Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Memoir Within A Memoir: H Is For Hawk

I finally finished Helen MacDonald's H Is For Hawk. I started it a long time ago, but then had to return it to the library. This time I was determined to get through. 

What had stopped me 1/4 way through?

Brilliance. Brilliance often stops me in books, more often than unreadability. When a book is really fucking good, I almost can't bear to keep reading it. For instance, this passage completely blew me out of the water, and made it both worth continuing and also exquisitely difficult to keep going:
Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try. ‘Imagine,’ I said, back then, to some friends, in an earnest attempt to explain, ‘imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone. That’s what it is like!’ I finished my little speech in triumph, convinced that I’d hit upon the perfect way to explain how it felt. I was puzzled by the pitying, horrified faces, because it didn’t strike me at all that an example that put my friends’ families in rooms and had them beaten might carry the tang of total lunacy.

Beyond the sheer brilliance, I found H is for Hawk a difficult book for a few reasons. The first two are also reasons I loved it: 
1. It is primarily about grief and overcoming grief. Not an easy topic, and she handles it with raw realness. 
2. The language is thick - luscious and languid, completely lyrical while also telling a narrative tale. However, 
3. This book is also a meta-memoir - a memoir which includes the story of her reading another person's memoir. At first I couldn't get through the meta aspects to the story MacDonald herself is telling, which is far more fascinating to me.

The memoir in question is by TH White, also author of Once and Future King. MacDonald purposefully weaves in her own reading of his life and texts, because he, too, took to falconry as a way to work through personal struggle. When I began the book, I had no interest in White whatsoever, and I found her reflections on his process and life to be interesting but almost as if a whole other book were spliced in. At times, the transitions were too rough and not well enough woven for my taste. I also often found I didn't want to relate to White, who struggled a great deal in his closeted early twentieth-century homosexuality, and could be quite vicious as a person.

It turns out that White's struggles parallel MacDonald's at points. She also grew up reading the book, and she does a lovely job describing how her reading of the book has changed over time. But what redeemed the parts about White's memoir for me are the passages where White shows us MacDonald through contrast. Once we get into the center and beyond of the book, she begins to recognize things in herself that White never quite could, partially on the shoulders of comparing her own experience to his. For instance, where White confuses the bird's wildness for disobedience, MacDonald recognizes she is of a different species altogether, and that conflating herself and the hawk is not the best thing. 
I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I'd read told me so. So many of them had been quests inspired by grief or sadness. Some had fixed themselves to the stars of elusive animals. Some sought snow geese. Others snow leopards. Others cleaved to the earth, walked trails, mountains, coasts and glens. Some sought wildness at a distance, others closer to home. 'Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions,' wrote John Muir. 'Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.' 
Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing. 
And by the time I got home I'd worked out, too, why Mabel had been behaving so strangely. She'd grown heavy with muscle over our weeks on the hill, and though she was flying at a higher weight than before, over this last week she'd got too low. She was hungry. Hunger had made her aggressive. 
I was furious with myself when I realised that first great error on the train. But this second realisation brought self hatred. I'd been so blind, so miserable, I'd not seen my hawk was miserable too. I'd not seen her at all. 
Finally, towards the end of the book, she gets to a space of grief and understanding her grief that I find palpable and believable. Though MacDonald herself often hid in that era of her life, she does not hide in the book itself:
'Don't worry. I'll get another one cut.' But he'd never got round to it, and I'd not thought of it since. I don't know what it is doing here. I read the words again and think of his hand writing them. And I think of Dad holding my own tiny hand as I put the other one flat against the sarsens at Stonehenge, back when I was very small and there were no fences to stop you walking among the stones. I looked up at the thing that was like a door but had no walls behind it.
'Is it a house, Daddy?' I asked him.
'No one knows,' he said. 'It's very, very old.' 
I held the cardboard and felt its scissor-cut edge. And for the first time I understood the shape of my grief. I could feel exactly how big it was. It was the strangest feeling, like holding something the size of a mountain in my arms. You have to be patient, he had said. If you want to see something very much, you just have to be patient and wait. There was no patience in my waiting, but time had passed all the same, and worked its careful magic. And now, holding the card in my hands and feeling its edges, all the grief had turned into something different. It was simply love. 
I tucked the card back into the bookshelf. 'Love you too, Dad,' I whispered.

I love this description - both raw and honest, and also sweet. In the end, this is what we see in MacDonald that White never could show. It's because of this that in the end I felt compassion for him, as well. Being of his era, gender and status, he couldn't open up to feelings the way MacDonald could. By exploring White's life with compassionate but direct vision, MacDonald also opens up her own gaze toward herself, and by proxy, our gaze toward her and White, with further kindness. 

Writing memoir isn't easy, I tell my students again and again. I am sure that MacDonald found including White's story more work than she had planned on, but I bet it also eased her own revisiting of such difficult loss. This is the crux of so many relationships - the cost we seem to pay for giving compassion, outweighed by the tremendous gain. 

If H is for Hawk is the result of such compassionate memoir work, it is worth the work, to write and to read.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this good review, which I came across in looking for a quotation from this book. I just finished reading it this morning, having taken my time, relishing the experience of it. A lovely book.