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

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

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Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel. Vintage.

When I recommend this book to customers, they are often wary when I describe it as a work of science fiction. Somehow, sci fi has become a dirty word among a certain literary set, signifying socially awkward middle schoolers and Star Trek conventions. I want to join a growing group of readers in making a case for sci fi as an essential literary genre, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a perfect example.

A 2015 National Book Award finalist and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, this novel is undeniably literary in its scope. Mandel tells the story of the Georgia Flu, a deadly pandemic that wipes out 99.9% of the human population. The setting shifts among the weeks just before the pandemic, the days after, the years before, and twenty years afterwards. The tale follows Kristen, who was a child when the illness struck, and is now, twenty years later, a member of a traveling symphony, whose slogan, “Survival is insufficient,” comes from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. One of Kristen’s only memories of the time before the plague is from a production of King Lear, in which she was a child actor alongside the movie star Arthur Leander.

Leander, who is long-dead by the time of the novel’s present moment, links together a cast of unexpected characters who play roles of varying significance to the post-apocalyptic world: his best friend; his son; an ex-paparazzo; two ex-wives, one an actress, another an illustrator; and, of course, Kristen. As the story unfolds, the connections are revealed, while at the same time we learn more about the scope of this new world. Here, there is no electricity; no readily available medicine; no cities. People live in settlements, devoting their lives to the necessities of survival.

The traveling symphony is a light in this darkness, bringing performances of Shakespeare to inhabitants of the settlements, giving them a brief respite in the form of great art. This book, though post-apocalyptic, reminds the reader of the beauty and persevering spirit of humanity. Station Eleven gets at a fundamental truth of the human condition: the indomitable will not only to survive, but to thrive. This novel brings to mind a quote from Bertolt Brecht:

In the dark times,
will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

-Jade Hurter, Faulkner House Books

What About This: The Collected Poems of Frank Stanford

Frank Stanford has long been a kind of enigma in the poetry world: an underground legend, with a cult following, whose work has always been notoriously difficult to find. Though he died in 1978, at only 29 years old, this is the first time that his collected works have been available for purchase. What About This will hopefully usher in an era when Stanford’s work is rightfully regarded as seminal American poetry for generations to come.

Stanford is a writer unlike any other American poet of his time. His work is reminiscent in its scope and dialect of Whitman, but he was also heavily influenced by French and Latin American Surrealism. This collection includes not only all of Stanford’s published work (except for the epic The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, which is excerpted throughout the collection), but also his many unpublished manuscripts, one of which, titled Automatic Copilot, is composed entirely of poems written after the work of other artists. This manuscript is one of the great gifts of this book, as Stanford shows us the work that was most important to the creation of his own art. His poem “Cave of the Heart,” after Lorca, exemplifies that surreal, almost Romantic influence:

            Drenched in the lost blood of the moon, yawning

           In the furrows turned after dark, your thick legs long as feathers,

            Stout as brooms, the earth you sleep on

            Too young to call a grave.

Stanford was constantly in conversation with the work of other poets, while at the same time forging his own unique place in American poetics. He used local diction from his ancestral homes of Mississippi and Arkansas, illuminating a world often unseen by the majority of America. Throughout his collections Stanford writes “Blue Yodel” poems; for example, “Blue Yodel of Her Feet” in the collection You:

            Your chest gives ground

            Like an island on a river

            And as they yodel in the song of songs

            Your nipples taut as raisins

            Killdeers try to fly from your eyes

            I wish I could nail your shoes to the floor

            And lose your socks

Stanford combines, in poems like this, the surreal, the local, the beautiful, and the mundane, building it all up to create a narrative of love that seems something out of a dream. The poem is a “yodel,” a mountain song echoing, yet it is about a woman’s feet, literally her lowliest part. Stanford does not differentiate between the high and the low; rather, he sees the poetry in everything, and reveals it to the reader through inventive language and free-flowing form.

In Constant Stranger, perhaps the strongest of his published manuscripts, Stanford writes of love and death as equally strange and familiar, the two most inevitable aspects of life, which haunt his poetics in equal measure. This collection begins with “Death and the Arkansas River,” a long poem in which death is portrayed as a sort of local legend, who is simultaneously powerful and quotidian:

            Some say you can keep an eye

            Out for Death,

            But Death is one for fooling around.

            He might turn up working odd jobs

            At your favorite diner.

