H is for Hawk

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A Year in Reading: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Last year my mother died. Often, my habit and love for reading felt unbearable and foreign. Other weeks it was reading alone that comforted me. It was all I wanted to do, all I was capable of doing, because all I wanted was to live inside of sentences, stanzas, stories. I didn’t and couldn’t go out there, the world was glaring in its surface of sameness, but books were ultimately part of the company that drew me out of a space that was dangerous, expanding in its withdrawal and silence.

In 2015, I also had a book of my own published. And, honestly, it was difficult to navigate a space that suddenly felt inarticulate to me. Kind friends and kind strangers alike sent me specific titles regarding grief. I also consumed books where grief, loss, rebirth, and death were implicit, distilled, expanded into unbelievable landscapes I hadn’t seen or understood as clearly before, in the surreal afterlife of my mother’s absence.

One of the best books I read last year and have returned to more than once is Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World. The book left me speechless in its love, grace, and dignity. Reading that book gave me hope that I too could survive and celebrate life itself. Alexander’s book gave me hope and I picked up Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light and Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side. I also returned to Toi Derricotte’s The Undertaker’s Daughter.

Being on the road on tour for my own book, I often filled my suitcase with more books than clothing. Everything I wore was mostly black so I didn’t think or care about clothes at all. But I cared about books and knew there were certain books I needed to have with me should I wake up, inconsolable, in a hotel room on the other side of the country. And so, many books crossed state lines, their spines shifting in mile-high altitudes and time zones. I wrangled slim volumes of poetry into my camera bag, which was stuffed with lenses, notebooks, and a watercolor set.

I began thinking of books and geography, literally and psychically. I considered how landscapes affected my mood and how, of course, a voracious grief devoured everything. Sometimes I’d get frustrated because I couldn’t remember names of favorites characters or the way those characters in those books had once made me feel, so I’d go back and reread them. And, in my travels, I often looked out for marvelous independent bookstores where I would then pick up more books, often shipping them back to Brooklyn when I realized I’d be charged at the airport for being over the weight restrictions.

While working on a photography project in Oxford, Miss., last summer I reread William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Eudora Welty’s On Writing. I’d also carried around Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems, edited by Kevin Young, because I was working on photographs about black women’s bodies, identities, and the presence and interruption of landscape in terms of blackness.

This journey made me pick up a second or third copy of Roger Reeves’s King Me because I ended up driving down to Money, Miss., and further into the Delta. King Me made me go searching for Jean Toomer’s Cane and Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road. Hurston’s grace and excellence sent me back, gratefully, into the words of Henry Dumas, Langston Hughes, and Robert Hayden.

While I was in Portland, I caught up with Matthew Dickman but was so shy about meeting him I forgot to ask him to sign the hardcover of Mayakovsky’s Revolver I’d stashed in my rental car. And when I traveled down to Santa Fe to teach at IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts), I dove again into Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song and read Jessica Jacobs’s Pelvis with Distance because I was in Georgia O’Keeffe country. I’m still working through O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz’s letters, My Faraway One, and made some serious dents in it this year.

I’ve opened up Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to Véra and placed those two near each other, like constellations, in my reading stack. Speaking of women artists, I reread the Diary of Frida Kahlo and Hayden Herrera’s biography of Frida Kahlo because I curated the Poetry Society of America’s Poetry Walk for the New York Botanical Garden’s astonishing exhibition “Frida Kahlo: Art Garden Life.” Lucky for me, I got to spend lots and lots of time with the poetry of Octavio Paz, one of my favorites!

A dear friend just sent me a copy of Larry Levis’s The Darkening Trapeze. Literally, I’ve been hiding out in my house to devour it in one sitting, which obviously led to a second sitting so I could read the entire book aloud. But I had to leave my house eventually, so Levis has been riding the subways with me. We’re great company for each other.

