Friday, January 7, 2022

H Is For Hawk


In these days of climate change and wholesale destruction of nature, we hang all hopes for the future on nature’s resilience.  That resilience is the theme underlying Helen Macdonald’s memoir H Is For Hawk (Grove Press, 2014).  Hers is a triangulated story shifting from her father’s death to the life of Arthurian legend writer T.H. White to Macdonald’s training of Mabel the goshawk, the medium-large raptor Accipiter gentilis of the title.  If these seem like strange bedfellows, Macdonald makes these transitions smoothly and by the end of the book, weaves a story of personal redemption and self-discovery that is both wise and profound.

T. H. White also wrote a book about raising and training a goshawk, and Macdonald turns to the celebrated author’s book as a guide for her own journey with Mabel.  He was not as prepared as Macdonald, and therefore his account is more fraught with difficulty and disappointment.  Yet he is a touchstone for Macdonald, a connection to an experience with an animal who has as much to teach her trainer as her trainer has to understand this predatory bird.  With a goshawk, however, there is no taming her nature; Macdonald, with great difficulty, simply trains the bird to follow her own instincts as a hunter of prey, and human and hawk learn to work as a unit on the hunt.

Macdonald’s father was a photojournalist who died in 2007.  She recounts his passing while on the job, and how she had to go with family members to pick up his belongings and find his car, which had been towed away when he did not return to pick it up while covering his final story.  Macdonald was very close to him, and the loss is almost overwhelming.  Part of her own training is to learn to live with loss and grief.  She recounts how her father taught her patience as the most important virtue.  He tells her that one must be willing to stay still and wait for her moment, much like a piece of reindeer moss can survive “just about anything the world throws at it” and remain resilient.  It is ironic that she finds herself staring at the moss when her mother informs her of her father’s passing.

The life of an Astringer—a solitary trainer of goshawks and sparrowhawks—is a lonely one, and Macdonald describes her daily life and routines with Mabel in poetic and deeply harmonic language.  The setting of the book is the Brecklands, a place known as the broken lands, and the area lives up to its name.  She clings to the words of Marianne Moore:  “The cure for loneliness is solitude.”  She tells us she has learned to hold tight and survive, much like the security of the jesses, leather straps that bind the hawk to the Astringer.  Her twin brother did not survive the difficult birth that brought Macdonald into the world.


Macdonald is so good at distilling the wisdom she absorbs from training Mabel.  She tells us there are two things she has learned about training hawks:  the Astringer must learn to become invisible, and the way to a hawk’s heart is through positive reinforcement with food.  Hawks are not social animals like dogs or horses.  They are predators, and their predatory nature is bred in their bones.  She equates training goshawks with “white-knuckle jobs” as described by her father.  These are dangerous journalism assignments.  Her father’s defense against the fear is to “look through the viewfinder” and stop being involved.  Instead, become the witness.  “All that exists is a square of finely ground glass and the world seen through it,” he tells her.  His advice in stressful, dangerous situations is to be mindful of “exposure and depth of field and getting the shot you hope for.”  Macdonald sees her father’s work in each photograph as “a record, a testament, a bulwark against forgetting, against nothingness, against death.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson
Rooted in her father’s philosophy is one that Macdonald also discovers in nature when training Mabel.  The world is forever; we are only a blink in its course.  Macdonald references Henri Cartier-Bresson, the great French street photographer, and his photographs of a decisive moment.  A good photograph means being open to all life offers and in an intuitive moment, click the shutter to capture.  If one misses the moment, it is gone forever.  Our lesson is to live in that moment—no past, no future, only the here and now.

Throughout the book, Macdonald’s writing is poetic and beautiful.  She writes:  “There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things.  And then comes a day when you realize that is not how it will be at all.  You see that life will become a thing made of holes.  Absences.  Losses.  Things that were there and are no longer.  And you realize, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”

 She also does not neglect the mythological elements of hawks and falcons, one that has played out over millennia:  in ancient shamanic traditions in Eurasian cultures, “hawks and falcons were seen as messengers between this world and the next.”  Mabel comes into Helen Macdonald’s life right at a time of need, and in working with this intense and intelligent animal, she finds peace and purpose in her life.  She illuminates a culture that most of us never experience:  training a fierce and intense goshawk to hunt with her human counterpart.  In the end, Macdonald comes to understand the overwhelming grief and loss inherent in this life.  Her story is extraordinary and extraordinarily beautiful.


