I’ve long been a believer in readerly serendipity: many times in my life I have discovered a book when I needed it most. Or perhaps it’s that I still believe books can save me, and so I will hew answers to life’s questions out of whatever is in front of my eyes—like a dedicate of astrology will interpret the horoscope to exactly suit her own needs.
Either way, when I bought a copy of Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk from the famous Blackwell’s bookstore in Oxford, on an early November day last year, it was the very book I needed to read right then. I found myself in Oxford on the one day of the week when all the major museums were shut, and it was cold, and I was undone. New heartaches were hurting me, and old griefs had surfaced again. I couldn’t face walking through the city for hours, my nerves exposed and raw, so instead I sat and read this book. Sitting still and reading a book has been my survival strategy for as long as I can remember.
H Is For Hawk is unclassifiable by genre and impossible to paraphrase, as all the best books are. First and foremost it is a book about grief, a fierce and true and honest one. Helen Macdonald lost her father, who was a photojournalist, very suddenly, to a heart attack. ‘Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But we feel it alone,’ she writes. In the early weeks of her bereavement, she turned to falconry, a discipline in which she was already expert—it had been her passion since childhood. She decided to train a goshawk, a notoriously wild and temperamental bird, even for falconers. ‘They were things of death and difficulty,’ Macdonald writes, ‘spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets.
Macdonald is a published poet, a historian, and an illustrator, and all of these disciplines are evident in her magnificent book, which blends natural history, social history, literary criticism, autobiography and many other things together—audaciously, precisely, passionately. It is a necessary book, and those are precious rare. I bought this book in Oxford the week it won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, and it was the last copy on the shelf. Fate, perhaps. I read it in a day. Shortly before Christmas I read it again. Recently it also won the Costa Book of the Year. I know it is a book that I will return to many times.
On the same trip to Britain last year I stopped by the London Review Bookshop to ask after a copy of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, but it had yet to be published. I’ve been waiting for this book a long time. Rankine’s previous poetry collection, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, published in 2004, was recommended to me about five or six years ago when I was living in New York, studying for my Masters degree in poetry. I was astonished by it, and I am astonished again by Citizen. Like Macdonald, Rankine is a poet who embraces prose, visual art and more. Her book is as necessary as Macdonald’s is, though for different reasons.
A lot of people have been talking about Citizen—which has been nominated in both the Poetry and Criticism categories for the National Book Award in the USA—but there is a part of me that feels it is not at all my place to talk about it. Citizen is a book written by a black woman about the violence of white supremacy. It is a book that details the ways in which racism—including racist speech acts—render black personhood invisible, while ‘blackness’ as a racial category becomes hyper-visible. ‘It makes a dark subject,’ Rankine writes. ‘You mean a black subject. No, a black object.’
These lines are written with specific reference to the murder of James Craig Anderson, a 49-year-old African-American man who was beaten, robbed and run over by a group of white teenagers in Mississippi on June 26, 2011. Anderson’s murder is not the only hate crime that Rankine addresses—indeed, the book has already been updated since its first print run to mourn more recent black deaths. If Citizen feels timely, and it does, then it is also always timely for as long as live in the world in which we live. ‘To arrive like this every day for it to be like this,’ writes Rankine.
Citizen is printed on heavy, luxurious white paper stock, and I’ve been carrying it around in my bag. One day, recently, I was rubbing away at black marks that had accumulated on the cover and pages—becoming suddenly aware of my action, I stopped. The pristine appearance of whiteness depends on the constant, ceaseless erasure of any history that might call whiteness into question, and so black lives, past and present, are made to disappear.
Citizen sent me back to Jesmyn Ward’s brilliant, utterly devastating Men We Reaped, and lingered with me as I read Saeed Jones’ Prelude To Bruise, another nominee for this year’s National Book Award. Jones writes most often in couplets, his lines fluid but highly disciplined. ‘Boy, be/a bootblack,’ reads the title poem. ‘Your back, blue-black.’ H Is For Hawk, meanwhile, imprinted itself upon my much-delayed reading of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies—for it too begins with grief and falconry. This, also, is a form of serendipity: the resonance of one book in another, and then in another.
Anwen Crawford is a Sydney-based writer. She is the Monthly’s music critic, and a film and television columnist for Kill Your Darlings. Her Meanjin Papers essay ‘This Isn’t Working: Single Mothers and Welfare’ was published in Meanjin Vol. 73, No.3. Her book Live Through This is published by Bloomsbury.
11 Feb 15 at 9:12
It makes sense we are drawn to a subject matter that’s relevant to our emotional state, but is it really serendipity or is it just what we are receptive to at that time? Regardless, art as a cathartic process is a wonderful thing. Suite Francaise was one!