My brother sent me some pictures from his family’s visit to the California Raptor Center yesterday which reminded me of both the excellence memoir H is for Hawk and of the collection of poems Raptor, both of which I’ve written about before and am reposting here as a reminder of just how memorable both are. I still highly recommend them both!
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
A dear friend texted me once and said, “Have you read H is for Hawk? If not don’t read anything about it I’ll send it to you!” It’s a wonderfully powerful book, part memoir and part literary biography, by a woman who, in the throes of grief after her father unexpectedly dies, bought and trained a goshawk. And it’s also about The Sword in the Stone author T.H. White, who was also a falconer. It nearly lost me a few chapters in, but then the book blew open and I was completely hooked until the end. Great stuff.
Additional note October 2018: My mother and I saw Helen MacDonald read at Benaroya Hall a couple of years ago, and she was marvelous. Someone in the Q&A asked her to do the whistle she would use to call her hawk back to her in the great outdoors and from the stage of the symphony hall she did, and it was just an amazing magical moment I’ll not forget.
Andrew Feld’s Raptor, which I picked up after reading Pamela Alexander’s review of it in an issue of FIELD, is full of poems (which range from the heavily featured birds of prey to folks on their way to Sturgis to Johnny Carson) exhibiting excellent control of language, deft images, underlying but controlled rage, simultaneous emotional closeness and observational distance, and unexpected precise edginess. Before I get to “The Work,” which along with “Cascade Raptor Center: Capture” and one of the Sturgis poems, “There,” are my favorites of many strong contenders, a couple sample stanzas from “The Art of Falconry,” which follow mention of an analogy of late-life marriage:
Unblinded, each blink of his two-lidded eyes
admits another fraction into the scope
of his attention. The way you hear the day
click into focus as he lifts
a lizard foot to test his jess then pliers it
around your thumb is fucking awesome, as is
the release of when you throw him to the winds.
Hidden in reeds, a goldfinch shifts to full alarm.
The straps and husbandry, the exercise
of wills chafing at limit, pricing cartons
of beef and chicken stock at the QFC,
as in nostalgia’s cost-
ineffective false binary the goshawk
follows with love and active heat the game:
drawn to the lure of a shared diet, we wait
for love’s connecting strings to latch onto the kill.
There’s a lot going on in that description of the simple action of throwing the bird to fly. A quite typical passage of the book (though I believe that might be the only such profanity in it, actually).
“The Work” is about 40 lines long, and the speaker is showing a class of children an eagle. It mixes admonitory advice, such as “Think / before you speak” and “Remember, experience is a dim lamp / which illuminates only the one who carries it” with descriptions of the eagle.
Wearing a little leather cap and held tightly
between my upper arms, the eagle was as if
asleep: it was like holding a baby swaddled
in razor wire, although size and the caution
accorded to the useless wing made the experience
for me a very Pietà kind of thing. God, won’t you
pay attention? When a raptor has been injured
so it can no longer survive in the wild we call
that condition educational, which doesn’t mean
it’s tame. […]
I love the sort of double voice, the one speaking to, and totally not speaking to, the class of children. This poem moves, in its form on the page, very like someone speaking — line breaks such as, “Think / before you speak” which emphasizes the think, and the unseen but certainly there head-nod with the word good in, “It’s good / to think of music as having a function,” and the enjambment of the thought, “There is the small glee we feel in the presence / of elegant machinery,” which is the pause of a momentary searching with the tongue behind the teeth for the right word, of elegant machinery.
And I love the way the question mark in the following line brings the end of the sentence into an unexpected moment of connection with the speaker, the sort of embarassed shrug gesture of the question mark,
[…] The similarities
between Ren Faires and wildlife rehabilitation
are more than a shared love of leather gauntlets
and Elizabethan terminology, and some of these birds
are named for Tolkein’s elves, which is kind of
Another thread running through the poem is song. The poem opens with an epigram, “Birds of prey have no song” (James Richardson) then mentions the eagle’s voice as “sampled / from Metal Machine Music, an album that can / drive roaches out of your apartment.” Then later Schoenberg and Ornette Coleman. The last line of the poem is “Expand your definition of song. Avoid aphorism.” One of the themes through many of these poems is addressing what is known about birds of prey (references to medieval falconry books, other facts), what one is tempted to think about birds of prey, what they’re really like to be around, but all that coupled with these amazing descriptions (like the baby swaddled in razor wire above) that are vivid but not pushing anthropomorphization (“baby” notwithstanding). “The Work” and other poems in the collection are animal poems all on the side of the human observer, with a clear feel of the distance between, and the awe that brings the two closer, but doesn’t bridge.