The following is a reading of Robert Duncan’s poem “My Mother Would be a Falconress” that situates the poem within lgbt history and the author’s fraught relationship with gay identity. The full poem itself can be found here on Poets.org.
Read within the contemporary context, the word “gay” in the second line “and I, her gay falcon treading her wrist” sticks out awkwardly and causes the line to stumble to its conclusion. To flat out declare that a character is gay in 2013 would violate the sacred creative writing principle of showing instead of telling. A mainstream audience from 1968 would have made no such pause. After all, the theme song from “The Flintstones” promised its 1960s audience that they would have “a gay old time”. But, queer men and women of the era, or those heterosexuals in the know, would have paused and wondered whether or not Duncan was sneaking in a double meaning, perhaps even making this one three-letter word the key to unlocking the troubled source of the complex relationship between mother and child depicted in the poem.
From Duncan’s notes on the genesis of the poem (marked above in MAPS as Virginia Wallace-Whitaker), we know that the association of the term “gay” with a sexual connotation was deliberate. Yet, Duncan stresses that with using “gay”, he wants to evoke the history of the term as a signifier of sexual liberation and being “free from any structure”, before it was attached specifically to homosexual men. Citing the French poet Baudelaire’s use of “gai” in his poetry as inspiration, Duncan declares, “Gai” could be taken over by the gay liberation because it originally meant you were sexually free, not paying attention to whether your sexual partner was male or female, not checking out the charge for it.” The Stonewall Riots launched the modern American gay liberation movement one year after the publication of this poem, and the term “gay” would be introduced to the public as the preferred term for a homosexual male. Promoting the term “gay” was a rhetorical tactic that sought to disassociate modern gays from the clinical history of the “homosexual” as a psychologically disturbed and genetically inferior being and to reinforce the pursuit of open happiness and pride, previously assumed to be unachievable to the melancholic, outcast homosexual.
(Full article at Modern American Poetry …scale to bottom of page)