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Holly Hughes: PASSINGS

It’s Earth Day, and this morning I spent my early hours rereading Passings, 15 poems about extinct birds—a luminous, heartbreaking, award-winning collection of poems from Holly J. Hughes.

Passings was first published in 2016 by Expedition Press as a limited-edition letterpress chapbook. It garnered national attention in 2017 when it received an American Book Award from The Before Columbus Foundation. As Holly says in her acknowledgments, “fitting that a small letterpress, itself an endangered art form, would be honored.” More than fitting, richly deserved.

It is our great good fortune that in 2019, Passings was reprinted by Jill McCabe Johnson’s Wandering Aengus Press. Although the gratitudes are slightly expanded, it is essentially the same and available from the press, or your independent bookstore

When I contacted Holly, she wrote back with these words—and it’s basically impossible for me to excerpt or condense them. Consider this essay, and the poem following, her Earth Day gift to all of us.

Listening Hard for All the Voices:  Writing Passings

Sometimes we don’t have a choice. Each time I tell this story I remember that moment coming down the stairs of my cabin and seeing the Audubon painting of the passenger pigeon I’d just  hung on the wall. The dusky-blue plumage and russet breast glow eerily in a stray shaft of morning sun, and the pair of birds caught by Audubon seem alive, inviting me to enter their intimate moment together. I’m not sure how long I stood there watching; at some point I heard a voice say: Write about us. You know. What happened. Yes, I did know, but I wasn’t sure I could. It was painful to contemplate writing about the slaughter of those vast flocks of passenger pigeons that filled the skies like a great storm back in the early 1900s. But the chance glimpse of their ghost spirits that morning felt like an invitation I couldn’t refuse.

That was the first poem in Passings.

Now they need company, I thought, and of course, there is no shortage of species of birds that have gone extinct, the list a heart-wrenching litany. As I researched each bird, I dug down through the sobering, overwhelming statistics for firsthand accounts, for stories that would bring each bird to life on the page, details that would allow us to see each departed bird in all its fleeting, fragile, idiosyncratic beauty.

I’m not sure when I knew I had a collection, but at some point, the project took on a life of its own. As the poems stacked up, the stories of how each species met its end began to repeat, became depressingly familiar: slaughter for feathers, for meat, for sport, for revenge; habitat loss, rats plundering nests. The list went on and on. I had written close to thirty poems when I realized I would choose only fifteen to include, no more, for that might be all we could bear. That decision allowed me to finish the collection. That and a book called Swift as a Shadow: Extinct & Endangered Birds, by photographer Rosamond Purcell, whose haunting portraits of extinct birds reminded me not to turn away.

This morning, as I write this, I’ve just returned from my morning walk listening to the shrieks of an osprey and eagle as they circle high above my cabin. While I watch, the eagle dive-bombs the osprey, who deftly somersaults, then regains balance, her wings flashing light as they catch the morning sun, this moment held briefly aloft. Eventually, the osprey returns to her nest in a tall snag down the street where I hope a young one waits. I’m not sure this is connected, but I think it has to do with being willing to listen hard for all the voices, past and present, and to make space for the silenced voices, too. If not the poets and artists, who will do this?

“Passenger Pigeon” is the first poem in Passings, and you can follow this link to listen to a choral presentation of it, performed by The Crossing Choir.

PASSENGER PIGEON

Echtopistes migratorius

            from the painting by James J. Audubon, 1824. On Sept. 1, 1914,
Martha, the last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo.

See how she bends to him, her beak held within his
while she waits for his food to rise up to her hunger.

He rests on the arcing branch, his neck a perfect answer to hers,
wings held aloft and slightly splayed while long tail feathers stream

away, Prussian blue going to dusk, breast russet, branch below
studded with viridian lichen to match his coat, colors chosen

by Audubon as he painted them in courtship in situ.
See how her colors foreshadow the fall—dun, mustard, black—

how her tail balances his wings painted in parallel planes,
how the drooping oak leaf holds them in place, stasis

in which they are aware of no one but each other.
Audubon captured them in gouache, graphite, and pastels,

not knowing they would soon be gone; in his time
they were more numerous than all other species combined.

