May Swenson’s poem Pigeon Woman follows the path of an elderly woman who feeds a flock of pigeons daily. Through the use of precise diction, effective imagery, and a somber tone she conveys the loneliness of that old woman and the lengths she will go to in order to receive the love she longs for and lacks in her life.
The imagery throughout the poem is detailed and vivid. Swenson contrasts the ruddy and dark colors of the pigeons: “Slate, or dirty-marble-colored,/or rusty-iron-colored” (Swenson 1), with the bright colors on the woman: “Plastic pink raincoat (7), pimento-colored hair” (18) to demonstrate that the pigeons do not feel the affection that the woman feels, as she “colors her own feathers for them” (34-5) but they do not reciprocate. The author also uses the image of water consistently throughout the poem, such as a “sharp lake” (4), “choppy, shadowy ripples” (23), “wet thirsty fingertips” (28), and “drain away in an untouchable tide” (29). These images contribute to the lake of love(38) whose shore she returns to every day despite continuous disappointment, like a wave of need and lovelessness.
Swenson provides a very somber and sad tone in “Pigeon Woman.” The protagonist is obviously lonely, but passers-by perceive her as mad: “A make-believe trade/she has come to, in her lostness/of illness or age to treat…/pigeons…in all weathers” (30-4). The words “slate” (1), “shadowy ripples” (23), and “oily” (27) all provide a sense of darkness and grime that stains throughout the rest of the poem, tarnishing the parts of the poem which may have seemed happy, such as “looking like a little girl, so gay” (8-9). As the poem reaches its end, bleakness sets in: “Almost/they let her wet thirsty fingertips-/but drain away in an untouchable tide” (27-9). The realization that the pigeons do not return her affections as the woman would hope hits, but also that the woman will continue to return day after day for as long as she can to fill the emptiness in her life.
Many words in the poem have an exact purpose that clearly presents the theme. The muted and dirty colors like “slate” (1) and “flints” (40) connote a dark and ominous scene that persists throughout the poem. “Blue knots in the/calves of her bare legs (uglied marble)” (15-6), “angled cords of jaw” (17), and “veined” (22) signifies the ugliness that people see in the old woman’s age despite the fact that these are the days on which she dresses up for her “loves.” “Sharp lake” (4), “spinning, crooning” (12), and “purling” (37) give contrasting watery images to the pigeons, one sharp and the others soft and muffled. “Flints” (40) also connotes a spark, representing the spark of love the old woman feels which dies out every day when the pigeons begin “retreating” (38); their retreat also insinuates a sense of fleeing rather than just going on their way.
May Swenson uses calculated diction, descriptive imagery, and a solemn tone to express the loneliness of an old woman whose only solace is a flock of pigeons she feeds every day “in all weathers” (33-4), and for whom she “colors her own feathers” (34-5). The poem conveys the lonely hopefulness the aging woman feels every day when she goes to a park to feed the pigeons, her only interaction with any living beings, and her decay into sorrow as the pigeons leave her to herself.
May Swenson, Poetry, “Pigeon Woman,” The New Yorker, October 13, 1962, p. 54