            He might be peeling spuds.

These poems are truly, in the words of the New York Times’ Dwight Garner, “death-haunted.” It is impossible to wholly separate the work from the life of the artist, whose death at 29 of three self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the heart, as well as his precocity and style, make him comparable to a sort of American Rimbaud. In the poem “Time Forks Perpetually toward Innumerable Futures in One of Them I Am Your Enemy,” Stanford begins with the line, “I am going to die.” He goes on,

            Death is an isthmus, you can get there on foot.

            But love had made its island.

            …

            Tell it:

 

            There is a fear without age or Christ

            That goes through us

            Like moonshine in a coil.

Stanford consistently takes those two most ancient poetic themes–love and death, that which is most feared and most desired–and infuses them with the freshness of his language and imagery. These poems are suffused with images of the Ozarks: the moon shining on water, boats, catfish and alligator gar, trucks and small-town bars. To read his figuration regarding the moon, in particular, is an almost transcendent experience. For example, in “Women Singing When Their Husbands Are Gone,” from Ladies From Hell:

            Flies wanting a warm place to stay

            And the threequarter moon

            Quieter than a child slicing a melon

            Like dirt smeared over with seeds

And in the titular “What About This,”

            Things are dying down, the moon spills its water.

            Dewhurst says he smells rain.

In these poems, the moon, like love and death, becomes more than a symbol; it is almost a character in itself. The poet constantly doubles back over and around the same themes and images, creating a kind of dreamscape of Southern mountain surreality. There is something undeniably sublime about the best of Stanford’s work. This is the kind of book to read before bed, so that his images may permeate your dreams.

-Jade Hurter, Faulkner House Books

Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King

Ever since reading Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, I’ve been an avid fan and collector of his work; I’ve read all of his books, some more than once. (Wasn’t it Somerset Maugham who said, “You truly read a book only the second time”?)

For two years after opening Faulkner House Books, we periodically published a newsletter. In one I wrote a retrospective review of Henderson and sent a copy of it to Saul Bellow with a letter thanking him for all the pleasure his writing had given me for years. Now, with the bookstore, I looked forward to sharing my pleasure with my customers. A few months later, I received his reply. Both follow.

My Review of Henderson

My ardent admiration for Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, a novel I have read often, is also a consciously expressed admission. I’m partial to Don Quixote tales where usually an aging idealist dissatisfied with things as they are seeks to change the world into something more noble. Alas, such a hero must ultimately confront reality and be either defeated or transformed and returned safely to the community of man.

And so, millionaire pig-farmer Eugene Henderson, like Don Quixote in his mid-fifties, tired of the chaos in his life, “mad as a horsefly on a window pane,” goes to Africa to quell the voice within him that repeats, “I want, I want, I want.” He also hopes to exchange what “civilization” has taught him for the more fundamental truths, he believes, primitive people still possess.

With his companion, the native Romilayu, he visits two tribes, the Arnewi and the Wariri. Both visits end disastrously. He blows up the Arnewi’s cistern while trying to rid it of an infestation of frogs. With the Wariri, he is unwittingly maneuvered into becoming the Rain King and the successor to Dahfu, their king. Dahfu is a former medical student forced to return home when his father died. He is out of favor with his elders for keeping a pet lioness in violation of tribal tradition. He befriends Henderson and insists that he can find “noble possibilities” by imitating the lioness, the way she walks and how she roars. Not long after Henderson becomes the Rain King, Dahfu is killed by another lion, perhaps not accidentally, on an obligatory hunt. Henderson succeeds to the Wariri throne, is imprisoned, but escapes and returns to the United States.

Since Henderson always believed that truth comes in blows, he is, by Dahfu’s death, redeemed, “called from non-existence into existence.” He has been moved, in his own words, “from states that I myself make into states that are of themselves. Like if I stopped making such a noise all the time, I might hear something nice. I might hear a bird.”

Henderson the Rain King was published in 1959, 18 years before Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for literature. It is truly a masterpiece, delightfully humorous and invariably intelligent. It is a novel for poets; a worthy scion of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

January 26, 1993

Saul Bellow’s Response

Dear Mr. De Salvo,

It makes me happy to hear from members of what I consider to be an elite of readers, namely those who admire Henderson the Rain King. I am especially fond of, “I might hear a bird.” So, it’s turnabout and fair play. I write a book, you send me a kind note.

