Monday, November 30, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Nov 30, Pamela Pierce on Melissa Faliveno, Twister, and Friday Night Lights


I came to Melissa Faliveno’s “The Finger of God,” the opening essay in Tomboyland, at the same time that I was re-watching every episode of Friday Night Lights on Hulu. Friday Night Lights lasted for five seasons on NBC and later DirectTV, from 2006-2011. The story centers on Dillon Panthers football coach Eric Taylor, his wife Tami, daughter Julie, the players, and the people of Dillon, Texas. Everyone has a story worth telling. The same is true of Faliveno’s Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. Like Dillon, Mount Horeb is a God-fearing, “blue-collar place dealing in livestock feed and John Deere tractors.” My attraction to “The Finger of God” and FNL partly emerges from the deep attention to place present in both works. Faliveno even delves below ground, highlighting the network of caves beneath the Driftless Area. In the summer of 2020, reading Faliveno and returning to Dillon provided much needed nostalgia and comfort as well. On my first reading of Tomboyland, I took a photo of this memory laden passage and texted it to my friend:

I was nine or ten when the obsession began. This was the dawn of a strange and inexplicable few years in my small-girl life when I couldn’t be interested in anything without being consumed by it. I was obsessed with the weather like I was obsessed with Pogs and pewter dragons fused to amethyst, with the Beatles and The Kids in the Hall and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS soundtrack. I tore through books about tornadoes, first at the public library and then at the Waldenbooks in the mall, thirty minutes away in Madison, where my mother and I drove on weekends. We spent hours in that tiny chain bookstore, where I snaked from the horror section to the nonfiction aisle, sitting on the floor with a stack of Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine and whatever slick new odes to destruction I could find. 

     Typing this paragraph out causes me to fall in love with it all over again. I’m taken back to my own trips to Waldenbooks with my mom at Tucson Mall. I dabbled in R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps as well but was really all about The Babysitter’s Club. I know Faliveno would have thoughts on that series as well. I remember all of the pewter dragons fused to amethyst at Coach House Gifts and the pleasure of collecting Pogs, even though I was never really sure how to play them. Faliveno’s use of the movie, Twister, as a contrast against the reality of the Midwest and the actual laws of science deepens the nostalgia pleasures and the love we all can have in the pop culture artifacts of our youth. 

I first watched Friday Night Lights with my parents when I was still living at home in Tucson and attending the University of Arizona. There’s a moment early in the controversial second season of FNL when the ever-attractive Tim Riggins says of Buddy Garrity, “He’s not a drunk. I know drunks. He’s just sad.” Tim helps Buddy into bed after a drunken appearance at a football team barbeque that was supposed to be held at Buddy’s car dealership and instead got held at a Texas ranch featuring a trophy room full of taxidermied mounts. This is real Texas. The sadness of Buddy Garrity, persistent team booster and wheeler and dealer of Dillon, Texas, is inherently relatable. 
     Faliveno first watched Twister in 1996, when she was thirteen years old. She immediately establishes her devotion to the film by saying that she saw it twice in theaters and she wore out her VHS copy, watching it until “the picture on our tube TV began to wobble and wave like it did during a storm.” Then come the facts: box office ($500 million), constant play on the USA Network, and Roger Ebert’s review. But none of that really matters, because Faliveno loved it and is still committed to it twenty years later. She admits the ridiculousness, while also calling out her favorite scenes. Some of these scenes are the same ones I remember. “Bill and Jo strapped to a pipe in the middle of a pasture, swinging in the wind in the dead center of an F5 and miraculously surviving.” Faliveno also gets my favorite thing about the film: Helen Hunt’s Jo. “Jo was smart, but she was also unstable; she was wild and willfull and reckless … She was a woman who ran directly into the storm, despite the desperate protestations of the men in her crew, who banged her fists against the chest of a man who wanted to protect her—from harm, from nature, from herself.” As a kid first watching Twister on the big screen, I wanted to be like Jo. Faliveno gets that. 

