Glowing with Memory and Meaning: Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk

h is for hawk

Helen MacDonald. H is for Hawk. Grove Press, 2014. 26.00.

All summer long a family of Mississippi Kites nested in a centuries-old Live Oak tree sprawling over shotgun houses across the corner of Octavia and Chestnut Streets. I noticed these sleek, soot-colored raptors soaring above me in the windy sky on Mother’s Day—never beating a wing—only slightly tilting their tails for direction. According to an Audubon Society field guide, adult Kites weigh about ten ounces spread across a three-foot wingspan. These silent hunters feed mostly on cicadas and flying insects, but also eat small rodents and birds.

Walking the dog this summer was much more interesting than usual because I was reading Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk (Grove Press, 2014), a tripartite story about the author’s love for her recently deceased father, for birds and nature, and for literature. MacDonald is a poet, historian, naturalist, and falconer. H Is for Hawk—a New York Times bestseller and winner of the UK’s Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Book of the Year—displays her varied talents because it is not a simply a “birder” book. Rather, its many layers are inspirational for anyone familiar with grief and loss, or anyone ready for a change in life.

MacDonald is struggling to say goodbye to her father, a photographer, who taught her to find the memorable aspects of life’s otherwise mundane moments, and to savor them.

Now that Dad was gone I was starting to see how mortality was bound up in things like that cold, arc-lit sky. How the world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might see them. Once, twice. Perhaps never again.

MacDonald describes the prehistoric reality that birds of prey are beautiful killers. She meets nature—in all its wildness—with her own emotions, blending the acts of training a Goshawk with the process of exorcising grief and depression:

They were things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets. Falcons were the raptors I loved: sharp-winged, bullet-heavy birds with dark eyes and an extraordinary ease in the air. I rejoiced in their aerial verve, their friendliness, their breathtaking stoops from a thousand feet, wind tearing through their wings with the sound of ripping canvas.

MacDonald considers her Goshawk killing to eat while illuminating her acceptance of death:

How hearts do stop. A rabbit prostrate in a pile of leaves, clutched in eight gripping talons, the hawk mantling her wings over it, tail spread, eyes burning, nape-feathers raised in a tense and feral crouch…. The borders between life and death are somewhere in the taking of their meal…. Hunting makes you animal, but the death of an animal makes you human.

Throughout the book, she parallels T.H. White’s The Goshawk—and often his Arthurian novels, adapted into Disney’s The Sword in the Stone—as a modern balance to her experience training a Goshawk. White’s abusive youth and life as a closeted gay man led him to write about desolation, hunting, and the desire for freedom. To contextualize her modern falconry stories, MacDonald offers a cultural history of falconry to show these raptors’ permanence in our world. Hawks “conjure history,” for example:

For thousands of years hawks like her have been caught and trapped and brought into people’s houses. But unlike other animals that have lived in such close proximity to man, they have never been domesticated. It’s made them a powerful symbol of wildness in myriad cultures, and a symbol, too, of things that need to be tamed…. The birds we fly today are identical to those of five thousand years ago. Civilizations rise and fall, but the hawks stay the same…. History collapses when you hold a hawk…

Her story motivated me to keep watching my Mississippi Kite neighbors soaring overhead. I would follow the Kites around the block, watching them float, turn, and dive each morning and evening until mid-September when they migrated from the neighborhood for warmer weather. MacDonald explains how learning about our environment helps us learn about ourselves:

What happened over the years of my expeditions as a child was a slow transformation of my landscape over time into what naturalists call a local patch, glowing with memory and meaning.

Since finishing H Is for Hawk, I have noticed more amazing birds in my New Orleans “local patch”: Bald Eagles, Osprey, Cooper’s Hawks, Quaker Parrots, Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, Painted Buntings, and more. The often-mundane task of walking the dog now glows with memory and meaning. I have Helen MacDonald to thank for that, and I cannot forget H Is for Hawk—I can only recommend it.

– Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

The Collected Poems of Ai

ai-faulkner house books

The Collected Poems of Ai. W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 35.00. Call us or visit to purchase.