With Best Wishes,

Saul Bellow

You should infer from Bellow’s letter that Henderson was a favorite of his, even though he was critiqued for moving away from his urban Jewish theme; also for being uninformed about Africa and for using a minstrel-style Southern dialect for the natives. The novel is so thoughtful, so intelligent and funny, and Henderson the character is such a marvelous creation, that the criticisms pale.

Good reading to you.

Joe DeSalvo

Hannah Sanghee-Park’s The Same-Different

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The Same-Different. Hannah Sanghee Park. LSU Press, 2015. 16.00.

The first full length collection by poet Hannah Sanghee-Park, winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, is a book that forces the reader toward truth through language. Park pushes at linguistic boundaries in order to wring fresh meaning out of her words. In the first section, “The Same-Different,” the poems are built almost entirely on wordplay. For example, “And A Lie” begins,

I’ll take the untrue,

the tried and true, the ruing

and the ruining. And you?

Here we see Park’s ability to find truth in language based not only on meaning, but on sound, that most basic quality of speaking and writing. These are definitely poems to read aloud, to fully appreciate the use Park has made of rhyme, alliteration, and pun. These poems are almost Medieval in their dependence on aurality, but Park also manages to make the alliteration and rhyme distinctly modern.

These are poems about language and truth, but they are also poems about love and loss. The reliance on form belies a collection of work that is deeply sad, mourning the loss of a lover. In section II, “A Mutability,” the poems become more outright in their emotional content. In “The Deer Woman in December,” Park writes,

Your touch was all it took. Nothing to do

but now move on. No use aching over

something there that never did begin.

This second section, made up on sonnets based on myth, is my favorite in the book. This is the kind of thing poetry is for: timeless forms and themes made new, much like suffering is made new each time it is experienced. Park makes fairy tale of loss in poems like “The Fox-Bead in May,” which ends,

And every day they kissed to swap the bead

and for a month he waned and wans,

and when he learned the truth about her tongue,

he downed the bead: her true form a nine-tailed

fox who could have turned human, had he kissed on.

The final section of the book, “Fear,” is made up of one long poem titled “Preface to Fear/False Spring.” This is the most confessional section in the book. The wordplay is still prevalent, but here the speaker’s pain is not clouded by it, but rather brought into sharper relief. Park writes,

I amuse you for only so long.

So long–

To fear the past’s grasp on the future.

Everything must and will come to its end.

This is a book that is both linguistically stunning and emotionally wrenching. Park brings out the best in what poetry has to offer, delving into the mysterious truths of language while also reminding us of the painful truths of being human.

Tom Cooper’s The Marauders

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The Marauders. Tom Cooper. Crown, 2015. 26.00. Call us or visit us to buy a copy!

In his debut novel, local author Tom Cooper delves into the heart of the Bayou in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. This story follows Lindquist, a one-armed oxycontin-addicted shrimper searching for Jean LaFitte’s treasure in the thick and swampy backwoods of Louisiana’s Barataria region. Along the way, he becomes involved with a cast of characters converging on the Bayou from New Orleans to New York in a time of national emergency, when Louisianans are left to fend for themselves in the wake of an environmental crisis.

Cooper is quick to paint a realistic portrait of the cruelties that humans are capable of inflicting on one another for money. The characters in this book are all deeply flawed, forced to make bad decisions out of poverty and physical suffering. Desperation, Cooper shows, can drive a man to do just about anything. Cosgrove, for example, finds himself involved in a drug stealing operation with a man he meets while doing community service in New Orleans–community service that consists of sprucing up a dying woman’s home so it will be worth money when the city reclaims it, and stealing her valuables from the attic while they’re at it. The novel begins with two murderous twins, the Toup brothers, debating whether or not to murder Lindquist for his innocent forays into the swamp, where the Toups grow hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of marijuana. The teenage Wes Trench meets Lindquist after he leaves his father’s shrimping boat, in a fight brought on by the tensions of the oil spill, which has left the residents of the Barataria destitute, depending for their livelihoods on a shrimp trade that has dried up. Wes’s mother drowned during Katrina, when his father insisted against her will that they stay in the Bayou to weather the storm. Grimes grew up in the Barataria and hated every minute of it, leaving for New York as soon as he could. He is back in his hometome representing BP, getting desperate fisherman to sign gag orders in exchange for $10,000.00. And Lindquist is broke, divorced, with an estranged daughter who works as a stripper and visits him only for money, depending on pain medicine to get him through the physical agony of a lifetime of backbreaking work on shrimp boats, for hardly any money.

