article published April 11, 2014 in the Chapel Hill Herald
Earlier this year I was startled to find myself grieving for my mother on her March birthday and I knew her death date was almost exactly a month away. “It’s been four years since she died, why am I still grieving?” I asked myself.
I saw more objectively the depth of grief listening to Helen MacDonald read her memoir, H is For Hawk (Blackstone, 9 CDs, 11 hours). Helen MacDonald’s father died suddenly. Immediately MacDonald was plunged into a consuming, enflamed grief that convinced her “if you put me on a bed or a chair, I’d burn right through.”
This grief turns into a kind of madness that was “quiet and very, very dangerous. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap to make a new and inhabitable world.” As MacDonald reads, her phrasing is full of stops, as if she’s pausing to let you feel the effect, digest the intensity of the elegant, eloquent words she chooses to describe her pain.
MacDonald had an urge to “taxomomize the process, order it and make it sensible but soon found herself dreaming constantly of hawks, specifically goshawks. With lyricism that balances her stark feelings, she remembers working in a bird of prey center, seeing a huge old female goshawk, her feathers in a “meringue of aggression and fear..her feet gnarled and dusty, her eyes a deep fiery orange.” She was “beautiful like a granite cliff, or a thunder cloud…wild, spooky, reptilian.”
MacDonald, who was drawn to birds of prey as a child, sets about attaining and training a young female named Mabel. At the same time she reads “The Goshawk” by T.H. White, best known for his Arthurian novels. MacDonald is drawn into White’s 1951 account of his disastrous attempts of raising a goshawk. Her hawing and reading become tangled in her grief.
Amid the poetic writing, MacDonald covers a lot of ground — the history of and gender bias in hawking, White’s painful life and her struggles with depression. She merges fresh hurt with enough distance to write evocatively about its power. MacDonald’s stress is great as she trains her hawk to fly and when it finally does, she views this “with the narcissism of the bereaved” believing the flight linked to her healing. She describes how hawking became an addiction as it opens herself up to “luck and you cannot control the outcome…that little space of irresolution is a strange place to be. You feel safe because you are entirely at the world’s mercy….and so you run towards the little shots of fate where the world turns.” Until she believes she’s flown to a place “from which I didn’t ever want to return.”
But return MacDonald does. She remembers her father without sharp pain, sees that Mabel is as much a real hawk as a symbol, and realizes that “The world is full of signs and wonders that come and go and if you are lucky you might be alive to see them.”