Bookmarks | Almost-Madness in Love & Loss

Work from Helen Macdonald, Tracy K. Smith & Danielle Chapman

Early in her dazzling new book H Is for Hawk (Grove Press, $26, 320 pp.), the poet and naturalist Helen Macdonald learns that her father has died of a heart attack. A renowned photojournalist, Macdonald’s father was a lovely and loving man, and his sudden loss leaves his daughter unmoored. Macdonald begins to read her horoscope with great seriousness. She starts experiencing “memories of things that haven’t happened yet.” She feels herself drifting into “a kind of madness”: “I could tell a hawk from a handsaw always, but sometimes it was striking to me how similar they were.”

How can we describe the almost-madness of loss? Macdonald’s method is to circle it from as many sides as possible: the more angles of approach, the more ways of considering her grief, the closer Macdonald’s book can get to approximating the pain that inspired it.

Macdonald begins by looking to etymology: “Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English berafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized.” Ralph Waldo Emerson described language as “fossil poetry,” and Macdonald here performs a kind of linguistic excavation. Bereavement, the word’s roots suggest, isn’t about emptiness, as we might expect, but about violence. To be bereft is to have had sudden, unexpected hurt done to you, and this is exactly how Macdonald feels.

Macdonald’s mind frequently works by associative leaps, and so the roots of “bereft” suggest to her another word: “raptor, meaning ‘bird of prey.’ From the Latin raptor, meaning ‘robber,’ from rapere, meaning ‘seize.’ Rob. Seize.” Here, in the figure of the bird of prey and in the violent roots of its name, we get a hint of the central and peculiar means by which Macdonald deals with her grief: she acquires, trains, hunts with, and comes to love a goshawk. She meets one kind of violence, her father’s death, by attempting to tame another kind of violence—that of the hawk, whom she names Mabel.

For the rest of the book, Macdonald devotes more time to describing her relationship with Mabel and the techniques and terminology of hawking than to describing her relationship with her father. She also, surprisingly enough, devotes many pages—some readers might say too many—to describing the life of T. H. White. Most famous as the author of The Once and Future King, White also wrote The Goshawk, a wild 1951 memoir about White’s sadistic attempts—and failures—at taming a hawk. Macdonald uses White’s story as a way to think about her own story (and engages in some good literary criticism and psychologizing in the process).

H Is for Hawk is an odd combination: a personal study of Macdonald’s grief and her experiences with Mabel, a biographical study of White, and finally a cultural study of the various meanings that have accreted around the figure of the hawk over the centuries. This generic messiness might seem a flaw: Macdonald has a good and painful story to tell, so why get distracted by so many other stories? But, to me at least, this refusal to clean things up is precisely the book’s strength. This isn’t a neat and tidy book, but then grief isn’t a tidy emotion.

Why the hawk, though, and why Mabel? Ever since she was a little girl, Macdonald tells us, she had been obsessed with birds of prey: reading about them, dreaming about them, imagining herself as one of them, or as one who tamed them. Mainly, her fantasies focused on falcons—“sharp-winged, bullet-heavy birds with dark eyes and an extraordinary ease in the air”—and Macdonald went on to become a falconer herself. But, from the age of twelve, she also had a wary fascination with the goshawk. Macdonald draws a sharp contrast between the falcon and the hawk, showing how each bird has been read as signifying certain cultural, even spiritual, values. Falcons, Captain Gilbert Blaine wrote in 1936, are “confined to the aristocracy, as an exclusive right and privilege.” Falcons are noble and beautiful; they need great space to hunt in; they stand in for a life of grace and luxury. Goshawks, on the other hand, are standoffish and temperamental; their hunting style is quick and vicious; they stand not for grace and nobility but for brutish, primal power. They are, Macdonald writes, “ruffians: murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, fractious, and foreign.”

