PRINT December 2015


Anne M. Wagner

I’ve never encountered a book like Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk (Grove Press). The cover presents it as a memoir about loss and falconry, one that dazzles and fascinates, and this is true. But the fireworks and fascination don’t seem sufficient to account for the sensation that something mysterious, something marvelous, something more or other than talent and skill, has shaped its pages. I don’t quite know what to call this quality—not profundity or vision, not aliveness or aloneness, but some unique hybrid of all four. Macdonald feels and sees not just like a hawk (though close enough) but also like a reader, a thinker, and a poet. She has weathered love and mourned death. If H is for hawk (a goshawk named Mabel, “from amabilis, meaning lovable or dear”) it is also for home and heart and hurt and Helen herself, who is a character in her narrative as well as its author. In 2001, Macdonald published Shaler’s Fish, her first and still only collection of poems, introduced with an epigraph borrowed from the artist Paul Nash: “Death, about which we are all thinking, death, I believe is the only solution to this problem of how to be able to fly.” To read this is to think again of “lovable” Mabel, and thus to recognize that for Macdonald, too, death and flight go together. It’s the only way.

Anne M. Wagner is a contributing editor of Artforum. She is currently working on a book about materiality and sculpture.