The second season of Friday Night Lights gets slammed by hardcore fans of the show for how gonzo the writers went, but I respect it for those same reasons. The season is most infamous for a murder storyline. Geeky Landry Clark, newly minted Dillon Panther (played by Jesse Plemons, his FNL work led to playing a psycho on Breaking Bad) takes a pole to Tyra’s attacker and hits him to death. Tyra is played by Adrianne Palicki, who at one time was in the running to become Wonder Woman. She’s tall, blonde, and verging on heroic. Landry’s own father comes to Applebee’s, gets Tyra as a server, and asks what she sees in him. He’s a cop too and begins to suspect it’s not Landry’s All-American good looks. Landry and Tyra dump the body in a river along with the inscribed watch that Landry’s grandfather gave him. They know the murder will be tied back to them. Friday Night Lights was supposed to be a wholesome small-town story about local football gods, not a murder suspense tale, but this was the season when anything could go, including a tornado. The most notable scene of “There Goes the Neighborhood,” the episode that includes the tornado, is that the weather event leads to Julie, daughter of Coach Taylor, getting to take shelter inside a grocery store with Tim Riggins, by far the hottest football player of them all. Riggins helps her get through the storm just fine. I may have wanted to be Jo from Twister running recklessly into the storm but taking shelter with Tim Riggins also held a lot of appeal. 
     It wasn’t until my second reading of “The Finger of God” that I started to appreciate what Faliveno does with the interviews of the people who survived the tornado that hit Barneveld, Wisconsin. Most powerfully, she interviews a mother whose son died in the tornado. For each interview, Faliveno describes where the conversation takes place, “Sue and I are sitting at a family restaurant in Mount Horeb. It’s after lunch on a weekday, so the place is empty. We take a booth by the window. I order iced tea and Sue gets a water.” The details of the interviews remind me of my own meals in midwestern small town restaurants. The interviews also serve to remind Faliveno of her own family members, illuminating the people that shaped her life.
     In the end, Coach Taylor and several of the Dillon Panthers leave Texas. Opportunities take them elsewhere, bigger cities, new adventures. Faliveno ends up in New York City asking her landlord if she could have access to the basement in case of tornadoes. Down to the last page of “The Finger of God,” Faliveno continues to inspire my memories. This time for the monsoon storms of my own youth in Tucson. She gets the enjoyment and excitement of weather, as well as the potential destruction. “It turns out, people who grew up on the coasts—those who don’t call March through July tornado season—don’t share the same thrilling fear that haunts me each spring.”  Faliveno, Landry Clark, and myself all left our hometowns, but we still look for the ticket back that an old favorite movie or a nostalgia infused essay offers. 


Pamela Pierce is the Digital Scholarship & Repository Librarian at Oregon Health & Science University. "Livin' Like Jagger: The Hardcore Life of a Digitizing Librarian" was published in RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage. She grew up in Tucson when people still hung out at malls. Park [Place?] Mall was her primary mall and Tucson Mall was saved for special occasions. She left her hometown and now lives in Portland, Oregon. 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Nov 29, Ander Monson on Living in the Delay

I write to thee, on the first day of liturgical Advent in the ever-elongating year 2020, of the usefulness of delay. I mean the feeling of being on a plane reading an Albert Goldbarth poem and coming across the title of a strange book in the poem and wondering: is it possible that this is actually a real book? And instead of punching it into google or amazon on my iPhone—because I’d have to pay the $14 for American’s janky wifi—having to, or, I suppose, choosing to stay in that suspended state of possibility for at least a couple hours rather than resolving it. 
     I mean to tell you that I loved that feeling of indeterminacy. There was a world in which the book mentioned in the poem was a real book, and there was a world in which it was just a poetic invention. I could feel myself existing in both of these two overlaid worlds for just a couple hours and not wanting that betweenness to end. I mean, I did want it to end in the sense that I wanted the answer, and I didn’t want to stay suspended on a plane as I was for another couple hours just to preserve the imaginative possibilities, but I knew that I would miss that feeling once it was gone.
     Turns out I miss all kinds of feelings (even the feeling of being on a plane and being annoyed about being on a plane) here in this year, this contingent year. It’s felt like I’ve spent a lot of the year just waiting for something to happen. A lot of things have happened, of course, but I’ve only kind of been part of them. I’ve been feeling like I’ve been on a series of waves, powerless to affect their direction and also unable to really tell when any of them are going to crest, or when all of them are going to crest at once and swamp whatever boat my metaphor wants to be riding on. So it’s been a year for me of hunkering down and of reading, that old school way of overlapping worlds on top of one another.

