. . . which you can read here, Dear Readers. It’s an informal spring break this week on the blog, and I hope you are all enjoying, in the words of one Margaret Dashwood, “very fine weather.”
Erin Moore’s delightful book, That’s Not English*, is what I’d call a beach read for book nerds. In it, she describes some of the many cultural differences between the British and Americans by deploying the lens of words we share in common that have very different meanings, including seemingly innocuous words like “quite” and “pull.”
The twenty-five-odd chapters here are easily digestible and full of interesting tidbits, but you won’t find lengthy digressions on etymology (for that you should turn to the OED for a start). That’s Not English is the perfect summer reading for the Anglophile in your life, and might find you reaching for your favorite Jane Austen novel. Or really wishing Sherlock‘s fourth season (series) would air.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.
Since it’s National Poetry Month, I’ll once again recommend The Poetry Foundation’s app (conveniently called Poetry) if you’re looking for a little more poetry in your life (and who isn’t?). It’s perfect for a little pick-me-up when you’re feeling stressed, or when you’re waiting for the bus and realize you’ve forgotten your book (horror!), or when you’re a book blogger looking for a poem to recommend.
Speaking of which . . .
I just read “Meeting at an Aiport,” by the late Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. It’s just lovely, joyous and sad all at once, and a perfect example of what a gifted poet can do with simple repetition.
So, which new poets and poems have you discovered lately?
To an Athlete Dying Young
A. E. Housman
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.
(Rest in peace, EVC.)
Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize and a bestseller in the United Kingdom, H is for Hawk is described as part memoir, part natural history, and part literary history (I’d also add that it’s a study of the English landscape). In it, Ms. Macdonald takes readers through the harrowing months after her father’s sudden death in 2007, when stunned by the loss, she decided to distract herself from grief by training a goshawk, a notoriously difficult (and deadly) bird that she had never worked with before.
As Helen finds herself submerging into the hawk’s world, she also becomes immersed in T.H. White’s book The Goshawk, and with White himself. Best known now for The Once and Future King, White was a deeply troubled man who failed spectacularly when it came to training his goshawk, and as Helen explores his life we see the way his relationship with his hawk diverges from her relationship with her own goshawk, Mabel. While White, furious with his own life, seemed determined to make the hawk into his mirror, Helen runs from death and grief by nearly becoming the hawk—a futile pursuit, since the hawk is a death on wings. Surfacing proves immensely difficult.
I feel that I’m not explaining this book very well. Perhaps it would help if I told you that I dislike birds–they are, as Ms. Macdonald points out, essentially flying dinosaurs. I find their reptilian feet and eyes unnerving and their silence creepy (I like the twittering and what-not, romantic that I am). But I could not tear myself away from the descriptions of Mabel’s grace and prowess, and the complicated workings of her body and behavior. Reading H is for Hawk made me think for a full minute about trying falconry one day (more on that below).
That I found the book difficult to read at times is another testament to just how good it is. Having experienced sudden bereavement myself, I deeply admired Ms. Macdonald’s courage in telling it–blinding grief, that is–like it is, in all its ugliness, while at the same time I found myself drawing back at the painful thought of losing my own father, with whom I am very close. H is for Hawk is a moving testament to the love and life of Ms. Macdonald’s parents, especially her father, who encouraged and shared his daughter’s passion for observing the world, wild and otherwise, and noting all its detail.
Those years of watching and noticing are beautifully rendered in Ms. Macdonald’s clear, vivid prose, which ranges from fierce to tremulous and back again. That she is also a poet is no surprise. Here’s her description of her first sight of Mabel, as the box holding the hawk opens:
Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. 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 an in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. (53)
At her well-attended first U.S. reading on Tuesday night at Harvard Bookstore, Ms. Macdonald read this passage and tipped her hat to Shakespeare (Referring to “fretful porpentine”: “That just dropped in there. I just wanted to say thank you, Mr. Shakespeare.”), which, combined with her self-deprecating humor (After an anecdote about showing birds of prey to schoolchildren: “Hawks are about 3000 percent more cool than I am, but they don’t talk very well.”) pretty much made me want to take her out to dinner to talk Hamlet and libraries. For those of you who read audiobooks, I can highly recommend this one, since Ms. Macdonald’s voice is perfectly suited to her material. In person she is funny, charming, and full of insight about books and birds and conservation. Falconers, it turns out, are great conservationists, and Ms. Macdonald makes a strong case both for how we tend to “give animals our meanings” (at the reading) and how “the wild can be human work” (H is for Hawk, 12).