Saturday, December 4, 2021

Difficult Light

One cannot discuss Tomas Gonzalez’s work without invoking the name of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  In Gonzalez’s novel, Difficult Light (Archipelago Books, 2020), the influence is evident in his narrator, David, an aging artist and writer who has suffered a lifetime of tragedy and now lives out his days in central Colombia. He reflects on the ghosts that haunt him and the inescapable certainty that in blindness, his best work as an artist is behind him.  He can no longer paint due to macular degeneration and has turned to slow and painstaking writing with his fountain pen and magnifying glass, leaving pages of his life for his housekeeper to organize.  This spare and beautifully written novel is full of requiem and solitude and loss.

In the period of middle-age from which the central storyline is told, David and his wife Sara face a tragedy all parents fear: the impending death of their son, Jacobo, a young man suffering greatly from the horrific pain of an accident that has left him paralyzed.  He and his brother, Pablo, embark on a final journey from New York to Oregon, where Jacobo has decided to commit assisted suicide.  David and Sara wait by the phone, a hopeless and helpless vigil because they cannot accompany their sons due to the legal ramifications of what is to come; however, they support his wish to escape the unrelenting agony of his daily life.

These scenes are intercut with David as an old, nearly blind man living in Colombia without Sara, who has died.  He walks in solitude through the gardens and orchards she tended, a silent memory of the scope and shape of his life, his family, his work.

In his private reflections, David finds unbearable truths.  “It’s a cruel cliché,” Gonzalez writes, that “the last thing you lose is hope.”  Pain is a constant and unrelenting companion, embodied in the physical suffering of Jacobo and the spiritual suffering of his father.  Gonzalez fills his novel with the quiet sorrow of his characters.  Their moments of relief are all too fleeting:  massages help free Jacobo for brief periods so he can find sleep; the substance of David’s memories of Sara and their love bring some comfort to his bereaved state.

Gonzalez lingers on a quiet meditation of summer and light, something that is slipping away from his narrator.  David reflects that  “it was summer and the days were long.  In summer at a certain point you have the illusion that the days last forever.  I didn’t want night to come, because then I’d have to acknowledge that time was passing; that life was passing over us, crushing us with its wheels and gears.”

He has the epiphany that “Affliction is not motionless; it is fluid and unstable, and its flames, which are not orange and red but blue, and sometimes a horrible pale green, torment you sometimes on one side of the body and sometimes the other, sometimes forcefully gripping your whole body until you find yourself silently screaming like that Munch painting where a person is wailing on a bridge.”

This is the torturous physical pain of Jacobo and the psychic pain of his father, and neither can be ameliorated in this life.  They must be accepted as the human condition—our lives are both torment and triumph over the torment.  Jacobo describes his pain as someone “punching him endlessly in the stomach” or “crushing his toes in a vise.”  These are pains from regions where the nerves have been severed, yet the pain persists.  In this life, pain is inescapable.

In this quiet, elegiac reverie, while waiting for the inevitable death, we get to the heart of the human condition:  to live in the realm of sorrow and suffering.  Indeed, life is suffering, but it is in his memories of making love to Sara that David finds redemption.  We love each other physically, spiritually, and in the end, that love will bring us home.

Jim Morrison of the Doors gave us the lyric, “No one here gets out alive.”  Tomas Gonzalez begins his novel with William Blake’s words:  “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is:  infinite,” from which the Doors took their name.  Both have purchase in this discussion of Difficult Light:  if we are creatures fated to move from existence to oblivion, we must reckon with the clarity that only comes at the end of our journey.  It is only in retrospection and reflection that we understand how and why we’ve lived.


Friday, November 26, 2021


In our lives, we are all the keepers of stories.  These narratives tell us where we came from and who we are.  They also hint, for the young, at who we will become.

Yesterday, we gathered with family for Thanksgiving.  We told stories, some old and often repeated down through the years, and some new and tinged with sepia sadness at those no longer present, who live on only in our memories.  They are our recent losses, those of blessed memory.  Of course, we were also creating stories in present tense, right then and there:  my grand-niece’s first Thanksgiving.  Stories multiply and branch out from other stories to become trees reaching down to the past and up to the future.

As I watched people, I could read them as stories.  Or, at the very least, I could imagine them as characters in a larger fabric of our existence:  a crazy quilt of many colors, a host of fall-colored autumnal trees, strong and true.