I didn’t expect to swerve into this, but I was reading Kate Bernheimer’s story “Whitework,” a mysterious, glorious thing. Listening to her talk about it in a conversation when she zoom-visited a class, I didn’t realize that it emerged from an Edgar Allan Poe story, “The Oval Portrait,” that I hadn’t read before. “Whitework” only pulls two things really from the Poe story: Poe’s final line and a line of description that rankled Bernheimer in some way and got stuck in the story she ended up writing around it. I’m not even sure what metaphor to use to describe this process: like pearl and oyster? Match and bonfire? Of course readers and scholars of fairy tales (like Bernheimer) know perfectly well that you’re always rewriting or overwriting somebody, probably better than most of the rest of us do, focused as we are on being original, whatever that means. Or at least when I’m writing something I’m always reading something—there’s always some embedded thing in me, whether or not I realize it, and it only comes out sometimes in recognizable ways. I accidentally used an Arthur C. Clarke line in a story I wrote a while back, and didn’t realize it until way later. It was just there, "mine," with the other stuff in the brain.

I’ve been reading several books about writers reading books, like for instance Fiction Advocate’s Afterwords series, for instance, where we tune into someone as they read a book, typically one I know only by reputation and have no real intention to actually read. Like My Struggle or Blood Meridian, both of which are books I’m going to be honest and say no way am I ever reading, particularly after reading Stephanie Reents’s and Kim Adrian’s fascinating engagements with McCarthy and Knausgaard. The originals are not books I need to spend time with at this point in my life is what I’ve determined. I’ll live in the delay between reading about reading them and actually reading them as long as it takes. 

Time has been a little more fluid lately in part as a function of the relative sameness of a lot of my days, but also through playing a game called Outer Wilds that uses the mechanism of time in really unusual ways, in that, playing it, you rapidly find out that you’re stuck in a time loop of around 22 minutes, after which the universe ends and you have to start again. It sounds frustrating but it’s fascinating: everything in the 22 minutes worth of universe is in some state of flux, and your job is to explore it and put the pieces together. One planet’s getting pummeled into dust by lava meteors. Another is gradually revealed as its twin is gradually concealed by the movement of sand between the two. Many of the game’s mysteries are only available at certain times in the loop, as you have to figure out. The experience is one of often being a little too early for something or a little too late, and anyways, after 22 minutes the sun goes supernova and it’s all gone. But it’s not quite all gone, since you retain your memories from your former loops thanks to a cool alien artifact that stores and retrieves memories. If you send a person’s memories back in time, is that the same as sending the person back in time? This is a question the game explicitly and implicitly asks.      It’s also a question that reading and rereading—one of the great rituals—asks. I read a book. I reread the book. My experience of the book changes. The book hasn’t (probably) changed: it’s me (or the world) who’s changed, and so its mysteries open (or close) in a different way each time. We might mark our time this way by marking our returns to books. I mean, I’m not consistent enough to have an actual practice at this, like a book I reread each year. I wish I did, and I suppose I still could. But a book I would have picked at twenty-five probably wouldn’t be worth my time at forty-five (this is also one of crises of confidence that’s kept me from getting a tattoo—again, thus far).
     But I do have a practice of spending time along with books, and the book I’ve been spending the most time with recently in this time loop is Peter Orner’s Am I Alone Here?, a series of essays in which he writes about encountering, and usually re- and re-re-encountering writers he loves, as his life passes. Like many very good books, the project doesn’t sound great, actually, when I describe it, but it is a really good read. It’s a little spectacle but a spectacle nonetheless being embedded so deeply in someone’s reading life.
     I probably wouldn’t have cared about this at twenty-five, but now it seems appealing, perhaps because the interiors of selves are shelved with as many books as you can find in the world outside of them, and seem equally capacious, or are perhaps even more spacious. Or maybe it’s because we don’t see each other as often as we otherwise would that everyone else seems so mysterious. Or, even more obviously, it seems like I know less and less about others and what they say they want in this country (and world) that we all share. It’s easy to despair over a gap like that, so it’s a powerfully appealing trick to be drawn back into the fissures of one individual mind and follow that I down to where it’s drawn.
     As I read Orner reading writers like John Galsworthy, Anton Chekhov, Breece DJ Pancake, John Edgar Wideman, Frank O’Connor, Kafka, Welty, Walser, Rufo, Woolf, and a whole lot more, many of whom I’ve read (or at least say I’ve read in public—a more embarrassing delay) and some of whom I’ve not, I am drawn more closely to Orner’s I, little adventurer that it is, and I find ourselves working through some of the life predicaments he’s in.
     It’s a little like a loop, my reading him reading them and my reading him (or my playing him—I do think we play the characters in the stories we read in some small way; in this way you are also in this moment playing me) and his life, since the life of reading is also a life of life, and we plenty of that life outside of books too in these brief forays. In fact, Orner’s even on the same page as me, I think, with reading as ritual and stories as touchstones: “Stories fail if you read them only once. You’ve got to meet a story again and again, in different moods, in different eras of your life.”
     There’s a rueful stumbling that Orner does as I move through his own life, which is also his own reading life. Maybe more than any other book I’ve read recently about reading and writing, it’s clear that Orner lives to read, perhaps even more than he lives to write, which is what makes him such a good reader. He tells me this explicitly later in the book, and it only works because it’s obvious by then that he’s all in for these stories that he wants to tell you about. He needs to tell you about these. The question mark that ends the title’s not just a gesture: he needs to tell you about them. He needs to tell you about them.
     This is good because this year I’ve lost some of that sense of connection I pursue when I’m writing something. Maybe I’m just feeling it as a one-sided connection—because it’s impossible to know as we write how well we connect or if and to what. So maybe what I’m responding to reading Orner is tangible evidence of these connections: I’m making them; I’m seeing them as I read through the meaning Orner makes of these writers. The essays are also delightful in their variety and angles of approach, almost none of them operating in the same way. 