Reading Levis, of course, made me pick up Philip Levine’s What Work Is again and that somehow made me pull out W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and Jack Gilbert. When I journeyed to Vermont for the Brattleboro Festival, I cried at a moving tribute for Galway Kinnell and that made me buy another copy of The Book of Nightmares, which made me stay up all night in my hotel room reading aloud, remembering once how I’d been fortunate enough to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with Kinnell and so many other poets like Cornelius Eady and Marilyn Nelson and Martín Espada. And I think it was over 90 degrees out and Bill Murray walked across that day with us too.  Anyway, Kinnell pushed me toward Seamus Heaney and Czesław Miłosz. Throw in Tomas Tranströmer and Amiri Baraka’s SOS: 1961 – 2013, and somehow eventually I’m holding Federico García Lorca, who is always near, and whose words also travel with me on trains, planes, and dreams.

When I read poetry I’ll sometimes take down several poets who may or may not be speaking clearly to one another in some tone or mood or style. It helps me hear each of them even more clearly.

Finally, I think, if there’s time, the last two things I hope to read (again) before 2016 arrives will be Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and the letters of Vincent Van Gogh.

As I sit here looking at the bookshelves crammed with new books, I simply sigh in joy and think, too, of the stacks of books at my visual art studio nearby. This year I’m a reader for something for PEN, which means in the last months I’ve read over 50 books by writers of color, including poetry, fiction, and non fiction. Thinking just of that list alone, there are far too many books this year for me to include here. How wonderful! We’re all better for it!

So, here, quickly, are some more titles, both old and new, that changed me, whether by their grief, their beauty, their joy, their violence, their ambition, their desire, their imagination, their history, or future, but always, by their truth and courage:

Ross Gay, Unabashed Catalogues of Gratitude
Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn; Lighthead
Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine
Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things
Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus
Jack Gilbert, Collected
Carl Phillips, Reconnaissance
Nicholas Wong, Crevasse
Vievee Francis, Forest Primeval
Kyle Dargan, Honest Engine
Nick Flynn, My Feelings
Tonya M. Foster, A Swarm of Bees in High Court
Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn
Jonathan Moody, Olympic Butter Gold
Margo Jefferson, Negroland
Chris Abani, Song for Night
Rick Barot, Chord
Major Jackson, Roll Deep
Yesenia Montilla, The Pink Box
Randall Horton, Hook
Parneshia Jones, Vessel
Ellen Hagan, Hemisphere
Yusef Komunyakaa, The Emperor of Water Clocks
Audrey Niffenegger, Raven Girl
Michael Klein, When I Was a Twin
Patti Smith, M Train
Marie Cardinal, The Words to Say It
Dawn Lundy Martin, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life
Michel Archimbaud, Francis Bacon: In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud
Paul Beatty, The Sellout
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping; Lila
Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite, War of the Encyclopaedists
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer
Marie Mockett, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye
Herta Müller, The Hunger Angel
Naomi Jackson, The Star Side of Bird Hill
Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

More from A Year in Reading 2015

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A Year in Reading: Summer Brennan

They say it is a symptom of aging when one begins to see historic catastrophe looming in the events of the world. “Times are bad,” Cicero is supposed to have said in the first century B.C. “Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.” I’m not the first to remark that this same Ciceroian sentiment sums up plenty of recent articles to the tune of Millennials, amirite tho? All the same, sometimes the center really cannot hold. Things do fall apart. The widening ocean gyre turns and turns and is full of plastic. What if the falcon really cannot hear the falconer? And what rough and bloviating beast, with fake tan and tawny comb-over, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

It is when the passionate intensity of the world’s worst aspects gets too much that I turn to the conviction of books. When I decided to take the books that had the biggest impact on me this year down from the shelf and lay them like tiles on the bedspread, I noticed a theme. They were all, in some way or other, about our broken world. Taken together, they formed a kind of atlas, articulating the wounded geography of the Earth’s subtle body: the Republic of Community, the Sea of Politics, the United States of Racism and Rape Culture, the Desert of Personal Tragedy, and the Empire of Environmental Loss.

It went like this.

I read Eula Biss’s On Immunity early in the year. Although it is ostensibly about vaccination, like all excellent nonfiction it transcends its stated focus. It is about community, and how we imagine the boundaries between self and other, between “us” and “not us.”  It addresses our human permeability and the fact that no matter how much we may seek to isolate ourselves, even at the most basic biological level we as human beings are all in the same boat.

Speaking of community, I also read Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary. As someone familiar with the politics and history of the Middle East, I am sometimes asked if I can recommend “the one book” a person might read who wished to understand the region better. I will now recommend this book. It isn’t perfect, but it is a good place to start.

