Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Dec 11: Paul Lisicky on Joy Williams's "Hawk"

"Hawk” appears near the end of Joy Williams’s essay collection Ill Nature, subtitled “Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals.” In some ways it’s the outlier here, the one personal essay in a book concerned with hunting, overpopulation, pollution, development—all the ways we’ve failed the Earth and our nonhuman companions. The others aren’t afraid of pronouncement, provocation; they’re often hungry for a fight. Even a short meditation on autumn means to correct any expectations of sweetness or complacency: “There is no such thing as time going straight on to new things. This is an illusion. Okay?” And that’s just the opening. So much for mellow fruitfulness. Even Williams herself has described the voice of her essays as “un-elusive and strident and brashly one-sided.”
     But “Hawk” comes from another part of the woods, a remote cabin, far off the main path. It is rooted in scene. It expects its readers to infer and make connections on their own. In that way, it’s closer in form to Williams’s hypnotic, elliptical short fictions than it is her essays. At one point in “Hawk” the speaker says “Explanation is nothing. One can only experience and somehow describe—with, in Camus’ phrase, lucid indifference.” In that phrase Williams suggests how this animal differs from the other animals in the book.
   But Hawk. Hawk is a German shepherd. Hawk has a sense of humor, Hawk is stoic, watchful, patient. Hawk has a collection of toys, in the shapes of a “burglar, a cat, a shark, a snowman, and a hedgehog.” Hawk has presence. Hawk just wants to be where his human is, but she is suffering from an inexplicable malady. Her body has turned against her. It is “full of browsing, shifting pain” that goes wherever it wants to go. She doesn’t have a doctor, doesn’t have health insurance. Assumes she’s just going to die one day, until her friends make an appointment for her with their doctor in New York City. Hawk and his human are staying at their friends’ house in Nantucket, and a trip to New York City means that Hawk can’t come along. He must spend a few days and nights at a kennel.
   Is it even possible to summarize what happens in the front room of that kennel? The routine is familiar, Hawk has been to that kennel before, he knows its layout, its expectations. His human leans over him to say goodbye, and out of nowhere, Hawk turns on her, tearing her breast, biting into her hand, first the left than the right, which he grinds down upon, “shifting, getting a better grip, always getting a better grip with his jaws.” Fred, one of the workers at the kennel, subdues Hawk with a pole and a noose, the “rig used for dangerous dogs.” Hawk quiets down. Meanwhile, the speaker leaves the scene of attack. She flees to the car, sobbing, speechless, bleeding through the shirt that’s been ruined.
   The loss of the beloved is staggering, and that loss is manifold. It moves through consciousness like the pain in her body, with a mind of its own. Hawk’s loss is the loss of companionship, devotion, play, the belief that things should line up. The loss of any connection to the unsayable. The loss of the God she knew, too. Animals are always totems in Williams’s writing, even when they’re just hovering around the edges, barely there on the page. As she has said elsewhere, they should give their “blessing from within” the work.
   And maybe that’s why Glenn Gould, the feral Glenn Gould, moves in and out through the essay like an antiphon. It is impossible for the writer to summarize Glenn Gould, or to connect him to the body of the piece, any more than it is possible to describe how Hawk has turned on her, what Hawk has become. Or what the speaker says of her own decision, in the wake of the attack: “I was not going to pick him up. I was going to have him put down, put to sleep, euthanized, destroyed. My love would be murdered. I would murder my love.”


Explanation might be nothing, but that doesn’t mean “Hawk” doesn’t test and try, implying the gravest questions. How have we harmed dogs by domesticating and babying them, subjecting them to our whims and inconsistencies? Is the speaker all too easy on herself when she writes, "I felt it was good for him to endure the kennel occasionally. Life was not all good, I told him”? How is human illness connected to canine illness and to our poisoning of the planet? Is love corrupt without boundaries or distance? Why are we so afraid of wildness when we tell ourselves we cherish it? And more.
   But maybe I’m drawn again and again to “Hawk” for different reasons. Every so often there comes a piece that’s life or death, as simple as that. The writer has to submit to it, bend to its will. If she doesn’t write it, the project of language will be her undoing. How do we know that? We feel it in the piece’s authority, its urgency, the sense of rules being broken. I get the sense that Williams is breaking her own rules right and left throughout. The voice is more vulnerable than anything else she’s written; it does not rely on the safety nets of irony or comic distance. The essay requires her to let go, and in doing so she gives the work a life that’s separate from her. In form, the piece becomes Hawk; the writer honors him by releasing him. And what do your rules mean anyway when you’ve tried to hold onto what you’ve loved and what you’ve loved has turned on you? As a piece of writing “Hawk” is pure monster. It makes its own category, it tears and sews up all the old distinctions. It is both narrative and lyric, linear and fragmentary. It isn’t afraid of touching the ridiculous, and once it does so, it doesn’t pull its hand away. There’s unexpected comfort in such work, no matter how dark its turns. The writer gives us the possibility of escape, another way out, more light ahead than we thought existed.

Paul Lisicky is the author of five books, including The Narrow Door, Unbuilt Projects, and Famous Builder. A 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, he is a 2018 Visiting Writer at the University of Texas at Austin. His next book, Later, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2020. 

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