Lisa Robertson / Object Permanence

Lisa Robertson

When a hawk flies in place, beating its wings in order to stay in one place, when a hawk flies without moving, when its wings flap in order to stay hovering before it dives, when a hawk hovers, when a hawk hangs still in the air, when it stays in one spot, when it hangs in one spot for quite a while: I typed phrases like this into google as I watched the hawk through the east window, hoping to learn what that specific stillness was called. There must be a technical term for it I thought, some old French term that the falconer Helen Macdonald would use in her poems. As it turns out, the relevant verb is simply ‘to hover.’

I look up and out the window the second before this hawk drops sheerly down to the field. Then arcs up again with its prey.

Some which hover are called kestrels, I learn. And about bird intelligence—its test has been determined and broken into tasks. Task 15 is called Object Permanence. I had known this phrase only as the name of a 1990’s experimental poetry magazine from Glasgow. Now I learn Object Permanence is the ability to hold the reality of an object in mind after that object has left the perceptual field. Piaget invented the term in the 1920s, in relation to a stage in early childhood cognitive development. Magpies, crows and hawks rank quite highly on this test. There can be no object without this cognitive capacity. It strikes me that much of what passes as government policy lacks precisely this form of cognition. Our Prime Minister does not have the cognitive capacity of a bird or a three year old. Palestine for example, is not retained in our government’s cognitive field, nor is Kitimat, the territory of the Haisla people.

Here is Helen Macdonald on the wren:


Wren. Full song. No subsong. Call of alarm, spreketh & ought

damage the eyes with its form, small body, tail pricked up & beak like a hair

trailed through briars & at a distance scored with lime scent in the nose

like scrapings from a goldsmith’s cuttle, rock alum & fair butter well-temped

which script goes is unrecognised by this one, is pulled by the ear

in anger the line at fault is under and inwardly drear as a bridge in winter

reared up inotherwise to seal the eyes through darkness, the bridge speaks

it does not speak, the starlings speak that steal the speech of men, uc antea

a spark that meets the idea of itself, apparently fearless.

Ah cruelty. And I had not stopped to think upon it

& I had not extended it into the world for love for naught.

Macdonald hunts rabbits and pheasant on the fens with her goshawk Mabel; her eye has that intimacy with movement and marks. Elizabeth Grosz, in Chaos, Territory, Art: “The earth can be infinitely divided, territorialized, framed. But unless it is in some way demarcated, nature itself is incapable of sexualizing life, making life alluring, lifting life above mere survival. Framing is how chaos becomes territory. Framing is the means by which objects are delimited, qualities unleashed and art made possible.” Grosz develops a thesis that art is an animal activity, that as a producer of sensations, affects and intensities, art destabilizes the body in order to diversify life, a “fundamentally dynamic, awkward, mal-adaptation that enables the production of the frivolous, the unnecessary, the pleasing, the sensory for their own sake.” But it can only do so within the specificity of a territory, a frame. When economic and military policies cede no permanence to a territory, when they tear down the historical frames produced by the long layering of the gestures and marks of its inhabitants, they reduce its inhabitants to bare survival. Mahmoud Darwish, in a 1995 interview published in Palestine comme métaphore, says about the enforced disappearance of the Palestinian territory: “I discovered that the earth was fragile and the sea was light; I learned that language and metaphor would not suffice to give place to a place. Not being able to find my place on the earth, I attempted to find it in History. And History can’t be reduced to the compensation for lost geography.”

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