On the environment, I read four books that worked especially well when taken in chorus. They were: Waste by Brian Thill, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, and Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them, by Donovan Hohn. Thill describes types of human detritus, from excess browser tabs cluttering our laptop screens to the radioactive byproducts of nuclear energy that will be dangerous long after the demise of everything else we have ever created. Kolbert takes the reader on a tour through the shrinking biosphere, and Klein delineates the forces of greed that lie behind its destruction. Hohn’s Melvillian odyssey brings an essential element of the personal — the frail, the tender, the humane — to what is so often sweepingly abstract about the ecological wars we are waging.

I read Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, back-to-back in about 48 hours; both, in their own way, a kind of manifesto. I read the first with nodding recognition, and the second with a deepening sense of what my privilege as a white person has shielded me from. I recommend them as companion works.

I loved the novel Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi, which consists of many different ways to tell the same story, or variations on a theme. I was floored by it for similar reasons that I loved a retrospective of the painter Gerhard Richter I saw at MoMA many years ago: the use of multiple styles in an attempt to find the truth. Richter is an artist whose work has taken so many different forms, from abstract pigments scraped across a canvas to the most impressive photorealism.  When all viewed together, his works look like many different attempts to break into the same room, by a person so intent on reaching it that he’ll try anything. The nature of this room that he’s trying to break into by any means necessary remains something of a mystery; its opacity is not entirely breached. So too, with Mr. Fox. Still, the sheer inexhaustibility of the attempts suggests the transcendent importance of whatever lies, or crouches or, probably, glows within its locked walls. This is how I felt reading Oyeyemi, once I got a sense of what she was playing at.

I want to say that I’ve included Mr. Fox here because it is a kaleidoscopic take on love and pain; that the whole world is a kaleidoscope of love and pain, of beauty and nothingness, problem and solution. I want to say that our view of it is kaleidoscopic, the colors tumbling and rearranging themselves with each turn of the lens. The theme of my reading this year was of our tumbling, broken world, yes, but also of the light that fills it. This light was perhaps best expressed in H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. The scope may seem small: one person, existing in the physical world, while trying to cope with the loss of another person. But it isn’t small. Because what good are empires, or politics, or the Earth itself, if we do not have the ones we love beside us? Things fall apart, it’s true. But it was cathartic to run through the dark, wet forest with Macdonald and her goshawk, Mabel, and to come out into the light again; one falconer at least who brought her wild bird to heel.

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A Year in Reading: Katie Coyle

For the first five months of this year I was too deliriously happy to pay much attention to anyone’s written words, including my own. I was pregnant, due in August. Though I knew when our daughter was born I’d read and write much less for a while, focusing my time and energy on her, I made only halfhearted stabs at parenting literature both practical (Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé) and philosophical (Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work). I gave up on other literature almost entirely. Most of what I read those months I read on the August 2015 Babycenter.com birth board, where other mothers with babies expected the same month as mine gathered to share their weird anxieties and basic biological ignorance. I forget now too much of what it felt like to be cheerfully, healthily pregnant with that so loved, so desired child. But I remember the Babycenter posts of other women like scraps of weird poetry recited in old dreams: will Kraft mac and cheese / make my kid dumber? If you live in a haunted house while pregnant / will your baby be the ghost reincarnated? We found out it was a girl and / my husband went outside to vomit.

Our daughter was not born in August. Her heart developed weirdly, wrongly, and she was stillborn in May. For the past six months I’ve been tending not to the baby I’d anticipated, but to the sorrow of having lost her, as tangible and time-consuming a presence as any tiny person. To say I’ve been miserable this year is both overstatement and understatement — because I have many good days, more good days than bad ones, and yet when the bad ones arrive they can sometimes seem so dark as to be almost unendurable.

To endure them, I read. I read Edith Wharton, detective novels, memoirs by chefs. The Night Circus. Frankenstein. Elena Ferrante, who left me embarrassingly cold. (As if grief were not isolating enough, I am apparently the only literary feminist of my acquaintance who is inexplicably immune to Ferrante Fever). I read the copy of Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time that my wonderful agent sent me — a witty, absorbing book in which no one feels too bad for too long. P.G. Wodehouse, Meg Wolitzer, Nancy Mitford, countless YA novels, cookbooks, chick lit. The Middlesteins. Dept. of Speculation. Rules of Civility. A Visit from the Goon Squad. In every one of these books I looked for, and in nearly all I found, shades of the awful, comforting truth: everyone despairs; nearly everyone survives.