I’m pleased as punch to have met her, though I do regret my shyness prevented me from asking about her favorite recipes for rabbit and pheasant.
(By the way, longtime readers of the blog will note that I hardly ever get out to readings; they tend to fall in the middle of bedtime for Mr. H the toddler, and I always miss the ticketed ones at Harvard Bookstore. It’s a measure of how great this book is that I made it my business to get to the reading, with an assist from the intrepid Mr. O and the bookstore, which thankfully didn’t require tickets this time.)
I highly, highly recommend H is for Hawk.
If you’re looking for more on the book, check out:
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.
It came to my attention, because I was thinking about dinosaurs and dragons (tip of the hat to parenthood there), that I’ve never featured Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote one of my favorite alliterations of all time: “dragonish damask.”
Weep no more, Dear Readers. This shocking oversight is remedied below with “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves.”
Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, ‘ vaulty, voluminous, … stupendous
Evening strains to be tíme’s vást, ‘ womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.
Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, ‘ her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height
Waste; her earliest stars, earl-stars, ‘ stárs principal, overbend us,
Fíre-féaturing heaven. For earth ‘ her being has unbound, her dapple is at an end, as-
tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; ‘ self ín self steedèd and páshed—qúite
Disremembering, dísmémbering ‘ áll now. Heart, you round me right
With: Óur évening is over us; óur night ‘ whélms, whélms, ánd will end us.
Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ‘ damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,
Ever so black on it. Óur tale, O óur oracle! ‘ Lét life, wáned, ah lét life wind
Off hér once skéined stained véined variety ‘ upon, áll on twó spools; párt, pen, páck
Now her áll in twó flocks, twó folds—black, white; ‘ right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind
But thése two; wáre of a wórld where bút these ‘ twó tell, each off the óther; of a rack
Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, ‘ thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.
You can hear poet Mary Jo Bang talk about this poem and read it here. I also recommend reading it aloud yourself. It has an oddly salubrious effect.
The first book of Neil Gaiman’s that I read was Smoke and Mirrors, a long, long time ago, and so I’m used to to thinking of him as a short-story writer; Trigger Warning was a bit like getting reacquainted with an old friend (don’t get me wrong: I love American Gods as much as the next Gaiman fan).
Trigger Warning (the subtitle is Short Fictions and Disturbances) is a wildly varied collection. In it you’ll find poems, a fairy tale or two, a story set in the world of Dr. Who (comprehensible even to me, who’s never seen the show), a novelette, small horror stories, a Sherlock Holmes mystery, a story that brings back Shadow, the protagonist of American Gods, and more.
Not all readers will love every piece; I found some stronger than others, but no piece left me cold (chilled, in some cases, by creepiness). The standouts for me were varied, and included “Jerusalem,” “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” (among other things, it’s a meditation on language and memory and literature), “A Calendar of Tales” (itself widely varied), “My Last Landlady” (a poem that’s a fabulous twist on Browning’s “My Last Duchess”), and “The Sleeper and the Spindle” (best. fairytale. ever.).
Essentially, if you like Neil Gaiman’s writing, you’ll find something to like in this collection.
And I have to say, as someone who always reads introductions, forewords, acknowledgments, and rights listings (yes, really), that this is one of my favorite introductions of the last five years. Mr. Gaiman talks about why he called the book Trigger Warning (a tricky concept that he approaches with attentiveness), his own feelings about and history with disturbing fiction, and, delightfully, the background of each of the book’s pieces. I love having that kind of information, and Mr. Gaiman’s generosity of spirit shows in the way he tips his hat to friends and fellow writers.