Macdonald is an extraordinary describer, and some of the best parts of H Is for Hawk involve her looking closely at Mabel and allowing us to look with her: “Her wings are the colour of stained oak, their covert feathers edged in palest teak, barred flight-feathers folded quietly beneath. And there’s a strange grey tint to her that is felt, rather than seen, a kind of silvery light like a rainy sky reflected from the surface of a river.” What attention to color! Elsewhere, we see how the hawk seems to shift and transform, fairy-tale like, under her tamer’s gaze: “The hawk is alternately a hunchback toad, a nervous child or a dragon.”

Macdonald knows that the hawk is a bringer of death, “a being whose world is drawn in plots and vectors that pull her towards lives’ ends.” Though it’s not spelled out explicitly, Macdonald seems to be engaged in the kind of magical thinking that often attends grief: the hawk is a ruthless engine of death (notice the precision of “plots and vectors”), so if I can tame her, then perhaps I can tame the death that has wrecked me.

In the end, though, Macdonald comes to see that Mabel is not a symbol to be deployed in the service of her handler’s journey of self-healing. In one of the book’s final scenes, Mabel flies away from Macdonald and slaughters a bunch of pheasants on private land. This isn’t a story of gaining power over death by gaining power over an animal. The otherness of hawks, Macdonald writes, “is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.” If Mabel teaches Macdonald a lesson, it’s that the world doesn’t exist to teach us lessons.

 

ANOTHER POET'S memoir, Ordinary Light (Knopf, $25.95, 368 pp.) by Tracy K. Smith, also begins with loss, a fact that is announced in the book’s very first sentence: “She left us at night.” The “she” is Smith’s mother, and Smith goes on to describe the exact moment when, as Smith puts it in a rather old-fashioned way, her mother’s “dying came on”:

Then we heard a sound that seemed to carve a tunnel between our world and some other. It was an otherworldly breath, a vivid presence that blew past us without stopping, leaving us, the living, clamped in place by the silence that followed. I would come back to the sound and the presence of that breath again and again, thinking how miraculous it was that she had ridden off on that last exhalation, her life instantly whisked away, carried over into a place none of us will ever understand until perhaps we are there ourselves.

It’s a kind of miracle we never let ourselves consider, the miracle of death. She followed that last breath where it led and left her body behind in the old four-poster Queen Anne bed, where for the first time in all of our lives it was a body and nothing more.

“She left her body behind”: how perfect, and how perfectly simple, a description of death, the one moment in a person’s life—its final one—that he or she will never be able to describe or remember. Smith has attempted to describe this moment before in “Speed of Belief,” the best poem from her 2011 Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, Life on Mars. There, Smith writes of her father’s death in similarly unassuming language: “You stepped out of the body. / Unzipped it like a coat.”

The opening of Ordinary Light, then, seems to suggest two things: first, that it will be, like H Is for Hawk, a grief memoir; and second, that it will echo, in idea and imagery, moments from Smith’s poetry. The first suggestion, it should be noted, proves false. Though the book begins and ends with the death of Smith’s mother, it is not a grief memoir. Rather, it is an attempt to use language to rescue the things that are always passing away from us: most specifically, childhood innocence, the time when we didn’t quite understand the complexities of social existence (Smith is black and her mother was raised in Jim Crow–era Alabama) or think to doubt religious orthodoxy (Smith was raised Baptist and her mother was particularly devout); more generally, the ordinary, banal reality that seems to exist so as to be forgotten.

Smith’s life has been a relatively quiet and incredibly successful one. She was raised in a big, happy, loving, middle-class black family in the suburbs of California (after leaving the military, her father worked as an engineer on the Hubble Telescope). A do-gooder in high school, Smith eventually went to Harvard, got an MFA from Columbia, and published her first collection of poetry, The Body’s Question, at the age of thirty-one.

There isn’t much about drugs or sex in Ordinary Light. There is some embarrassment but little humiliation, much honesty but little confession. Instead, the book is filled with quiet, beautiful moments that are quietly, beautifully rendered, as when Smith remembers being kicked in the stomach by a calf, her “first collision with the world’s solid fist,” or when she recounts first reading Emily Dickinson: “It made me feel special, privy to magic, as if whoever was speaking had sought me out, discerning an affinity.” The book exists not to create dramatic tension or to make polemical points about race or religion—two of the work’s most regular subjects—but to save the ordinary from oblivion through the power of loving attention.