Nominated in 2014 for a Lambda Award, The Collected Poems of Ai is an essential book for just about anyone who takes poetry seriously. Ai, who died of breast cancer in 2010, was a poet who stood alone in the contemporary literary landscape. She wrote primarily in the form of the dramatic monologue, creating fully formed characters and narratives in her work and bringing back to life a form that had been mostly overlooked since the 19th century. Her poetry is complicated, impossible to pin to one aesthetic. Though much of her work deals with race and gender, she has repeatedly refused to label her work as feminist or African American poetry. She is a poet wholly unto herself. After learning that her biological father was violent toward her mother, Ai dropped his last name, and took the name “Ai,” Japanese for “love” and polyphonous with the English pronoun “I,” a name that reminds her readers that she is an individual containing multitudes, who slips effortlessly and empathically into the characters of her poems.

In his introduction to the book, Yousef Komunyaka writes of his first encounter with the poems of Ai, “her poems seemed like scenes from nightmarish movies imprinted on the eyeballs, yet the images were revealed so matter-of-factly, so damn casually.” This is the power of Ai: to horrify her reader without horror in her tone. These are not poems for the faint of heart, but neither are they bereft of beauty. Quite the opposite: Ai’s images are wholly original, almost mythic, and they elevate the violence and sorrow of her work to a place of universal importance. An example of this is the beginning of the poem “Prostitute,” in her first book, Cruelty:

Husband, for a while, after I shoot you,
I don’t touch your body,
I just cool it with my paper fan,
the way I used to on hot nights,
as the moon rises, chip of avocado…

Death, violence, the chilling ethereality of the moon: Ai captures it all in just a few perfect lines. The horror lived and enacted by Ai’s characters is elevated to the status of myth, of sacrifice, of ritual. In her early work, she uses her own experiences of violence and poverty to give aching voice to characters from America’s underbelly: the rural poor, women in violent marriages, midwives carrying out abortions, murderers. But she goes a step further, too, turning these characters from mere humans into demigods of cruelty.

In an interview, Ai once said, surprisingly, that the poems in Cruelty were about love: “The distinction between my ‘sex-and-violence’ poems and others you might read is that in mine the characters love each other. The poems are not hate poems.” In her early work, Ai approached love through a lens of sorrow and violence, refusing to sentimentalize the often-brutal complexities of human emotion. It is jarring to see these as love poems, as love is juxtaposed so violently with images of cruelty. For example, in “The Hitchhiker,” Ai writes from the perspective of a male murderer:

We stop, and as she moves closer to me, my hands ache,
but somehow I get the blade into her chest.
I think a song: “Everybody needs somebody,
everybody needs somebody to love.

The murder itself is, in a way, an act of love, with the speaker literally claiming the woman’s heart as he thinks of a love song. In The Killing Floor’s “The Kid,” one of Ai’s most famous poems, she inhabits the voice of a child who murders his family. In the midst of the poem, a conventional love lyric is twisted into a line on murder:

Roses are red, violets are blue,
One bullet for the black horse, two for the brown.

The child who kills his family is perhaps one of her most representative characters, embodying the paradox of love and cruelty and the absurd evil that humans, even children, are capable of in Ai’s dark poetic vision.

To echo again Komunyaka’s sentiments, in her best work, Ai presents gruesome occurrences without commenting on them, allowing the reader to be shocked by what is presented in such sparse language. In “The Cockfighter’s Daughter,” from her third book, Sin, death is both horrific and ordinary:

I found my father,
face down, in his homemade chili
and had to hit the bowl
with a hammer to get it off,
then scrape the pinto beans
and chunks of ground beef
off his face with a knife.

The meal is literally fused with death, food rotting into the flesh of a deceased body. The speaker is unphased, breaking the bowl from her father’s face before calling the police. Death is made extraordinary through its extreme ordinariness, its ability, like the poet herself, to turn everyday circumstances horrific.

Throughout her life, Ai was ever evolving as a poet, and this collection is invaluable for its scope of her prolific career. In her fifth book, Greed, Ai focuses on the intersection of American capitalism and violence, and approaches political figures with humor in a departure from her solemn earlier work. In “Hoover Trismegistus,” for example, she writes,

When they called Joe McCarthy’s bluff,
he grabbed his nuts and ran
and the others banned together
to save their asses
any way they could.

There are multiple poems about Hoover in this book, in which Ai shows that she is capable of writing poems that use humor and American vernacular, departing from the mythic quality of her earlier work.

In her final two collections, Dread and No Surrender, Ai mostly abandons her political characters, turning to a more personal poetics. No Surrender, which was released after her sudden death in 2010, was written while Ai was working on a memoir, and is particularly personal. Ai inhabits a woman’s voice more often here than in earlier collections, in particular in poems titled “Motherhood,” “Sisterhood,” and “Widowhood.”

