Book Review: Audubon’s Sparrow: A Biography-in-Poems by Juditha Dowd
A Review of Juditha Dowd's Audubon's Sparrow: A Biography-in-Poems by Thomas E. Simmons
Exposition is an essential but elusive aspect of any narrative. With an epistolary work such as Audubon’s Sparrow, it can prove especially tricky. Writers frequently solve the problem with the insertion of imagined clippings from newspapers or other news reports. Since a journalist’s audience will require background information and context, its inclusion feels more natural than its placement in an exchange of personal letters or dairy entries. Recreated newspaper accounts can thereby supply an occasional omnipresent narrator to connect the dots.
Dowd eschews that approach, and the narrative of Lucy Bakewell’s life story is too obscure for most readers to rely upon for context. Instead, an elegant preface supplies a foundational framework. From then on, Dowd’s seventy-seven pieces – imagined letters, diary entries, some free verse poems, even a bill of sale – carry their own weight in moving the narrative forward. A Chronology as an appendix fills in additional sequencing. A few reproductions of Audubon’s lithographs are also appropriate additions.
Rose Metal Press, the respected small press responsible for Audubon’s Sparrow, claims as its tagline, “An independent publisher of hybrid genres.” Indeed, Audubon’s Sparrow qualifies as a hybrid. That said, however, Dowd is a poet. Even her non-poems seem like poems (much as Mary Karr’s memoirs read more like verse than prose). Still, it is fair to characterize Audubon’s Sparrow as a hybrid work. The imagined letters scan very much like bona fide 19th century personal correspondence. The poems read like poems.
The story begins with Lucy Bakewell’s introduction to John James Audubon (formerly Jean-Jacques Rabin) told initially through her diary entries. One entry reveals their growing affection as she adopts a pet name for him, La Forest. On the eve of Bakewell’s marriage to Audubon, her diary entry – titled “Tomorrow Morning” – captures the impatience and optimism of an eighteen-year-old. It reads:
La Forest returned to us on Monday night
By contrast, the pure poems function as interiorized thoughts never actually committed to paper. They are more dreamlike – less Victorian – and more beautiful.
Still other pieces combine the natural and poetic voices, as in “Henderson, Kentucky:”
Less competition here
A Notes section in the collection’s appendix confirms that although the italicized language quoted above sounds like that of a poet’s, it is in fact genuine historical text (minus a comma) extracted from the third volume of Audubon’s Ornithological Biography, or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America (Adam & Charles Black, 1835) by the ornithologist himself.
Historical reconstructions of women and minorities who lived in a more bigoted age can create instabilities in the hands of 21st century authors. As a title, Audubon’s Sparrow suggests discomfort with the 19th century worldview of women; it hints at an irreverent, diminutive, and timid characterization of Bakewell even as it is adopted by the collection’s author. (The reference to Bakewell as a small bird has historical roots in that Audubon once directed an engraver to inscribe a swamp sparrow plate with his wife’s name for reasons now unknown.) Yet Bakewell was resourceful, spirited, and tall – very unlike a sparrow. Slaves are simply mentioned twice in the collection in a matter-of-fact way, without comment, which may also seem insensitive, but it keeps the voice authentically early 19th century white upper crust.
Although boasting aristocratic origins, both John Audubon and Lucy Bakewell were immigrants. Bakewell grew up in England and arrived with her well-to-do family at age fifteen. Audubon, born in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), was spirited out of France by a father of means with a forged passport so as to avoid conscription into Napoleon’s armies. The two married in Connecticut in 1808. They soon met with severe and incessant financial worries, with Bakewell supplying the laboring oar to keep their fragile household boat afloat.
Eventually, Audubon returned to Europe, attempting to market his naturalistic paintings and find an audience which evaded him in America. Bakewell remained behind. In the primary arc of Dowd’s collection, Bakewell struggles to support the family with private teaching contracts during Audubon’s multi-year absence. Their letters cross. Their marriage falters. His return becomes less and less certain, even as he makes good on his ambitions to build a fan base.
In “I Will Not Write Tonight,” Bakewell’s thoughts compose themselves into a complaint:
let him swagger
These poems bubble with imaginative empathy. They are truly engaging. They take wing. Dowd dignifies Bakewell without diminishing the mercurial genius of her husband or Bakewell’s affection for him. Dowd paints Bakewell as sympathetically bitter and – at the same time – essential, honest, and heroic.
John Audubon has been closely studied by biographers and rightly celebrated in poems, most notably in Robert Penn Warren’s book-length Audubon: A Vision (Random House, 1969). Attention to Lucy Bakewell has been more or less limited to a straightforward prose biography by Carolyn E. DeLatte, Lucy Audubon: A Biography (LSU Press, 2008) which focuses on Bakewell’s early life. Scrutiny of Bakewell by poets is long overdue. Dowd addresses that deficiency with a worthwhile, evocative, and finely wrought contribution.
Thomas E. Simmons is a professor of law at the University of South Dakota’s Knudson School of Law. He is a lifelong South Dakotan, an amateur historian, and a practicing lawyer. His scholarship addresses fiduciaries, inheritance, wealth, incapacity, and death. His first full length collection of poems, Tod Browning Loose-Leaf Encyclopedia, a poetic biography and series of film studies, was published in 2020 by Cyberwit.