Audubon’s Sparrow by Juditha Dowd

Audubons-Sparrow-Front-Cover_Low-Res-300x450
.
By Charles Rammelkamp
.
Subtitled A Biography-in-Poems, Juditha Dowd’s insightful collection concentrates on the famous naturalist’s wife, Lucy Bakewell, showing us the incredible hardships both she and her husband endured. While some of the poems are in John James’ voice, most are from Lucy’s perspective, in the form of diary entries and letters as well as lyrics that reveal her mind. Audobon himself lived to the age of 65, dying in 1851 after suffering a stroke several years earlier and slipping into dementia, and Lucy survived another couple of decades after him, but the arc of these poems covers the twenty-five years from their meeting, in 1804, to their departure for England in 1829, when Audubon’s success was just at its start.
.
When they meet in their rural eastern Pennsylvania community near the Schuylkill River, Audubon is only nineteen years old, Lucy seventeen. Born into a wealthy English family that were friends with the distinguished Priestly and Darwin families, Lucy Bakewell had come to America only two years before. John James Audubon, whose ancestry was a bit less genteel, had a French background, via San Domingue (Haiti).  The second poem, an 1804 letter to her cousin Euphemia, concludes with a decorous allusion to their growing mutual affection.
.
As to how he pronounces my name, you may not be surprised
to learn I now prefer it uttered by the French.
.
Lucy affectionately refers to John James as “La Forest,” suggesting his love of the outdoors, his vigorous nature. He’s a lively young man who charms her mother and her younger siblings with his swaggering liveliness. As Lucy says in another letter to her cousin, “Mr. A. is fond of dancing. He treats us to his fiddle
.
or accompanies me on pianoforte, and he’s taught us all
some charming French chansons.
.
For this reason, Lucy’s father is skeptical of him, but for better or worse, they marry three years later.  Soon after, they head west, into the frontier.  Dowd likens John James to Papageno, the comic character in Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, at once playful and wise“To tell you all this truth in simple words,” Papageno famously says, “I make my living catching birds.”  
.
While his primary drive is always collecting specimens and drawing them in detail, for the next ten years, Audubon makes a brave effort to support his family through various business ventures. He and Lucy have four children, though two of them, Lucy and Rose, die in infancy. In Kentucky, he goes into business with his brother-in-law running supply stores, a sawmill, but they lose everything in the Panic of 1819.  In a poem set around three years earlier, “Audubon at the Window,” Dowd shows us John James musing to himself:
.
I do not dissemble when I say that I’m a happy man,
though something weak within me says I’m not.
Fall has unmistakably arrayed our woods,
and ice has skimmed the creek beyond that stand of holly.
I cannot see it, for I’m here amid the bales and boxes,
flour bins and raisins, and the woolen socks,
hoes and skillets, twine and carriage straps,
the cabinet where we keep the guns and shot.
.
I’m a provisioner of farmers, of travelers and families,
while something in me sighs that I am not.
.
Oy, what poet or painter hasn’t felt the same, toiling away at his or her clerical job, or serving customers in a store or restaurant?  But after the business failure, John James devotes himself to his passion, first at the Western Museum in Cincinnati, then in New Orleans and eventually Europe. These next ten years are tough ones and put a real strain on the marriage. Lucy and her husband spend years apart while he is in Scotland and England trying to get his work published.  Except for fleeting journal entries and occasional desperate letters to Lucy, we do not enter Audubon’s thoughts as much as we do Lucy’s, on whom the burden of supporting the family falls. She becomes a teacher at a plantation in Louisiana for an imperious Southern family and then later sets up teaching on her own. Correspondence between husband and wife is intermittent and overlapping.  Poems like “I Put Aside Pride” indicate the humiliations Lucy endures for her husband’s sake, just as in an earlier episode, when the family’s finances are falling apart in Kentucky, in a poem called “I Remind Myself about Gossip,” she reflects: “What wife escapes a husband’s reputation?”
 .
The sequence ends on a happy note with their reunion in Louisiana after years apart, but more tragedies, as well as triumph, fame and financial success, will follow over the next 40 years. Dowd includes  all of this information in a Preface, an Afterword and a Timeline, but the essential drama in Audubon’s Sparrow focuses on the sacrifices of the early years and the love that sustains them.
 .
Audubon’s Sparrow – the title refers to the swamp sparrow Audubon had inscribed with Lucy’s name in The Birds of America – is satisfying on so many levels, for its lyricism, the love story, the history, the sense of life in early nineteenth century America. The book also includes five illustrations from Audubon’s work, including hawks, a downy woodpecker, the mocking bird, and not least, that swamp sparrow.
.

You can find the book here: https://rosemetalpress.com/books/audubons-sparrow/

.

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf

.

.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s