The final poem in No Surrender and in this collection, 2010’s “The Cancer Chronicles,” is particularly striking. It is written in the rare third person, though the “she” refers to Ai herself, who died that year of cancer. It is as if to get to such a personal place in her poetry, Ai needed to take the rare step of distancing herself from the speaker. The poem chronicles Ai’s relationship with cancer, from the first discovery of the lump to death. She speaks of the tumor as “a relative who’d fallen on hard times,” and says of it,

I’ll feed, clothe and house you,
But I will not allow you to destroy me.

Ai watches her own death with fear and fascination: “She never knew what to expect of her furtive trysts with death.” Death in this poem, like everything in Ai’s poetry, is deceptively complicated, alternately terrifying and exhilarating. The poem and the book end with the poet’s death, a fitting and tragic conclusion for a posthumous collection.

We are lucky to have the unique poetics of Ai collected for the first time. The poet Vijay Seshadri writes in the New York Times of Ai, “Here is an imagination that has consistently fought its way into the most terrible places of human experience.” And yet she does not exploit those places, but rather forces her reader to face the horrors that humans visit upon one another. Ai is an uncompromising poet, a prophet of both love and violence.

Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall

faulkner house books - tretheweyThrall. Natasha Trethewey. 23.00. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

In 2010’s Thrall, the follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey interweaves family and history in a stunning and moving way. The former US Poet Laureate, who was born to a white father and a black mother, takes on the racism that is inextricable from art and history, and explores the complicated relationship between herself and her late father.

Many of these poems are about colonialist Spanish art, addressing the pain that is rendered by a tradition meant to be aesthetically affecting. This is one of the hardest things for many a contemporary artist to get over: the pain that comes from art of the past, so often made to express hatred and intolerance. In the series “Taxonomy,” Trethewey writes ekphrastic poems based on a series of paintings by Juan Rodriguez Juarez, an 18th century Spanish painter. In these paintings, known as casta paintings, Juarez depicts children born to “the various mixed unions of colonial Mexico.” The title of the poem series is telling: these paintings depict real children as no more than objects of taxonomical study, their humanity erased. In poem 2 of the series, “De Espanol y Negra Produce Mulato,” Trethewey describes the child depicted:

If there is light inside him, it does not shine
through the paint that holds his face

in profile–his domed forehead, eyes
nearly closed beneath a heavy brow.

The poet here attempts to restore the humanity that the child has been robbed of by the painter, who has depicted him as no more than an object of aesthetic study, quelling the “light inside him.” In her notes, Trethewey also tells us that these paintings were meant to depict the so-called “‘taint’ of black blood,” the colonial belief, which was often written into law, that a person’s status decreased the more non-white blood they possessed. The poem ends with the line, “a last brush stroke fixed him in place,” lamenting the child’s static immortality in the painting, where he is unable to break out of his own taxonomic labeling.

In the title poem, “Thrall,” Trethewey writes in the voice of Juan de Pareja, who was the slave of the painter Diego Velazquez. Pareja himself was also a painter, known especially for his painting The Calling of St. Matthew. An excerpt reads,

Because he said
painting was not
labor was
the province of free men
I could only
watch      such beauty
in the work of his hands
a divine language I learned
over his shoulder…

This poem crystallizes one of the most salient questions asked by Trethewey: how do we reconcile our cultural heroes with their virulent racism? Can we? How can such people be responsible for “such beauty?” Pareja admires his master’s work, and ultimately learns his craft from Velazquez, but nothing can erase the horror of his own slavery. At the end of the day, sometimes, the human cost of art is too great. Trethewey works to redeem the memories of those who were the victims and voiceless subjects of colonialist art.

This is also a deeply personal book, about the relationship between a white father and his biracial daughter. In “Enlightenment,” about the painting of Jefferson at Monticello, Trethewey captures precisely the place where the political seeps into the personal:

The first time I saw the painting, I listened
as my father explained the contradictions:

how Jefferson hated slavery, though–out
of necessity, my father said–had to own
slaves; that his moral philosophy meant

he could not have fathered those children:
would have been impossible, my father said.
For years we debated the distance between

word and deed.