They say the pigeons flew over the banks of the Ohio River
for three days in succession, sounding like a hard gale at sea.

Years later, guns splattered shot into skies stormy with pigeons.
Thousands plummeted, filling railroad cars bound for fine restaurants.

Now, of those hundreds of millions that once darkened
the skies, we are left with Martha, who never lived in the wild,

stuffed in the Smithsonian, Prussian blue feathers stiff,
glass eyes staring, waiting, still, for her mate.

—Holly Hughes

“Carolina Parakeet also has a  choral piece and this great painting by Audubon (see below). As a final note, let me add this direction, from the notes: “What You Can Do to Help Protect Birds,” climate.audubon.org

 

 

 

Could we hear some poetry now, please?

No matter how steep the climb, I’m so grateful today to be on this path with you. May the next four years, indeed, be “a time to heal.”

Meanwhile, there’s always poetry.

Joanna Klink has become a big favorite of mine, ever since reading an epigraph from her work in Holly Hughes’s Hold Fast. This poem is from Klink’s book, Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy. 

The photograph is mine, from yesterday’s walk on Big Gulch Trail, Mukilteo, something else that lifts my heart.

 

Processional

If there is a world, let me be in it.
Let fires arise and pass. The sky fill with evening air
then sink across the woodlots and porches,
the streams thinning to creeks.
In winter there will be creatures half-locked in ice,
storms blown through iron grates, a drug of whitest ardor.
Let the old hopes be made new.
Let stacks of clouds blacken if they have to
but never let the people in this town go hungry.
Never let them fear cold. If there is a world,
let it not be temporary, like these vague stars.
Let us die when we must. And spinelessness
not overtake us, and privation,
let rain bead across tangled lavender plants.
If there is a world where we feel very little,
let it not be our world. Let worth be worth
and energy action–let blood fly up to the surface skin.
If you are fierce, if you are cynical, halfhearted, pained–
I would sit with you awhile, or walk next to you,
and when we take leave of each other after so many years,
the oaks will toss their branches in wheels of wind
above us–as if it had mattered, all of it,
every second. If there is a world.

Holly J. Hughes

HOLD FAST, Holly J. Hughes. Empty Bowl, 14172 Madrona Drive, Anacortes, Washington 98221, 2020, 115 pages, $16 paper, www.emptybowl.org.

Rereading Hold Fast made my day. Among other superlatives I can offer about this collection, it’s a perfect book to hole up with during a pandemic. I knew this before Claudia Castro Luna, writing for The Seattle Times, closed her editorial (“Sheltering in Place, Our Inner Poet Soars”) with Hughes’s poem, “Holdfast.” (Click on the link to read Castro Luna’s wise words.)

One paradox of these poems is the way Hughes manages a deft and powerful critique of the world, while celebrating it: “all that can’t be said…./ the bodies, the dreams, the shattered stars flowing down / to where the river weaves the mustn’t tell with the imagined, / the unseen, the unheard, the fragile….” (“If the River”).

And the epigraphs! This one, amid others:

If there is a world, let me be in it.
Let fires arise and pass…
Let the old hopes be made new.
Let stacks of clouds blacken if they have to
but never let the people in this town go hungry….
If there is a world where we feel very little,
let it not be our world.

Joanna KlinkExcerpts from a Secret Prophecy

It was difficult to choose just one poem to share. But I think this one:

Against Apocalypse

No more crying over spilt milk, turned wine, over rain
that won’t fall, over calendar pages leafing in the wind

as decades blow past, wind that once lifted tenderly
each blade of grass now taking down towns.

Meanwhile, the earth spins on her axis, day and night arrive
on schedule, but seasons on strike, certainties flown

with the birds, ocean lapping, hungry at the shore.
Why do so few say it: the end of the world at hand. 

