Book Review: Audubon’s Sparrow
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk
What a wonderful book. Juditha Dowd has created a biography of Lucy Bakewell Audubon, a person in her own right but also the wife of John James Audubon, the artist so famous for his Birds of America. The “sparrow” of the title is a kind of nickname for Lucy herself as well as a reference to a particular engraving of a (male) swamp sparrow, attributed to Lucy; the black and white illustration provided in Audubon’s Sparrow shows the label, “Drawn from Nature by Lucy Audubon,” suggesting she drew it herself.
Snippets of information from various sources are collaged in among the poems, and resemble poems, adding to the intricacy of the book’s structure and content. Notes, a chart, a timeline, a preface, and an afterword add to the rich reading experience. The poems take various forms, including letters and diary entries. Indeed, Rose Metal Press specializes in hybrid forms, and has created the perfect cover for this one, designed by Heather Butterfield and incorporating a letter from John James to Lucy.
Some of the poems can stand alone and indeed were published separately elsewhere, including this gorgeous love poem, first published in Schuylkill Valley Journal:
Again I wake to your heat
your scent of wood smoke
your body as familiar as my own
and yet a mystery…
touch me yes
I am your cello
bowed allegro moderato
I am your wild persimmon sweet and ripe.
Lucy was a musician and later taught music to support the family while her husband was off (shooting and) drawing birds. “In the end, music may be the hero of Lucy’s story,” says Dowd in the preface. “For without its comforts, to say nothing of it becoming her livelihood, Lucy may not have been able to withstand the hardships and loneliness that dogged her for so many years.” Dowd also adds Mozart, particularly Papageno from the opera The Magic Flute, to the delights and the organizing structure of this book, as “Papageno the bird-catcher dresses as a bird himself as he wanders the woods.”
All of the poems sit beautifully in their context, like birds perched in nature, advancing the biographical narrative while flickering with detail and emotion. Often title and date help us track where and when we are in the course of the Audubons’ lives:
We loaded up a flatboat to capacity
floated a hundred miles downstream
to open the new store.
Less competition here
more birds to draw.
In the opening two stanzas of “Henderson, Kentucky,” yes, we get the necessary facts, but we also see and hear poetry at work: the staggered lines showing the movement of water, internal slant rhyme (“loaded,” “floated”), blank space to breathe in, to listen to the silence or the water.
The book is divided into sections with epigraphs, and I paused in my reading of Audubon’s Sparrow to re-read Eudora Welty’s short story, “A Still Moment” when the Rivers section opened with this quotation from it, about John James Audubon: “He made a spelling of the soft pet of the ivory-billed woodpecker. He told himself always: remember.” I still remember my astonishment upon learning, from this story, that Audubon had to kill the birds he drew.
In the story, his action of shooting a heron as it stands in perfect, still beauty, also shocks a preacher and a bandit who have come together with Audubon and the heron in the same “still moment.” Welty gives Audubon a deep vision and connection with the bird: “In memory, the heron was all its solitude, its total beauty. All its whiteness could be seen from all sides at once, its pure feathers were as if counted and known and their array one upon the other would never be lost. But it was not from memory that he could paint.” A murder of a human is prevented in this story, but not the murder of a bird.
Just as Welty used imagination to create the beauty mixed with horror of that still moment, Dowd relies on her imagination to create the life of Lucy Bakewell Audubon in this book of linked poems. I loved learning the personal history here and so admire the mixed beauty, sorrow, and sweetness of such lines as these:
Perhaps we both are pining for a world
that’s slipped away from us
or for a mate that’s flown.
Kathleen Kirk is the poetry editor for Escape Into Life. She is the author of eight poetry chapbooks, most recently Spiritual Midwifery (Red Bird, 2019) and The Towns (Unicorn Press, 2018).