Some books were more explicit about this than others, and these I devoured, though reading them felt sometimes like pressing down hard on a bruise. Matthew Baker’s melancholy and clever middle grade novel, If You Find This, follows a young narrator who confides in a tree in his backyard that he believes contains the soul of his stillborn brother — I waited anxiously for another character to disabuse him of this notion, but, kindly, no one ever does. Elizabeth McCracken’s story collection Thunderstruck captures the mundane and the surreal of grief, such as “the people who believed that not mentioning sadness was a kind of magic that could stave off the very sadness you didn’t mention — as though grief were the opposite of Rumpelstiltskin and materialized only at the sound of its own name.” Before this year, such a sentence might not have even registered with me — but by the time I read it, a few weeks after my daughter’s death, after the initial rally of support gave way to a lot of uncomfortable silence, I heard in it the delicious snap of truth. (I’m still reading, very slowly, McCracken’s memoir of her own stillbirth, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, and have never felt so grateful for a book I’m too tender, most days, to open). And for the first time, I waded my way through T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, a more haunting book than I’d expected, in which Merlyn prescribes for Wart the best cure for sadness: “Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”

I’d found my way to White through Helen Macdonald’s beautiful H Is for Hawk, a book that’s part hawking manual, part literary biography of T.H. White, and part meditation on grief. Macdonald writes about her experience training a goshawk, one of nature’s most vicious predators, in the wake of her father’s death; she interweaves this narrative with one of White’s own emotional pain and falconry. It’s a strange book — crisply written, funny, and wrenching, unlike anything I’ve ever read before. But this year, it also happened to be intensely familiar to me. “There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things,” Macdonald writes. “And then there comes a day when you realize…that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses.” Like Macdonald, my loss made me feel disconnected from the world I’d once inhabited. I thought of myself as a Grief Monster: a creature too sad and angry to be rightly categorized as human, unable to appreciate simple pleasures, sent into a tailspin at the sight of other mothers’ healthy babies. I could not imagine feeling normal around other people again; I could not imagine wanting to. Macdonald channeled her Grief Monsterhood into the wild, into her hawk, longing somewhat more than wistfully to achieve the bird’s isolation, her self-sufficiency. It doesn’t work that way, Macdonald finds, nor should it: “Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.”

Even before I was pregnant with her, when she was nothing more or less than a dream my husband and I shared of a cozy, sunny future, we’d given our first child a code name: Hawkeye. It was partly a nod to the Marvel superhero as written by Matt Fraction, mostly an homage to my husband’s love for M*A*S*H. We called her Hawk for short. We figured when she was born we’d give her a “real” name; we had one chosen and ready, but through what we then considered silly superstition, we never said it out loud much. When she died, it became impossible to think of her as anything but Hawk — impossible to separate the real, sweet, three-pound baby we’d held for a few quiet hours early on a morning in May from her infinite and unrealized potential. We’d imagined too many happy possibilities for the girl with the other name. For ourselves. So Hawkeye was the name we shared with the diplomatically unperturbed nurse who asked; Hawkeye was the name we wrote on the death certificate. Hawk is the name we call her still and always. It’s a word that can’t help but mean more to me now. Bird, daughter. Love, loss. Despair. Survival. Losing Hawk helped me understand that I remain stubbornly, sublimely human even when I’m hurting. Thanks to H Is for Hawk, her name reminds me that I want to be. Macdonald writes of dreams she’d had after her father died, anxious dreams in which a hawk glided out of her sight:

I had thought for a long while that I was the hawk — one of those sulky goshawks able to vanish into another world, sitting high in the winter trees. But I was not the hawk, no matter how much I pared myself away, no matter how many times I lost myself in blood and leaves and fields. I was the figure standing underneath the tree at nightfall, collar upturned against the damp, waiting patiently for the hawk to return.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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A Year in Reading: Viet Thanh Nguyen

Did I read António Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World this year? Probably. I know I read it several times from 2011 to 2013 when I used it as my touchstone for writing my own novel. If most literature is weak coffee, and really good literature is excellent coffee, this book is a series of espresso shots. I could only read it a few pages at a time. The anger and sadness are intense and the imagery is wholly original and hypnotic in this account of a young medic in Portugal’s brutal colonial war in Angola. I’m going to keep talking about this book until someone tells me they’ve read it.