The tragedy of America is that even the bonds of family can be interrupted by the country’s racial history, that a white father can justify a cultural hero’s ownership of slaves to his nonwhite daughter. Much of this book is an exploration of Trethewey’s relationship with her father, her attempt to reconcile his memory with the complexities of their relationship. In the poem “Elegy,” Trethewey recalls fishing with her father, who was also a poet:

…I can tell you now
that I tried to take it all in
for an elegy I’d write–one day–

when the time came. Your daughter,
I was that ruthless. What does it matter

if I tell you I learned to be?

In Thrall, Natasha Trethewey is ruthless, but her intensity is understated. In clear, flowing verse, she takes on colonialism, American racism, and the complexities of her relationship with her father. This is a book about America, about a world in which no relationship is safe from the terrible weight of history.

Maxine Kumin: And Short the Season

faulkner house books-maxine kuminMaxine Kumin. And Short the Season. WW Norton & Co, 2014. 24.95. Call or visit us to purchase.

Maxine Kumin’s death, a year ago this month, was a loss felt deeply by the poetry community. Her final book, And Short the Season, was published the year she died, and is a beautiful meditation on the close of a life.

In this final collection, Kumin explores nature, death, loss, and what it means to live as a poet. Her stunning formal abilities are on full display as well: the music of her meter and rhyme is subtle, yet almost perfect throughout. Kumin maintains her sensibilities as a New England poet, painting the outdoors with the eye of a naturalist. The first poem in the collection is one of my favorites, beginning

And short the season, first rubythroat

    in the fading lilacs, alyssum in bloom,

    a honeybee bumbling in the bleeding heart

    on my gelding’s grave while beetles swarm

    him underground.

Kumin’s choice of natural detail is powerful: she suggests creeping mortality even before we come to the gelding’s grave, using the rubythroat and the bleeding heart to call to mind the violence inherent even beneath the serenity of nature. The season is short, the lilacs dying already, the life of the horse long since ended. This is Kumin’s gift throughout the collection: the quiet, yet steady, focus on the ephemerality of our own world. We see it especially in the final section of the book, in poems like “Going Down” and “Just Deserts.” Here it is the violence not of nature alone, but which humans have inflicted on the natural world, that haunts her:

    Despite outcries of purest angst

    dikes won’t save the playing field

    so blow a kiss to this drowned world.

    The gods have spoken: yield.

These final poems are some of the starkest in the collection. Here is a poet who visualizes herself not only on the brink of her own death, but on the brink of the collapse of the earth as she knows it through climate change. Kumin puts into words the sneaking fear felt by all who have seen our fragile worlds come crashing down in wind or flood.

Woven into the natural world of the book is also, of course, a very human element. Kumin reminds us of her rightful place in the canon, writing about poets from Sexton to Ginsberg to Williams. I especially love the series “Sonnets Uncorseted,” in which she writes about what it was like to be a woman poet of her generation. She nods to forebears from Margaret Cavendish to Virginia Woolf to Emily Dickinson, and writes fondly of her friendship with Anne Sexton. Describing the male poets of her generation, Kumin says

…if a poem

    of ours seemed worthy they said, you write like a man.

When asked what woman poet they read, with one

    voice they declaimed, Emily Dickinson.

    Saintly Emily safely dead, modern

    women poets dismissed as immature,

    their poems pink with the glisten of female organs.

Much has changed since then: Kumin revels in the ambitious female writers of today, the MFA programs and small presses that give an alternative outlet to poets whose voices veer from the traditional. For woman poets today, Kumin’s blessing is something to hold onto.

And of course, And Short the Season is Kumin’s last book. Thus it is tinged with the sorrow of the dying, with the profound loss felt by the reader upon coming to the last page. There will be no more, the poet seems to say. Her short final poem is a sort of goodbye:

Allow Me

    Sudden and quiet, surrounded by friends

    –John Milton’s way–

    But who gets to choose this ordered end

    Trim and untattered, loved ones at hand?

    –Allow me that day.

Kumin bids her reader adieu; she is off to join the ranks of the other historically great poets: Milton, Dickinson, her friend Anne Sexton. We are lucky to have had this last book. It is a masterfully realized goodbye from one of our most important poets.

M.O. Walsh’s My Sunshine Away

faulkner house books-my sunshine away

My Sunshine Away. M.O. Walsh. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015. 26.95. Come by and pick up a copy or call us to order!