The second thing suggested by the book’s opening sentences—that readers of Smith’s poetry will hear echoes of it in her prose—does prove true. Anyone who loved Life on Mars will love Ordinary Light. That collection has a poem, “It and Co.,” that refuses to specify the referent of its title but gestures instead toward all that is ineffable: the self, history, the cosmos, God. Midway through Ordinary Light, the wondrous power of the unclear referent appears again, when the young Smith worries about the Biblical apocalypse and her sister responds, “‘Don’t worry, Kitten. If it happens, it’ll be a total adventure.’ That It meant everything, the whole apocalyptic chain of events. It was a lumping together of the good and the ghastly, a breezy, offhand dismissal of nuance. It lightened things for me, told me to let go of trying to plan for something so far off and far-out.”

In “The Weather in Space,” the opening poem in Life on Mars, Smith asked, “Is God being or pure force? The wind / Or what commands it?” These lines reverberate at the end of Ordinary Light, where Smith asks, “Is God each of the many different things we seek in the course of a life? Is God what animates the body, drawing us into a deeper, more primal sense of our physical selves?” Then, she admits, “I feel myself most alive, most electric with faith, breath, and courage, when I think of God as a current that runs through all that is. Not by will or by choice. Not as a benediction but because there are laws that even God must obey.” Whether or not Smith believes in a personal God, she believes in the holiness of existence, and her prose shows this as clearly as her poetry.

 

HAVING TALKED about two works of prose written by poets, it seems appropriate to end with an actual book of poetry. Danielle Chapman’s Delinquent Palaces (Triquarterly, $16.95, 72 pp.) is her first collection, and it introduces a poet already in full command of her voice and her verse.

One good definition of poetry might be: language that demands to be read out loud. Still, some poets demand to be read out loud more than others (Hopkins more than Bishop, for instance). Chapman is like Hopkins: to read her silently is to do her an injustice. In one poem, for example, she describes a “wad of gum” being dropped into a glass of ginger ale: “Bubbles rose like souls / unburdening from selves, bearing tiny spheres / of bliss that broke upon the surface / like sleepers to the touch of consciousness.” The intricate linking of sounds exhibited here (bubbles, unburdening, bearing, bliss, broke) recurs elsewhere, and Chapman uses this sonic intensity to suggest a world of intense sensations. Here is one of the collection’s best and shortest poems, “Let Alone”:

Every spring you yank me back up
to this blossom brink
too bright for any sane comparison—

No person in leaf-flame immolation.

That any two details should gather matter out
of absolute heat!

Let alone on this street.

Again, notice the music (blossom, brink, bright; leaf-flame immolation). And, again, notice how that music makes us hear the harrowing, sublime ferocity of the world. “No person in leaf-flame immolation”—a line set off as its own stanza and so drawing attention to itself—sounds as if it could have come out of Hopkins. Chapman is an incarnational poet, trying to make us feel in our very bones a world charged with the grandeur of God.

All three books under review here are, at one level or another, about love. H Is for Hawk is about the love that Macdonald felt for her father and the love she ends up feeling for Mabel, even and especially when Mabel seems so incapable of returning it. Ordinary Light is about the love that Smith felt for her mother and feels for the ordinary moments of existence. And Delinquent Palaces is not just about a love of the world but about the love of a specific person. The collection is dedicated to Chapman’s husband, the poet Christian Wiman, and many of the collection’s strongest poems show how, in a Dante-esque manner, romantic love might lead to a Christian love of existence. “A Shape Within” opens with an epigraph from Paradiso, and it closes with lines that remind us of the urgency with which we desire to love and be loved:

…—beyond our grand stupidities—
the urgency won’t perish: to be known
in one’s own person as crocuses are known
by sun, conceiving green to breathe it,
for ravishment by light, to grow
into the moment in our cells when we open
ourselves as a plant uncoils pistils
and become refulgent whether looked at or not.

Published in the February 26, 2016 issue: 

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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