I definitely read Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. I never would have read it except that my publisher put out the American edition, which became a bestseller. Who wants to read about a woman who turns to training a fierce goshawk in order to deal with her father’s death? Not me. But Macdonald takes this premise and turns it into a rich exploration of grief, nature, and the wild.

Recently I re-read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen in order to teach it to my graduate seminar. Even the second time around, I felt myself pinned down by the power of Rankine’s language, politics, and vision. As for my graduate students, they loved it. Half the class were doctoral students working on literary critical projects. The other half were poets or fiction writers working on creative dissertations. Rankine’s book spoke to both the critical and creative worlds equally well.

Finally, I was delighted and thrilled to find Vu Tran’s Dragonfish, which I consumed in a couple of evenings. It’s a literary detective story about a cop in search of his ex-wife at the behest of the ex-wife’s new gangster boyfriend. The ex-wife is also a Vietnamese refugee with a traumatic history. Tran’s book merges thriller and the so-called ethnic story into one powerful and highly readable book. Plus we were both reviewed in The New York Times in the same week, which proves that two so-called ethnic authors of the same background can exist in the same space and not overwhelm the literary establishment.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

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A Year in Reading: Rahawa Haile

In 2015, I simultaneously managed to read more and less than I have in the past decade. I ran a Twitter project called Short Story of the Day where I scoured literary journals and shared hundreds of short stories by underrepresented writers. I squeezed in a few novels and nonfiction books in an effort to stay balanced. I inhaled Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, which rested at the intersection of grief and obsession while I grappled with my own. At the start of the year I read Carola Dibbell’s novel The Only Ones; if one book has stayed with me through the year’s constant zagging, it is hers. I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and grew and learned and seethed and saw myself reflected and was all the better for it. I hunted for black voices reading black words. I downloaded the audiobook of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man because someone had the good idea to ask Joe Morton to narrate it. I discovered, somewhat late, that Toni Morrison reads all of her own audiobooks; I enjoyed a tremendous two weeks with God.

The rest was mostly comics, many on Image, almost all of them featuring people of color saving my mental health. Material, Bitch Planet, and Ms. Marvel continued to create incredible fissures in the parts of my life I thought had been permanently caulked with resignation and despair. I read Injection, Trees, ODY-C, and Descender and found air while otherwise floating in the vacuum of the internet.

The final batch of books I read this year was in preparation for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike attempt next March. They had sexy titles such as Fixing Your Feet: Prevention and Treatments for Athletes, Underfoot: A Geologic Guide to the Appalachian Trail, and Backcountry Bear Basics: The Definitive Guide to Avoiding Unpleasant Encounters. I am trying my hardest to minimize failure and death this coming year. I look forward to being a voracious reader again in 2017 in whatever remains of the country.

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Joy & Wonder & Goshawks

“Joy and wonder. That’s at the heart of what I love about the natural world. If you’re receptive to it, it does something to human minds that nothing else can do.” Electric Literature talks with Helen MacDonald about living with, and like, a goshawk. Pair with Madeleine Larue’s Millions review of MacDonald’s H is for Hawk.

Choosing Not to Flee: On Helen Macdonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’

Knowing how to make yourself disappear does not serve you well in life, writes Helen Macdonald, unless you are attempting to train a hawk. When there is a goshawk on her arm, a huge bird of prey who has no experience with the human world and who is staring at her in absolute terror, Macdonald can make herself invisible. Holding a chunk of raw steak in her hand, her goal is to get the hawk to forget about her, to forget the terror, and eat. “But the space between the fear and the food is a vast, vast gulf,” she writes, “and you have to cross it together.” To do that, you must disappear: you empty your mind, you remain still, you “think of exactly nothing at all.” You gradually expand your invisibility to cover everything in the room except the food, which you squeeze slightly. When the hawk begins to eat, you may, very slowly, reappear.