As Will and I started talking about and planning out this year’s advent calendar, I realized how much I missed it last time around. We were otherwise engaged, but I missed it nevertheless. This year I find myself yearning for some ritual, especially with so many others denied to us and having to make do with diminished or altered versions. So I’ve already put up my Christmas lights and erected my monument:

Why wait, I figure? I can indulge myself in the feeling of the season like I normally would, and if it’s hoping that next year is better than the last, I’m optimistic for that too, if only because I do not have the imagination to see how it could be worse. 

As I mention every year, I’m not religious but I do love ritual, and the Essay Daily Advent is one of my favorites. It offers us a shared moment to slow—if just a bit—for most of the next month. To enjoy living in the delay. Each day of it we get to read someone reading someone new. We are plunged anew into the intimacies of another’s life. It’s a door we open in the cardboard calendar, and it’s a door we go through into each I you offer us. 

Unlike with my own half-assery in which I’m totally not buying nor reading Knausgaard nor Blood Meridian, I do hope you’ll buy and read the work of the writers in our advent calendar, and those whose words our advent writers are leading us to. You should definitely play Outer Wilds, for instance, and read Am I Alone Here? The mask only works if you wear it, I wanted to say, to that dude dangling his mask from his finger in the McDonald’s I stopped at on the way back from Flagstaff, the McDonald’s with the sign on the door requiring masks, and even if wasn’t required, c’mon, man, you’re not alone here, I wanted to tell him: your actions impact others, but I also didn’t really want to get into it with one of these unknowable weirdos either—we do live in Arizona where you can open-carry almost any gun you want without a permit—so I also shut my mouth. Maybe I shouldn't have. 

I mean to say the door’s only good if you go through it, and we have 27 of them for you, coming up on Christmas at the end. Whether or not you’re religious or just like the ritual, this is one thing we don’t have to sacrifice this year of delay, contringency, and sacrifice. We can indulge ourselves and gather here together—in this I, in this moment, in this very sentence I hereby gather us—so it is for these reasons I look most forward to this year’s advent calendar which I thus begin. 


