to pull us into the lives of five distinct characters in this prose poem’s 65 lines. Three humans—the narrator, the male neighbor and his wife—the hawk, and an eastern hemlock tree.

The narrator knew next to nothing about the hawk and tree before the encounter with her neighbor.

Indeed, “hawk” and “tree” were all she called them, until she brings them fully to life for herself by first learning their scientific and common names: “Buteo lineatus” for the red-shouldered hawk and “Tsuga canadensis” for the eastern hemlock. An aside on the hawk: I was glad to see Rouse seize the opportunity to give us a smile with her wordplay in pronouncing Buteo: “beauty (oh!).”

And then she adds to the fun: “I can’t believe I booed when it’s always carrying awe.”

The power inherent to naming is inclusive of the poem’s larger theme of knowing, of piercing the clouds of ignorance. Knowing the particulars of trees and birds, predation and generation, love and death. All of it begetting heretofore unknown intimacies which bring us, too, into the cycle of life, with all the preciousness it entails.

There is the clear though mysterious foreshadowing of death by the neighbor, who freely shares his premonition with the narrator, shaking her out of her routine, desultory wave and “how’s it going?” pleasantry from the distance of the street, as if she—or her neighbor, or anyone—has all the time in the world.

The red-shouldered hawk, often referred to as a “buzzard,” is a fierce carnivore whose subsistence is based on ending the life of its prey. And eventually its turn comes, too, knowingly, when “it may/find a familiar tree and let its breath weaken in a dark cranny.”

And then the poignant report on the eastern hemlock, which the narrator learns spreads its cones throughout its life but— valiantly, in my estimation—“…when they think/they’re dying, they make more cones than ever before.”



There is much else to treasure in this poem, little bits of poetic business that speak well of Rouse, keen-eyed as any hawk for the signs of life and its precious particulars that she beholds within her gaze.

The neighbor with his ever-present wrench, ever-ready to put it in service of his obviously beloved El Camino. (Who doesn’t love an El Camino??)

In her mind’s eye, she sees not just his hand, not just his right hand, but his “pledge hand,” reflexively placed against his heart as he meets his end.

The intertwining of the meaning-laden descriptor “pledge” with the well-trod metaphors attending the human hand and heart as among the deepest and most sacred parts of ourselves—that’s what fine poetry does, emoting with every line the weight we carry in this life, the meaning we convey in every word and gesture, and the beauty that is ours for the beholding.

After her neighbor’s death, our narrator seems to form a deeper relationship with his wife, whom she now meets “in the middle/sometimes even discussing birds but never discussing that day.”

Even so, the narrator takes the wife roses on the first anniversary of her husband’s death.


“…because we sometimes discuss a little more/than birds.”



Comments? Questions? Suggestions, Objections, Attaboys? Just scroll on down to the Comments section below. No minimum or maximum word counts!

“Red-Shouldered Hawk” was originally published in Poem-a-Day by the National Academy of Poets on March 28, 2024, all rights reserved

Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.  https://www.facebook.com/andrew.hidas/

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Ciona Rouse headshot by Andrés Bustamante, Nashville, Tennessee  https://www.flickr.com/people/savagephotox/

Red-shouldered hawk by Loren Webster, Tacoma, Washington http://www.lorenwebster.net/In_a_Dark_Time/

Eastern hemlock by Doug McAbee, Wellford, South Carolina https://www.flickr.com/photos/mrmac09/

4 comments to Piercing the Clouds of Unknowing: Ciona Rouse’s “Red-Shouldered Hawk”

  • Fred Dodge  says:

    Thank you Andrew for bringing this.
    I see a hawk in our wooded neighborhood, in the recent few weeks of weather turning from gray to bright sunshine with bitter cold and bristling wind. Hunting, screeing, letting it’s presence be known. When walking our cat Netop (not a free range cat due to larger wildlife appetites) he will cower at the scree. He is a sensitive cat, the wind un-nerves him.
    I have a friend in Santa Rosa who is at the end of their journey. A full 99 years of life and a medical diagnosis that has given him the freedom to make the decision for himself. I can’t speak for him, no one could. He is a mentor and friend now. I am grateful for knowing him in my life, when I had no father to turn to due to my Dad’s passing at 84.
    So – thank you for the poem, and a moment of tears in my quiet morning.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Lovely reflection for a Saturday morning of Easter weekend, Fred. So thanks right back to you, very much…

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    After reading Ciona Rouse’s “Red-Shouldered Hawk”, bird poems fluttered around my memory like a raven’s constant “rapping, rapping on my chamber door.” The one that I got stuck on was “Red Bird” by Pulitzer Prize winning, naturalist writer Mary Oliver. Perhaps growing up near St. Louis during the Stan Musial years played a role in my recollecting this cardinal poem. I thought some of your traversing followers might like to read it…

    “Yes, I was the brilliance floating over the snow
    and I was the song in the summer leaves, but this was
    only the first trick
    I had hold of among my other mythologies,
    for I also knew obedience: bringing sticks to the nest,
    food to the young, kisses to my bride.

    But don’t stop there, stay with me: listen.

    If I was the song that entered your heart
    then I was the music of your heart, that you wanted and needed,
    and thus wilderness bloomed there, with all its
    followers: gardeners, lovers, people who weep
    for the death of rivers.

    And this was my true task, to be the
    music of the body. Do you understand? for truly the body needs
    a song, a spirit, a soul. And no less, to make this work,
    the soul has need of a body,
    and I am both of the earth and I am of the inexplicable
    beauty of heaven
    where I fly so easily, so welcome, yes,
    and this is why I have been sent, to teach this to your heart.”

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      My shelves are thick with Mary Oliver, and this selection may long have been hiding in one of the volumes, but it was new to me, Robert, so thank you kindly!

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