Combining the best poetry nature writing, and biography, Pamela Alexander in her book-length 'persona poem' brings to life John James Audubon and a world not yet aware of nature's limits. She distills the essence of this remarkable naturalist-artist and gives him voice to tell his life's story in fragments of letters, journal entries, actual vignettes, and lyrical passages.
Drawing on biographies, journals and letters, Alexander Navigable Waterways has fashioned a moving poetic account of the early 19th-century naturalist and artist. She takes us through Audubon's life, from the loss of his natural mother in Haiti, to his childhood in France amid the tumult of the Revolution, his unsuccessful business ventures in this country, his commitment to painting ``all the Birds of America, / in the size of nature,'' and his journey to Europe in search of patrons and publishers. The poems are in Audubon's voice, and Alexander does a remarkable job of maintaining a consistent tone, but one that evolves naturally with the age of her subject. Alexander's language has an uncomplicated, lyrical quality that evokes the naturalist's love of nature's organic simplicity. Away from his wife for years at a time, Audubon wrote to her often. In ``Letter to Lucy,'' he writes, ``thy presence moves in my mind like a shy bird / that flies before me, bush to bush.'' Imagining himself a bird in the masterful ``Air,'' he sees ``thousands of gannets / surging upward, wings of the closest striking my face, / and I rise, momentarily, with them.'' May
Audubon was a naturalist, an ornithologist, and an adventurer: ``I am a collection of landscapes.'' Despite the title, these poems do not intend to stand as a biography. Alexander brings a touch of the poet to his story, playing fast and loose with the facts. She is quick to note that ``many of the incidents and thoughts in the poems are fictional; others are inventions around a bare fact,'' and some are assembled from letters, journals, and such, recast in her own language. Audubon's was a curious life, but he enjoyed the world. Often we get the sense in these poems of that quiet, lovely America that Audubon knew. Alexander is sensitive to the details that matter. The artist and scientist is real in these lines, but one senses that much is missing. What we have, though, is considerable. --Louis McKee, Painted Bride Arts Ctr., Philadelphia
From the Publisher
“Employs the fiction writer’s narrative strategies, the poet’s music, and the autobiographer’s intimacy . . . a linguistically inventive and emotionally compelling portrait”—Robin Becker, Prairie Schooner
PAMELA ALEXANDER won the Yale Younger Poet award in 1984 for Navigable Waterways (1985) and has published poems in the New Yorker and Atlantic. After writing short persona poems on Amelia Earhardt and Howard Hughes, she says, “I had an urge to write longer poems about unusual people.” Her interest in Audubon dates in part from childhood, when her mother, a veteran birder, “talked to me about ecology decades before the word was commonly used.” She currently teaches in the Writing Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.