Mabel, “from amabilis”: Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk

I’d been meaning to read the book for a long time, well, at least since my father died. So that means I discovered English author Helen Macdonald’s book around the time I sat in front of my computer and Googled some words, something like “father’s death writing.”

Up came H is for Hawk. The Kindle sample sat unread, though, because I couldn’t bring myself to even think about my father’s death. Dad spent the last few years of his life trembling, breathless, and a ghost of his former self. Athletic to the point that he once toyed with the idea of playing for the New York Yankees, in the last picture taken of him, he resembles a survivor of the Nazi camps, swaying to stay upright, careful not to shift his weight to his swollen hip for fear of the lion-bite pain there.

So I left H is for Hawk on my Wish List.

But as anyone who’s lost a beloved parent knows, grief and memory cannot sit on the back burner forever. It boils up over and over, like a soup in a too-small pot.

That grief came to me, again, not too long ago.

In one of those bookish coincidences, where the right book appears just at the moment I need it, or when the Universe believes I require it, H is for Hawk appeared, peeking out from a pile of used books at a sale. Hidden like the hawk, whose feathers Macdonald describes in poetic detail, “patterned with a shower of falling raindrops,” blending in, unseeable without clear, sharp eyes.

Take this brief passage, a taste of the panache of this book:

Maybe you’ve glanced out of the window and seen there, on the lawn, a bloody great hawk murdering a pigeon, or a blackbird, or a magpie, and it looks the hugest, most impressive piece of wildness you’ve ever seen, like someone’s tipped a snow leopard into your kitchen and you find it eating the cat.

I see so many strands in H is for Hawk it’s hard to undo all the plaits. For the book contains multitudes, thoughts about life, death, bereavement, falconry, writing, wilderness, relationships, memories.

One thread concerns T. H. White, whose haunting book The Goshawk troubles Macdonald, because she feels so much for the poor bird that White took on. One thing in H is for Hawk that stands out: unlike White, Macdonald began her journey as an accomplished falconer, having begun at a very early age, in the company of her photographer father. White, whose book The Once and Future King inspired the Disney movie “The Sword in the Stone,” lived in a world of books and fantasy, not experience. He relied on words to guide him in his quest to tame his hawk. It is painful at times to read of his efforts.

As for Macdonald’s days with her hawk, the artistry of her words tugs at me, drawing me into the medieval jargon and mindset of falconry, of liminality between civilization and the wild.

Macdonald christened her hawk Mabel, an old-fashioned English name meaning “lovable, dear.” And in that act, she seems to transform her love for her father into something vital, alive, tangible. And in doing so, she herself comes back to life.

A resurrection, of a sorts.


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