Ander Monson is the founder and one of the editors of Essay Daily.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Voice and its Uses: George Estreich on Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights and H is for Hawk

Part 1

By the time I was halfway through Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald’s new book of essays, I knew I wanted to write about it. I had notes. I had ideas. I thought I could write something short, around a thousand words. I always think this and it is almost never true, which I only bring up because it is precisely the kind of self-deception Macdonald writes about in Vesper Flights, which is (among other things) a very self-aware book about the limits of our self-awareness: our ability to ignore the obvious, from small things (hints of an oncoming migraine) to large (evidence of environmental collapse). These complications were absorbing, but as I read Vesper Flights I kept thinking of H is for Hawk, Macdonald’s bestselling memoir about training a goshawk in the wake of her father's sudden death; and as I reread H is for Hawk—just for context—I accumulated more notes, and soon I was writing about that too. I thought I could compare the two books, maybe extend the comparison to genre, think about essays and memoirs, and by then any hope of writing a thousand-word piece was long gone.
     The genre comparison fell by the wayside. Vesper Flights is unquestionably a book of essays, but to call H is for Hawk a memoir, you basically have to take out all the hawks. It fits the category about as well as a live raptor in a cardboard box. Besides, Macdonald’s approach to memoir is already essayistic. If memoir is conventionally defined by linear, personal narrative, and the essay by a concern with how we know and inhabit the world, then Macdonald’s approach to memoir is firmly in the second camp: exploratory, synthetic, self-questioning. It’s the synthesis that interests me most, the combination of many ways of knowing into a single, sinuous voice, and that voice is similar from one book to the next.
     A passage late in Vesper Flights offers something close to an aesthetic. It's in the essay "Dispatches from the Valley." In it, Macdonald remembers a time in the 90s when she was just out of university, at loose ends, depressed, and working at a center for breeding falcons; but as the essay concludes, she reflects on how we make meaning out of animals:

We have corralled the meanings of animals so tightly these days, have shuttled them into separate epistemologies that are not supposed to touch . . . Of course we need science to comprehend the complexity of the human world, and to help decide how best to conserve what there is still left. But there is always more. Perhaps one aspect of the sixteenth century is worthy of thinking about: the last great flowering of a form of emblematic natural history in which we could think of animals as more than mere creatures, each living species at the centre of a rich fabric of associations linking everything that was known about it with everything it meant to humans: matters allegorical, scriptural, proverbial, personal.

What intrigues me about this passage is not just the seamless, metaphor-driven integration of both science and the history of science, or the effortless pivot from personal narrative to scholarship-informed reflection, or the ambitious attempt to combine “separate epistemologies” in a single place. It's the way her reflections imply an argument for literary nonfiction. A single subject “at the centre of a rich fabric of associations”: this could describe the essay. It could also describe a book: H is for Hawk or Vesper Flights, each one a fabric, a tapestry of associations.
     In this essay, I want to think about two books, trying to account for the richness of each tapestry; but I also want to suggest that each tapestry contains ideas about tapestries in general, and about its own weaving in particular; and, finally, to suggest that each book can be understood as a response to loss. The essay is in two parts, and the first is about H is for Hawk.


In The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate compares the essayist to a hawk:

The essayist attempts to surround a something—a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation—by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the matter.

In H is for Hawk, Macdonald comes at goshawks from all angles. In the first nine pages alone, she offers the field guide’s description (“black and white barred front, yellow eyes and a long tail”), an imagined kill (“a half-eaten pigeon sprawled in a burst of white feathers on the forest floor”), religion-inflected metaphor (“the birdwatcher’s dark grail”) and aphorism (“Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace”), passages from a 17th century text on falconry (‘There are divers Sorts and Sizes of Goshawks’), and a subjective, exact description of goshawks in flight:

…I could see the big powder-puff of white undertail feathers, fanned out, with the thick, blunt tail behind it, and that superb bend and curve of the secondaries of a soaring goshawk that makes them utterly unlike sparrowhawks. And they were being mobbed by crows, and they just didn’t care, like, whatever