This week marked the highly anticipated release of the debut novel by M.O. Walsh, My Sunshine Away, praised by Southern literary royalty the likes of Kathryn Stockett and Anne Rice. Walsh’s prose moves the story along at a pace that finds the perfect compromise between meditative and page-turner.  Set in Baton Rouge in the early 90’s, the book is narrated by an unnamed man recalling his childhood, beginning with the year his neighbor, the 15-year-old Lindy Simpson, was raped on their usually quiet Southern street.  The rape is still unsolved, and the narrator confesses to us early on that he is a suspect. This is, in some ways, a deeply unsettling story: we are immersed in the consciousness of a narrator who may or may not be a rapist, and whose lovesick actions toward Lindy are often unconscionable.

My Sunshine Away seems to plunge us into a normal childhood in the South, on Piney Creek Road, where neighborhood kids spent their days “tearing around in go-karts, coloring chalk figures on [their] driveways, or chasing snakes down into storm gutters.” But a dark current runs beneath the narrative. This is a street shaken to its core by the sexual assault of a teenage girl, Lindy Simpson. The insularity of the story is emphasized by the fact that the rape takes place right outside Lindy’s house, across the street from the narrator’s own home. Piney Creek is quietly, constantly under siege from the kinds of tragedies that are inescapable on any street, as well as the kinds of tragedies that make us question what is normal in human nature. The rape is just the publicly tangible manifestation of a world in which adult men take pictures of their teenage neighbors and drug their children, where the narrator spies on Lindy from an oak tree and draws her head onto pornographic images.

The darkness of the novel is tempered by the fact that it is also a kind of love story. My favorite thing about this book is Walsh’s ability to so fully crystallize what it means to be young and in love. Speaking of Lindy, our narrator says, “There’s this girl. And when I look at her, I don’t know what to do.” And on technology: “There were no cell phones. No private text messages. It was simply one on one conversation and, if it was any good at all, you had to whisper.” This is the kind of evocative power found on every page. Even if you didn’t grow up in the South, you will find remnants of your own high school experiences in the Spanish moss and mosquitoes of Piney Creek Road. And you will find yourself nostalgic for summer in Baton Rouge, even if you have never been: “And so the soul of this place lives in the parties that grow here, not just Mardi Gras, no, but rather the kind that start with a simple phone call to a neighbor, a friend. And after the heat is discussed and your troubles shared you say man it’d be nice to see you, your kids, your smile. And from this grows a spread several tables long, covered in newspaper, with long rows of crawfish spilled steaming from aluminum pots…” One can’t help but feel that South Louisiana is more than a backdrop to this story: it is almost a living character, loved by the narrator with the same passion he feels for Lindy.

This story is as much about Lindy as it is about the narrator. Lindy is objectified by almost everyone she encounters, reminding the reader of what it is like to grow up as a young girl in a world that becomes increasingly unsafe the more she begins to look like a woman. Lindy is never, however, objectified by the author. She is a real girl, experiencing a trauma that is not understood by the narrator, but that is deeply understood by the author. Walsh never gives us the narrator’s name, reminding us that the real protagonist is, in a way, Lindy. However, the namelessness of the narrator also fits him into the time-honored tradition of the every man, and this is what makes the book truly chilling. Does every man really enact such violence on the women around him? The narrator concludes, in the final pages of the book, what we have wanted him to recognize all along: “That’s why I am so lucky to have Julie around now, and to have had my mother and Rachel around for so long, to make me realize that life is not always about me and the unloading of my conscience. The story of Lindy’s rape, for instance. It is about Lindy. And that is all.” As he grows from a boy into a man, the narrator realizes that there is a world of women around him, women with secrets, women whose parallel existence in the world is shockingly different from his own. He realizes, for instance, that Lindy was probably not the only girl to be raped that year in Baton Rouge. That women bear scars that they don’t tell men about.

It is this nuanced understanding of what it means to be a man that makes My Sunshine Away so special. It is unsettling to read what presents itself as a mystery about a rape, but the solution to the mystery is, appropriately, unsatisfying in a way that a true crime novel’s ending never is. There is nothing glamorous, nothing outrageous about rape. We aren’t reading to find out who did it. Men commit these atrocities against women every day. This isn’t a mystery so much as it is the story of a man who comes to recognize his own complicity in a culture that is dangerous to women. It is a story about becoming a better man, and recognizing that some narratives will always remain secret.