Then, last night, I dreamed I told too many stories.  I had revealed too much, giving away secrets and the keys to the kingdom.  I awoke before the consequences of my storytelling were known.

But to reach maximum velocity, a story must put someone at risk:  the characters, the narrator, the storyteller.  Conflict and jeopardy rule the day in a good story.  They are the building blocks, the central core of any narrative, in truth or imagination.  Therefore, a storyteller must be brave.  We cannot tremble in darkness, nor should we shun the light.  Stand tall and simply tell it straight and true.  Relish the recitation; revel in its revealing detail.  The story is us.  And the keeper of stories is a trust sacred to this world.  For the storytellers and the stories, we give thanks.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Dear Memory


In this haunting and luminous work, Victoria Chang gives us a series of epistles and found collages to address the melancholic remembrances of things past.  Dear Memory:  Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief (Milkweed Editions, 2021) is an elegy and lament for the dead and gone:  her ancestors, her teachers, and friends.  She quotes poet Mary Jo Bang:  “What is an elegy but the attempt / To rebreathe life / Into what the gone once was…”  The book is filled with light and shadow, the pneuma of humanity and the human condition.  More poetry than prose, the book is a connotative tour de force of what it means to be alive and to live with the breath of memory and regret.

Chang is a poet, a teacher, and program chair in the Creative Writing Department at Antioch University.  She believes in writing that puts language at risk, allowing words to build into something beyond the self.  She asks:  “Can I be the hawk and the storm that tries to murder the hawk?”  The question is fraught with danger.  She confronts and sifts through memory and goes directly to how our lives often play out in the blood, the DNA of who we are, and what we do with our brief time in this human epoch.  She documents the sorrow and grace of her existence, both visually and in words.  “Perhaps something never happened if no one remembers it,” she writes.  “Perhaps there’s no truth.  Just memory and words.”

Coupled with her words are these haunting collages, many composed of documents and paper fragments of her past.  She writes dialogue with her mother directly in the spaces on each picture as if conducting an interview.  Other collages are family photographs, some with faces etched out as if demonstrating how they dwell in the shadows of her history.  Collectively, the collages tell the parallel story; they weave into and out of the word-epistles.  The letters and the collages are rare jewels.  They both enhance and magnify the threads that bind the story together from word to image.  Her poet’s sense of the spare and lyrical is ever-present in the art and the words.

Often, Chang’s language stuns us with its beauty and insight.  “Maybe our desire for the past grows after the decay of our present, she writes.  “When the present is more than we can hold, it turns into history.  And the future turns into water.  The water between your countries.”  It is this water that her family journeyed over to find their destiny.  Chang feels her place in America, but the book she creates also pays homage to those who made that journey and who, in turn, made her a unique part of a new nation, a new home.  This is an immigrant story, and Chang pays artful attention to this most American of ideas.  She wonders if memory is different for immigrants, “for people who leave so much behind.  Memory isn’t something that blooms but something that bleeds internally, something to be stopped.  Memory hides because it isn’t useful.”  It is clearly the calling of the poet-artist to bring the memory forward, to shine light, muted or harsh, to illuminate the darkness of experience, of grief, of sorrow, of regret.

There are gaps in her family history that she does not fully understand and wants to explore.  Memories, dreams, reflections, all kaleidoscope together in the form of questions she did not ask at the time, or did not find the answers to later.  “The things that didn’t matter at the time are often the most urgent questions after someone has died,” she writes.

She devotes much to a discussion of silence and grief.  What is not said speaks volumes.  It is silence that cannot be undone, and in that way, Chang tells us, it is like death.  The story ends when no one remembers the words, the people in the photographs, the significance of things.  But the dead are wise.  They know things.  “By the time we die,” Chang writes, “we know everything we need to know.”  Those of us left behind must wonder what the dead have taken with them.  It is up to the living to remember the strands of the story and continue it.