If, like me, you’re a writer interested in splicing experience with scholarship, science with ordinary life, then your first question is: how does Macdonald pull this off? How does she establish a style where the combination of slang, scientific vocabulary, history, and spiritual leanings sounds perfectly natural? How is the “rich fabric of associations” woven? The short answer is that she uses tools associated with fiction and poetry to bind the whole together.
     Of those tools, description is central. This is standard for a nature writer (however defined), and Macdonald’s landscapes and hawks are superbly drawn, but what matters is the way she inflects them. A hawk, in her hands, is more than a hawk: it absorbs and combine different ways of knowing, both experiential and scholarly, and it is—as she reminds us—not just a beautiful animal to behold, but a creature in the world that behaves and knows things, and a creature that exists apart from our flawed attempts to know it. In response to these complexities, Macdonald’s description of goshawks on the wing itself wheels and swerves, combining emotion and taxonomy (“that superb bend and curve of the secondaries,” “utterly unlike sparrowhawks”), behavioral observation and an imagined hawk-voice (“they were being mobbed by crows, and they just didn’t care, like, whatever”). That whatever reminds us that the hawk has its own, unimaginable perspective; at the same time, it dramatizes the act of imagination, the human attempt to grasp nonhuman lives. It’s a projection that questions the act of projection, an ironic act of anthropomorphism, and it subtly raises a question central to both H is for Hawk and Vesper Flights: how we imagine our way into the lives of others, both human and not.
     Macdonald’s tongue-in-cheek rendering of the hawk’s point of view—call it Free Indirect Nonhuman Animal Discourse—is a typical move for her as well, a flash of interiority, a fictional device she uses to great effect. We get glimpses of her own state of mind, as when she learns of her father’s death:

I was about to leave the house when the phone rang. I picked it up. Hop-skippity, doorkeys in my hand. ‘Hello?’ A pause. My mother. She only had to say one sentence.

That sunny, childlike moment—“hop-skippity”—magnifies the shock of the news. But it also sheds light on Macdonald’s inquiry into identity, because by implication the news hits both the adult and the child she used to be. Throughout the book, she considers the place of childhood in a life: the way a childhood fascination with hawks leads to an adulthood training them; the way her memories of her father (her “partner in crime”) take on new significance, after his loss. She’s interested in “the girl who was me when I was small,” a roundabout phrasing that suggests the complexity of identity over time, the way we move on from and preserve our childhood selves. (That H is for Hawk sounds like a children’s book is not an accident.)
     To these fictional approaches, Macdonald adds a poet’s approach to both sound and metaphor. Take her description of “a half-eaten pigeon sprawled in a burst of white feathers on the forest floor”—a brief, violent still life, alliterative, dense with consonants. Or her description of meeting a breeder to take possession of Mabel, her goshawk, where the description of unboxing the hawk reads like a lyrical version of Jurassic Park:

A sudden thump of feathered shoulders and the box shook as if someone had punched it, hard, from within . . . Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. 

This is a complex passage, and it depends on both sound and metaphor for its effect: the repeated thump, the shift from staccato sentence fragments to the explosive long sentence at the end, and the linked sequence of metaphors comparing light to liquid (“Daylight irrigating the box . . . The air turned syrupy...a great flood of sunlight drenches us.”)
     Macdonald’s book mixes grief with hawks, science with history, childhood with adulthood. If metaphor and sound help bind this various whole together, this shouldn’t surprise us: metaphor, by definition, welds separate domains into something new, and sound—alliteration, assonance, rhyme—can magnetize unrelated words to each other. The style that results is sonically, etymologically, and associatively rich. It is essentially celebratory, a wildly varied music equal to the world’s variety. But the book’s paradox, and the source of much of its power, is that the song of celebration is also a song of loss.
     Against her lovingly described landscapes and soaring goshawks, Macdonald counterposes the ideas of invisibility and disappearance. Soaring goshawks seem to vanish: "One minute my pair of goshawks was describing lines from physics textbooks in the sky, and then nothing at all. I don’t remember looking down, or away.” Macdonald describes herself as “a small, slightly fearful girl...who loved to disappear,” and writes that being “invisible” is useful for training hawks, a way to put the bird at ease. But it has its downside: 

It’s a habit you can fall into, willing yourself into invisibility. And it doesn’t serve you well in life. Believe me it doesn’t. Not with people and loves and hearts and homes and work. But for the first few days with a new hawk, making yourself disappear is the greatest skill in the world. 