Cooper manages to take this cast of characters and weave them into a complex and vivid portrayal of life in the modern Barataria. The setting is one of the most compelling parts of the book: for many readers, the swamps are a distant dream. In the city it is easy to forget that there are wild places just a half an hour away, where alligators grow larger than men and poisonous snakes slip through the brackish tides. But after the oil spill, none of this is left untouched: this book is suffused with the scent of crude oil rising from the bayou, fish belly-up in the water, pelicans soaked in petroleum. The characters are quirky, often funny, lovable in their own messed-up ways, but reading about the state of the swamp is truly heartbreaking, and gives this story its weight.

Although this is in many ways a book about the Barataria after the oil spill, Cooper never lets us forget that we are in Louisiana, where a kind of magic, at least in the fictional world, might always have its small victories over the grating of reality. All the seemingly fantastical elements of Louisiana lore come to life in this story, from killer alligators to voodoo curses to Jean LaFitte’s long-lost treasure. And this is the crux of the tale: Louisiana is a place that cannot be defeated, even in the face of years of tragedy. The swamps hold something magical, something terrifying and intangible that refuses to break, even under the weight of crude oil, poverty, and flood waters.

 

William Faulkner on Marriage

William Faulkner, 27, still a bachelor, residing on the ground floor of 624 Pirate’s Alley (now Faulkner House Books) offered his views on “What is the Matter with Marriage?” in a $10.00 contest sponsored by the New Orleans Item-Tribune. Apparently he won. His response was published in the newspaper on April 4, 1925. The complete uncorrected text of the article follows:

 

Marriage Is Not At Fault, Writer Asserts; Fault Lies With Those Who Are Wed

Writer Gives Views

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Poet, philosopher, student of life, WILLIAM FAULKNER, says that passion is a fire which quickly burns itself out. Love is enduring, he believes, a fuel that feeds a never-dying fire.

     “What is the Matter with Marriage?”

All kinds of answers have been coming in from people who have ideas as widely varied on the subject as it would seem possible to have them.

Last Sunday, the first article was published in the Item-Tribune asking the question, “What is the Matter with Marriage?” It was not Barbara Brooks’ idea that marriage is a failure. But it was her idea to get [sic] offering a prize of $10 for the best letter of not more than 250 words telling just what it is that is causing so many marriages to go the way they shouldn’t. Answers must be in the Item-Tribune office not later than April 13.

Hundreds of letters from men and women who were not making a success of married life have been received by Barbara Brooks. Rather than getting better, the situation has been growing worse. The letters have been increasing.

The following article by William Faulkner is teeming with interest. Marriage, he says, is all right, but the trouble lies with some of those who enter into it.

Mr. Faulkner has been in New Orleans for some time writing books of poetry. His first book “The Marble Faun” is fresh from the press. He has a thorough understanding of life, and its complexities, and is therefore qualified to speak.

“What is the matter with marriage?” I do not think there is anything the matter with marriage. The trouble is with the parties thereto. Man invariable gains unhappiness when he goes into a thing for the sole purpose of getting something. To take what he has at hand and to create from it his heart’s desires is the thing. Men and women forget that the better the food, the quicker the indigestion.

Two men or two women—forming a partnership, always remember that the other has weaknesses, and by taking into account the fallibility of mankind, they gain success and happiness. But so many men and women when they marry seem to ignore the fact that both must keep clearly in mind that thing which they wish to create, to attain, and so work for it together and with tolerance of each other.

None of us will believe that our sorrows are ever brought about by ourselves. We all think that the world owes us happiness; and when we do not get it, we cast the blame upon that person nearest to us.

The first frenzy of passion, of intimacy of mind and body, is never love. That is only the surf through which one must go to reach the calm sea of real love and peace and contentedness. Breakers may be fun, but you cannot sail safely through breakers into port. And surely married people do want to reach some port together—some haven from which to look backward down golden years when mutual tolerance has removed some of the rough places and time has blotted out the rest.

If people would but remember that passion is a fire which burns itself out, but that love is a fuel which feeds its never-dying fire, there would be no unhappy marriages.

There is nothing wrong with marriage. If there were, man would have invented something else to take its place.