Still we post photos of risotto, take selfies
at the beach of our bodies buried in the sand.

We hunker down with YouTube, binge
on Netflix, take up Zumba. Meanwhile

politicians lead us like lemmings for the cliffs,
while the rest freeze in future’s brights.

Meanwhile, the earth keeps spinning. Sun rises & sets.
Civilizations come & go. We won’t be the first,

though we may be the last. But remember your neighbor,
who showed up with a pot of chicken soup, still steaming,

the day you lost power. Another who shoveled you out,
drove you to the ferry in his battered four-wheel drive.

Who knows what’s ahead: fast burn or slow freeze,
asteroids, black holes, exploding galaxies?

If someday none of us can see the sun,
remember this: the world you want to inhabit.

I’m so glad to be in the world amid these poets and these books. Thank you for reading along with me.

Sailing by Ravens

Holly with Fox, to whom the book is dedicated (Photo by Isolde Pierce

A month or so ago I was fortunate to be able to have lunch with an old friend, poet Holly J. Hughes. I have mentioned her on this blog before, as she is one of the authors of The Pen and Bell (with Brenda Miller). And, as if catching Holly between a thousand other calls for her attention wasn’t accomplishment enough, she gave me a copy of her new poetry book, Sailing by Ravens, published by University of Alaska Press (2014).

“Read the poems in order,” Holly told me as we parted. But I always read poetry books in order, gobbling them up (in fact) like novels–not short stories or novellas, by the way, novels, because the best books of poetry have just as much emotional content. Not easy, not on the surface like a more conventional narrative, but there nonetheless.

Sailing by Ravens did not disappoint. I knew from reading her earlier chapbook, Boxing the Compass (Floating Bridge, 2007), that learning to navigate rough seas would be interwoven here with the trickier navigation of a marriage and its end. But in Sailing, the metaphor of navigation is extended. Holly spent 30 summers working in (on?) the waters of Alaska (I’m quoting a review by Tim McNulty), “fishing, skippering a sailing schooner, and working as a ship’s naturalist. Her poems shimmer with authenticity.”  The poems about human relationships shimmer with authenticity, too. And all of the poems benefit from Holly’s willingness to carefully observe her world (and read about it), no matter how painful, or how beautiful. The prose poem, “Navigating the Body,” had an epigraph that sent me scurrying for a pen (“No land in human topography is less explored than love” -Jose Ortega y Gasset) and then took me into unexpected territory:

Navigating the Body

Our bodies an accumulation of coordinates, paths not taken, streets pulled up short, lonely alleys, dead ends. In the dark I reach out, find crows’ crooked feet, scrim of scars–proud flesh–read each scar, remember its time and place, its bright spurt of blood. These are the landscapes we think we know. These are the landscapes we’ll never know. In the dark, we make our way, mapping and remapping the continents each night. Like Scheherazade we keep doing this; like Scheherazade, this is how we stay alive. 

Confession: I’ve read this book three times. The first time through, the forms (sestina, villanelle, ghazal and others) as well as some of the subjects (Mercator, Flavia Gioia, John Harrison are only three) were lost on me. But as I read and absorbed the notes, and reread the poems, the book seemed to have a trapdoor in its floor that dropped me down into another level (into water? over my head?). It was only then that I began to appreciate the encyclopedic knowledge that I was being offered, in addition to the poetics, “Isinglass darkened, but not enough to shield our Eyes, / rays of Sun Fractal, spatterpaint retinas, Shutter stutters.” (Just two lines from “The Forestaff 1587.” Such sounds!) So, not just argot, then, but shovel-loads of sound and sense detail, “scooped, shovel by shimmering shovel, into the fish hold” (“What She Can’t Say”).

True, it takes a while to process such a treasure. But the trip is well worth it–and I’m pleased to heartily recommend this book.

Go to http://hollyjhughes.com/  to find more information about Holly J. Hughes (and links to reviews), and to Verse Daily to find another of her poems.