As Mabel’s training progresses and Macdonald’s grief darkens into clinical depression, the wish to disappear becomes the wish to disappear into something, to identify with another, to dissolve her human identity in the hawk’s life: “I had put myself in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her, and as the days passed in the darkened room my humanity was burning away.”
     But that effort, as Macdonald makes clear, is both necessary and maladaptive. What saves Macdonald from her depression—besides meds—is her connection with other people. In that sense, H is for Hawk, though it appears to be about training a hawk, is really about the way others save us, and the restoration of something like balance, like a right relation, a connection to others—including nonhuman others—rather than submerging in them, or avoiding them altogether. It is about a choice to be visible on one’s own terms. It is, in other words, about both identity and how identity is written. 


Rereading H is for Hawk, I was struck by a scene that felt like an ending, mainly because it occurs with over a hundred pages to go. On closer inspection, it shows how Macdonald departs from the conventions of memoir, reinventing it from the inside.
     Mabel is devouring a pheasant, her first kill in the wild. Macdonald’s account combines cathartic grief, a memory of birdwatching with her father, and a vision of the hawk as a child:

I look at the hawk, the pheasant, the hawk. And everything changes. The hawk stops being a thing of violent death. She becomes a child. It shakes me to the core. She is a child. A baby hawk that’s just worked who she is.... Tears roll down my face. For the pheasant, for the hawk, for Dad and all his patience, for that little girl who stood by a fence and waited for the hawks to come. 

It’d be a good ending for a more conventional book, but Macdonald is after something different. Her memoir questions its own terms, complicates its own epiphanies. Not long after this transcendent moment, we get another description of Mabel above her prey. It’s a remembered scene—Macdonald is in her house, deeply depressed, thinking about her life with Mabel—and its mood is so different, it reads almost like a retraction:

There’s no need, right now, to feel close to a fetch of dark northern woods, a creature with baleful eyes and death in her foot. Human hands are for holding other hands. Human arms are for holding other humans close. They’re not for breaking the necks of rabbits, pulling loops of viscera out onto leaf-litter while the hawk dips her head to drink blood from her quarry’s chest cavity. I watch all these things going on and my heart is salt.

     At this point in the book, Macdonald’s ideas about grieving and the wild have been completely upended. She’s just been to a memorial service for her father, and she is questioning her approach to loss:

All the way home on the train I thought of Dad and the terrible mistake I had made. I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so.... Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling and dangerous lie. 

It’s a remarkable moment, because it rewrites the ground rules of the story we’ve been reading. On one level, it’s an epiphany about a “terrible mistake.” On another level, it’s a critique of existing “nature books,” and it reframes H is for Hawk as a different sort of project, one distinct from other “quests inspired by grief or sadness.” (She does not name names, but it is possible to guess: “Some sought snow geese. Others snow leopards. Others cleaved to the earth, walked trails, mountains, coasts and glens.”) A bit later in the book, Macdonald traces this loss-driven quest back to early texts—notably Sir Orfeo, a 13th century version of the Orpheus myth, in which Orfeo is a poet who loves falconry, grieving a death, who goes to the wild for solace. By invoking Sir Orfeo, Macdonald offers a schematic of her personal journey—loss, retreat to the wild, return—while deepening the connections between grief, falconry, and writing. It’s one example of the way Macdonald illuminates her own text by invoking others: other characters (fictional and real) are parallel to the autobiographical character she gives us, and other narratives illuminate aspects of her own.
     She does this most extensively, of course, with T.H. White, the mid-20th century author of The Once and Future King. Macdonald braids an account of White’s life and work into her story, and her approach—part literary biography, part imaginative reconstruction, part running argument—enriches her story in turn. As with Sir Orfeo, Macdonald emphasizes the parallels: White, like Macdonald, was a writer, scholar, and falconer. Like White, she tries to disappear into training a hawk; like White, the escape leads to writing, to public self-expression. She disappears in order to reappear, and writing mediates the return from the wild. 
     Macdonald concentrates on two books of White’s, The Goshawk and The Sword in the Stone. Both are relevant, but the latter is central. In The Sword in the Stone, White’s hero Wart—the future King Arthur—goes through successive transformations, taking on the form of different animals. White, in other words, imagines his way into a fictional character, who himself takes on the form of a bird; Macdonald reads the book as a child, then revisits it as an adult, understanding what she could not then, imagining her way into White’s life. She returns to the book with a new understanding of the book’s undercurrents, its links to English identity, White’s thwarted sexuality, and the cruelties visited on him by an abusive father. With her skills as a literary biographer and historian, Macdonald deepens her memoir’s self-portrait. The Sword in the Stone, read as a child and again as an adult, becomes a mirror of her own transformations.
     For Macdonald, writing and reading are inseparable from identity-building. Inhabiting other identities is a spur to growth; and reading and writing are both means of blurring the edges of identity, of putting on another life for a little while, of constructing a separate version of self, a character. Experiences, Macdonald suggests, are only complete once decoded, and they can only be decoded by being retold. It’s fitting, then, that Macdonald’s final reckoning with grief is expressed in aesthetic terms. After her father’s death, she finds a key to his flat taped to an index card, along with a note from him; and in the brief scene that follows, she writes, “for the first time I understood the shape of my grief.” It’s fascinating to me that this epiphany is expressed as an understanding of form, and it’s a profoundly self-reflexive moment: what is H is for Hawk but grief given a shape?
     This reflection on grief and form gives way, in the book’s postscript, to a reflection on grief and the writing process. Macdonald visits the grounds near T.H. White’s house and sees a man puttering in the garden. She briefly imagines him as White, thinks about doing more research, writing a scene: 