Chang circles back to writing at the end.  She recognizes that dragging a “not-yet-ready memory” into the light is often painful.  It is difficult and lacerating.  “More and more,” she writes, “I think writing is not a choice but an act of patience.  An act of listening to silence, into silence.”  It is in silence that, paradoxically, we hear voices.  In silence, we communicate with the dead, with our own souls, and where the world is still enough to hear our own breath rushing in and out of our lives.  It takes bravery and courage to listen to the silences and become aware.  Victoria Chang models such heroism for us, and the result is a shimmering and beautiful book.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Anvils, Mallets & Dynamite

Jaime Weinman, in his book Anvils, Mallets & Dynamite:  The Unauthorized Biography of Looney Tunes (Sutherland House, 2021) takes a deep dive into the legendary and wildly popular Warner Brothers cartoons created between 1930 and 1963 featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester and Tweety, and the irrepressible Foghorn Leghorn among a host of others.  The cartoons were created to be the hors d’oeuvre to the main course of whatever Warner Brothers picture was scheduled at the local movie theater, but most of us of a certain age remember Bugs and company from Saturday mornings on one of the big three networks back in the day.

I have some specific memories of these beloved cartoons.  While my mother slept in, I would take some money from her purse and bike to the local Alta Dena bakery for a dozen chocolate and a dozen powdered donuts.  While my siblings and I munched away, we watched the Road Runner continually outwit Wile E. Coyote, leaving him smashed, bashed, and broken.  We watched while Bugs dressed as a woman to seduce the rather thick Elmer Fudd and send him off to hunt Daffy instead of Bugs, thoroughly convinced it was duck season instead of “wabbit” season.  No Beanie and Cecil for me, and Scooby Doo’s stoner act got old quickly.  Bugs Bunny, the trickster extraordinaire, never seemed tired.  Considering we were watching cartoons created in the 1940s and 1950s, our interest never waned even as we watched from the far future of the late 1960s and 70s.

Looney Tunes could be violent, and the popular characters rarely faced consequences for their actions, but we loved them.  Weinman theorizes that kids did not always connect with Looney Tunes characters “because we know that nothing has consequences for them, and they seem to know it too.”  I admired Bugs’ facility with words, his ability to con Porky or Elmer or Daffy, and always come out on top.  Rarely is he flustered or thrown off his game.  Weinman believes the cartoons adopted an “anything for a laugh” philosophy, which “isn’t what we expect of first-rate art.”  Is a cartoon first-rate art?  Arguably, yes!

Weinman goes on to write that “To celebrate the greatness of works of art, you have to acknowledge their limitations, the sides of the world that they don’t or can’t see.  Looney Tunes cartoons leave out a lot of human experience, and speak to only one kind of mood.  But what we ask of art is not that it tell us everything, but that it tell us something, that it have a style and a viewpoint that makes sense to us.  Every good Looney Tunes cartoon has that.”

The book offers a deep and well-researched history of the cartoons, along with how characters were perceived by the public, which ones became popular, and which ones were eventually phased out.  There were also several instances in their long history that characters were subtly, or even dramatically altered when different animation teams and producers took over.  Many of the most successful characters had speech impediments exploited for humor, something in our more careful age would not fly.  But these “vocal quirks” endeared them to audiences over generations.  It is also interesting to note which characters the studio thought would be the breakout stars.  For instance, they placed their faith in Daffy Duck as the definitive Looney Tunes cartoon character.  Of course, Bugs Bunny changed that.  The cartoons also attacked common themes in the culture, like hunting as a sign of manliness.  Porky Pig destroyed that fanciful notion, as did Elmer Fudd in his hunting cap, chasing both Bugs and Daffy with disastrous results.  However, Weinman points out that what makes Looney Tunes great is the ability of the writers and artists “to portray the maximum amount of comedy violence while still being charming, fun, family entertainment.”

Of course, the cartoons were produced during some of the most fraught times in the twentieth century, and they often reflected those crises specifically or tangentially.  When the cartoons were combined into packages and sold into syndication, several were removed for their overt racism.  They were singled out for their racist stereotypes and black-face gags, wholly inappropriate today and in the late 1960s and 1970s when they were a major block of Saturday morning programming for kids.

So what happened to Bugs and the gang?  Well, the syndication packages were divided and reassembled and then redivided again.  Many are available on YouTube.  Check your local listings, as the saying goes.  The characters did return to prominence in the Space Jam movies, the most successful project for Looney Tunes since the original Warner Brothers cartoon studio shut down.

If you are a fan of the cartoons, Jaime Weinman’s book is a must-have.  For the casual cartoon connoisseur, or someone who remembers the taste of chocolate and powdered donuts on a Saturday morning along with the telescoping concentric circles receding into the distance with “That’s all Folks!” that marked the end of each cartoon, this is an insightful and interesting book, as much about childhood and memory as American culture and a rabbit, who despite the odds, always came out on top, the trickster heading off into the sunset, on top of the world.