A professor of mine introduced me to that idea a couple of years ago; for him, the process of crossing a “vast gulf” while negotiating your own visibility was akin to the process of translation (a word which means, in fact, “to carry across”). As it appears in Macdonald’s new book, H is for Hawk, the scene serves as a metaphor of a different, though related, kind: as a journey from death into life, from absence into presence. It is no accident that this journey is mediated by a bird of prey. In many of the world’s mythic traditions, hawks are cast as the messengers of the gods and the companions of the soul on its voyage to the afterlife. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the ba (the immortal part of the soul) departs the body in the shape of a hawk.

The goshawk, in Macdonald’s scene of invisibility, represents a bridge between two worlds: fear and food, death and life. Like many books about hawks, H is for Hawk begins on the side of death. Macdonald’s father passes away suddenly in the book’s first pages, and the author finds herself before a vast gulf of grief. Sorrow is not a rational problem and cannot be solved by rational means; as a poet and falconer, Macdonald seeks out a poetic, avian remedy to her pain. Soon after her father’s death, she starts dreaming of hawks “all the time.” She orders a goshawk from Northern Ireland, and when it arrives, she sets it on her arm and turns invisible.

Read symbolically, Macdonald’s act of disappearance becomes much more than an effective training technique; it becomes a deliberate act of surrender to the unconscious, an appeal to a shadow guide. Erasing yourself for the sake of a hawk is one way of learning that you must disappear before you can be present in your own life.

H is for Hawk is not a mystical book, but it is one of those rare works of non-fiction that stand up to a metaphorical reading. The echoes of myth in Macdonald’s writing, however subtle and unobtrusive, lend her book an emotional weight usually reserved only for literature, and a grace only for poetry. But this is one of the book’s great achievements: to belong to several genres at once, and to succeed at all of them. The narrative includes elements from memoir, biography, and natural history, with some chapters exploring the human history of Macdonald’s English landscape and others turning inward, toward Macdonald herself and her ghostly counterpart, the writer T.H. White. Translating between them, guiding the reader as it once guided lost souls, there is always the goshawk.

Of all birds of prey, the goshawk is the most difficult to train. Described by hawking manuals as “jumpy, fractious, unsociable,” goshawks are temperamental, prone to fits of “passing madness” in which they perch on a high tree branch and refuse to come down, resolutely ignoring the hopeless humans who wait for them below. They have never been domesticated and never even truly tamed. More than any other bird, they seem to embody the Romantic sublime, terrifying and magnificent at once: Macdonald describes her own hawk as “a dinosaur pulled from the Forest of Dean” and “something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.”

Though a highly accomplished falconer, Macdonald writes that, before her father’s death, she had never wanted to train a goshawk. She preferred peregrines, which her books assured her were “the finest bird[s] on earth.” “It took me years,” she says, “to work out that this glorification of falcons was partly down to who got to fly them.” The falcon is a rich man’s bird: flying a peregrine requires huge amounts of space, a luxury traditionally only available to aristocrats with large country estates. A goshawk, by contrast, can be flown anywhere, and were therefore popular among those without wealth or connections. These solitary trainers, known as austringers, were disdained by the aristocratic falconer community, cursed for “hat[ing] company and go[ing] alone at their sport.” The goshawk is the bird of the temporary exile, and Macdonald was not the first to seek it out in lieu of human company. Indeed, no sooner has she decided to man a goshawk than her eyes start avoiding a particular book in her study, “second shelf down. Red cloth cover. Silver-lettered spine.”

The book is T.H. White’s The Goshawk, a record of the author’s attempt to train, as he put it, “a person who was not human, but a bird.” Written in 1936, though not published until 1951, the book was condemned as a falconer’s checklist of what not to do. White had never trained a hawk before; he was inexperienced, he was using manuals centuries out of date, and he unintentionally caused his hawk, a tiercel (male) named Gos, a great deal of suffering. Macdonald had read The Goshawk as a hawk-obsessed child and found it infuriating. And yet, as soon as she has arranged for a Gos of her own, she unconsciously reaches out to this author who, like herself, wanted to disappear.