I could find out more about him, make him alive again, chase down the memories here. For a moment that old desire to cross over and bring someone back flared up as bright as flame. 

But then I put that thought aside. I put it down, and the relief was immense, as if I had dragged a half-tonne weight from myself and cast it by the grassy road.

The process of grief, and the process of writing about grief, are inseparable; letting go of one, she lets go of the other. “White is gone,” she writes. “The hawk has flown. Respect the living, honour the dead. Let them be.” In this way, H is for Hawk closes the book on itself.
     Though H is for Hawk is “about” training a hawk, by the book’s end hawk training has come to stand for both reading and writing. It’s like reading, in that it requires knowledge, close attention to the hawk’s actions, an ability to interpret them; it’s like writing in that it is solitary, difficult, and deeply personal, a discipline haunted by the fear and conviction of failure. And yet even as hawk training sheds light on other human practices—writing and reading, not to mention parenting and grieving—it throws them into sharp relief. All these involved, complex, human-specific practices are set against the book’s main nonhuman character, Mabel, who has a distinct personality but no need for these things whatever. In this way, as in so many others, H is for Hawk begins a meditation that Vesper Flights continues. 


George Estreich's publications include a book of poems, Textbook Illustrations of the Human Body, which won the Gorsline Prize from Cloudbank Books; the Oregon Book Award-winning memoir The Shape of the Eye; and Fables and Futures: Biotechnology, Disability, and the Stories we Tell Ourselves, which NPR's Science Friday named a Best Science Book of 2019. Estreich has also published prose in The New York Times, Salon, The American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, Tin House, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon, with his family, where he teaches in Oregon State’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. More:

Monday, November 2, 2020

Oh, hello advent 2020

Hi all: Halloween has passed, and election week is here, and that means that it's kinda hard to think past to what happens after Thanksgiving and before Christmas, but we've got Advent on our minds. So much so that I ordered not one but two Advent Calendars this year for personal use. The Costco beer Advent Calendar I had a couple years ago was kind of a bust: most of the beers were kinda crappy European ones that most people wouldn't purchase intentionally. But in the spirit of Advent I did drink one each day. I did this for you.

If you run across a good beer advent calendar available in America, let me searching hasn't turned any up.

This year, though, I did pick up some more promising calendars, which both may be now sold out:

The Pukka Herbal Tea Calendar (more for my wife than myself, as tea is not my jam):

and the Bonne Maman preserves calendar (which looks great, as jam is in fact my jam):

So this reminds me that we'll be assigning our Essay Daily Advent Calendar slots shortly. This year's calendar will begin November 29 and continue through Christmas Day. 

If you're new to our site, we publish an essay a day during Advent (most years), each (loosely) on an essay or essayist. Some years are themed, some aren't. This one's not themed, though we're particularly interested in our writers writing about new essays or essayists—those published this year or first encountered this year. You can read previous years' essays in the advent calendar archives.

If you'd like to write one for this year's calendar, send us a note and/or pitch us your idea!