Friday, May 29, 2015

Enraptured by raptors 'n' writing: H is for Hawk

Speaking of birds, here is a paragraph from H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, from an early chapter in which the author describes her first childhood experience observing goshawks:

We walked in dark winter light over fields furred with new wheat. Vast flocks of fieldfares netted the sky, turning it to something strangely like a sixteenth-century sleeve sewn with pearls. It was cold. My feet grew heavy with clay. And twenty minutes after we'd set out, it happened--the thing I expected, but for which I was entirely unprepared. A goshawk killed a pheasant. It was a short, brutal dive from an oak into a mess of wet hedge; a brief, muffled crash, sticks breaking, wings flapping, men running, and a dead bird placed reverently in a hawking bag. I stood some way off. Bit my lip. Felt emotions I hadn't names for. For a while I didn't want to look at the men and their hawks any more and my eyes slipped to the white panels of cut light in the branches before them. Then I walked to the hedge where the hawk had made her kill. Peered inside. Deep in the muddled darkness six copper pheasant feathers glowed in a cradle of blackthorn. Reaching through the thorns I picked them free, one by one, tucked the hand that held them into my pocket, and cupped the feathers in my closed fist as if I were holding a moment tight inside itself. It was death I had seen. I wasn't sure what it had made me feel.
I'm not sure what this paragraph makes me feel but I've been trying to figure out what makes Macdonald's prose so compelling. What happens here? A young girl sees a hawk kill a pheasant and feels something she can't quite describe, and yet the adult's description of the child's feelings breathes life into the scene. How does she do it?

Macdonald's sentences tend toward the opposite of flamboyance--they don't jump up and down and wave their arms calling "Look at me! Look at me!" Instead, they amble toward the edge of the hedge and invite readers to peer quietly at mundane treasures.

"We walked in dark winter light over fields furred with new wheat" could be a line of poetry, offering compression, rhythm, alliteration, and an interesting image--furred fields, as if the earth itself were a sleeping beast. Then comes the next sentence, with the apt "netted" and that unexpected pearl-encrusted sleeve, one of the longer sentences in the piece at 19 words. The longest sentence is a mere 38 words, the shortest 2, and the average words per sentence is 13.4--hardly Faulknerian, but her prose carries me forward one careful step at a time until a simple statement delivers a gut-punch: "It was death I had seen." 

If I encountered that sentence in a student paper, I would probably suggest that the student write less monosyllabically and avoid the "it was" construction because it tends to multiply words without adding much to meaning, but Macdonald somehow makes six common one-syllable words speak forcefully, placing "death" at dead center of attention. How does she do it?

I'm only three chapters in to H is for Hawk but it's slow going because I keep needing to re-read passages like this one to see how she produces such powerful prose with so little apparent effort. And aside from the writing (if it's possible to talk about the content of a book aside from the writing), the story is engaging as well, describing the author's attempt to cope with her father's death by training a goshawk. Far from the typical "seven stages of grief" self-help cliches, Macdonald's memoir has much to say about topics that touch all of us daily--the weather, for instance, and the lasting significance of apparently insignificant details drawn from past events, like those six copper pheasant feathers.

Say that out loud: "six copper pheasant feathers." Or try the whole sentence: "Deep in the muddled darkness six copper pheasant feathers glowed in a cradle of blackthorn." How many people could produce even one sentence that perfect in a lifetime? And here Helen Macdonald has boiled down her life into a memoir full of sentences like that. I don't know about you, but I want to follow her into that hedge and see what other treasures she'll find there.

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