The brilliant but “unfashionable” writer best known for his Arthurian saga The Once and Future King, Terence Hanbury White was, in Macdonald’s words, “one of the loneliest men alive.” Homosexual and self-loathing, with a sadistic streak, White spent much of his energy trying to flee from humanity. His two great refuges were writing and the outdoors. The Goshawk was his first book as a full-time author; despite its failings as a work of falconry, it is a marvelous piece of literature. Macdonald reads it several times in the months she spends with her own hawk, and observes that “every time it seemed a different book; sometimes a caustically funny romance, sometimes the journal of a man laughing at failure, sometimes a heartbreaking tract of another man’s despair.”

Though H is for Hawk is not intended to be a biography of White, Macdonald explains, “I have to write about him because he was there.” Some of her reasons for sequestering herself with a goshawk, she realizes, are not her own but White’s; and though the personalities and experiences of the two writers are quite different, there is still a strange kinship between them. “Like White I wanted to cut loose from the world,” Macdonald writes, “and I shared, too, his desire to escape to the wild, a desire that can rip away all human softness and leave you stranded in a world of savage, courteous despair.” Here, too, the goshawk is the messenger between the living and the dead: across the gulf of time, Macdonald finds in White a companion, a point of reference, an object of study, and her own foil.

White lived in constant fear. He feared the cruelty of his homophobic, militaristic society, and, especially, the cruelty he felt within himself. He knew that enjoyed inflicting pain and he hated himself for it, and so always took great care to be gentle. (Of Sir Lancelot, his double, White wrote: “He felt in his heart cruelty and cowardice, the things which made him brave and kind.”) White wanted desperately to be good, but believed goodness was only possible away from his fellow man. Spending time with Gos, a “person who was not human,” was the only way he could tolerate his own humanity. Training Gos offered him a chance to confront his own darkness and not merely repress it; one of the many ways to read The Goshawk, Macdonald says, is as a war, where, through Gos, White “battled the dictator in himself.” White ultimately lost that battle; perhaps he failed to recognize Gos as his guide, and instead mistook him for his enemy, albeit a much-loved one.

Macdonald, though she, too, yearns to leave her weaknesses behind, never sees her own hawk as an adversary. She understands that her hawk is not only the individual she has named Mabel, but a tangle of many centuries’ worth of human associations. “So much of what she means is made of people,” Macdonald muses. Shortly afterward, she discovers that Mabel likes to play; she likes the sound of crinkled paper, and she shakes in bird-laughter when Macdonald calls to her through a rolled magazine telescope. The revelation is a delight, yet it fills Macdonald with an “obscure shame.” “I had a fixed idea of what a goshawk was,” she writes, “…and it was not big enough to hold what goshawks are. No one had ever told me goshawks played. It was not in the books. I had not imagined it was possible.”

But writers know better than most that books cannot always be trusted. Books urge us to flee to the wild when our hearts are broken; books, like John Muir’s, assure us that “Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.” Macdonald argues that our ideas of nature, like our ideas of goshawks, are too small, having more to do with ourselves than with the world around us. “I’d fled to become a hawk,” she writes, “but in my misery all I had done was turn the hawk into a mirror of me.” Here again, that ability to disappear, which Macdonald says serves her so badly elsewhere in life, proves crucial. When she makes herself invisible — suspending her ego, suspending the knowledge of books — she begins to understand what, in fact, she has been trying to do.

Macdonald’s dream of goshawks, her father’s death, her sudden renewed interest in White are all facets of a single desire: she wanted to help White recover what he had lost, because in the dark forest where his hawk was, there might her father be too. She sought out the hawk, the ancient companion of dead souls, “to find my father; find him and bring him home.”

One cannot go into the dark forest to recall anyone from death, however, but only to learn to accept death. The journey is over when the survivor consents to return to human life; Macdonald has to go into the wild to learn that the wild is not what she needs. In the end, she chooses not to flee and disappear: her hands, no longer invisible, “are for other human hands to hold.”

Avian Days

Buying a hawk isn’t the most common grief-coping mechanism, but it worked for Helen Macdonald, who purchased a predatory bird not long after her father passed away. Her new book, H is for Hawk, deals with the experience, in addition to being a falconry manual of sorts. At The Globe and Mail, an interview with the author.

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