Choosing Peregrine

This essay appears in the anthology Wildness: Voices in the Sacred Landscape, published by Homebound Publications, copyright 2016.

But whether it was a bird of prey

Or prey of bird I could not say

~Robert Francis

                       

My husband calls me from upstairs. Hurry. Quick. Look out the window. Do you see it?

The front yard slopes toward the road, about thirty feet from the house. The blacktop of our driveway, and a low gray rock wall give way to a grove of trees, a blend of grey bark, brown earth, and the pale paper of lingering beech leaves. Thinned out in late autumn, the laurel trunks twist and spread their muted and monotone still-green foliage. A weathered stump and the lamp post are the only variables. Eric is pointing, directing my eyes, which see only the tessellation of space between laurel branches. There, behind the light, scan just to the right. The low branches. Do you see it? I have to find the movement with my eyes before I put the binoculars to work. He’s told me by this time what I’m looking for—a peregrine falcon and its kill.

It’s the junco’s white belly that alerts me first. Shredded white feathers scatter—emptying as if from a torn pillow—scatter, not falling to the ground but filling the space around the two birds. By the time we’ve repositioned ourselves at the second floor window, she’s flown to a higher branch, a vantage point better for our view, and more stable, perhaps, for the harder work of flaying the junco’s breast, a better angle for the scalpel beak, leverage for talons. Through the binoculars, she is a giant, but the magnification diminishes her effort. She could not have carried her prey too much farther than the neighboring branch she decided on. Downy, with elegant grey plumage, she wears speckles and delicate brown dashes on a whitish underbelly. I’m surprised by how blue she is. The sky matches her with snow-worthy slate. At various angles, tawny cheeks and a black mask bob in steady motion, shielding the claw-clutched prey, instinctually hiding what no one else can have. Nothing else moves in the yard. She is at it for forty-five minutes. I am at a loss for words. By the time it’s over, all I have is the conviction that peregrine is more melodic (and I think) more accurate than falcon, and this is how she should be called. That may be all the precision my retelling can muster.

I wonder about this as I sit down to my notebook. The camera has failed in such unforgivable ways, and memory is doomed to be insufficient. What else do I have? The worlds outside our windows should be shared worlds. I want to preserve the episode for my future self, to recount it at family gatherings, tell my friends through social media. I want to brag. But the nature we experience through others will always come through a filter. I take this to heart. “There is nothing in which people differ more than their powers of observation,” wrote John S. Burroughs. As a nature lover, I cultivate my powers of observation. As a poet and teacher, I practice seeing and sharpen the senses by trying them out on paper. Like deciding to open the window or draw the shade, I deliberate on a point of view.

I told you about a junco, but it could have been a nuthatch, maybe the one I watched traipse down the oak this morning after insects which I haven’t bothered to name. The woods are filled with unnamed critters, some visible for mere seconds at a time. Most never surface from earth cover or give up their camouflage or grow big enough to be noticed. Notice matters; spectacle speaks. The peregrine is singular; the everyday birds multiply and seem interchangeable. I may be able to describe any one of them from memory, if I could only be sure of its pedigree or be able to scan the table of contents of its daily migrations. As the peregrine’s anonymity vanishes into a declaration of authority, the victim becomes just another white bellied meat source. That’s one way of telling it. When I shift my vantage point, the quarry becomes small and delicate, slow, uncoordinated. A junco with its own story, its own beauty. Its black eyes pierce a cozy landscape of forests and food; a feed stop offers suet and kibble. A shadow passes; there is no escape. I hold my breath because I don’t want to disturb the moment. I exhale, and I’ve already altered it.

Any snapshot is filtered by the viewer’s eye and a lifetime of other sights. I do not intrude. Or do I? Our choice of words matters so much and we must consider them as we would territorial boundaries. If I say surveillance, do I imply deviance? If I chose bird’s eye view, do you applaud my attention, or mock my sarcasm?  If I say hollow bones rather than banked blood, which is accurate? When staving off hunger wins out over lunch time, the value of one sunflower seed, one unlucky bird, goes up like a sprinkler in a year of drought. The actions I describe can never be neutral, and you are always in my line of sight. Phrases like habitat loss echo through the woodlands like the tapping of beaks. Survival of the fittest signals the surrender of tree mites and dormant caterpillars. And juncos. As literate creatures, we hold much in our hands, the language of fight and of flight. The natural world—so vast and varied, so holy and violent—will one day disappear. We will all fade into the sepia print of the past. The endurance that nature teaches us is what we have to bear the loss. It may seem a small thing, but the way we catalog what we see can shape the extent of our preservation and shape our ability to heal and honor, celebrate and remember. It is an earned privilege—the naturalist as chronicler. If I say watcher, do you think witness? If I say prey, do you hear prayer?

Peregrine, from the Latin meaning “one from abroad.” A wanderer, one who migrates. The peregrine stands 15 inches and can spread its wings three and a half feet. Peregrines mate for life. Both parents tend their young. The peregrine can catch prey in flight and reach speeds of 240 miles per hour. I choose to tell you this. Do you see it? She has pierced the windpipe with her talons and killed the bird instantly. She is hungry. She will eat its bones. She is beautiful. I try to capture her, but she flies away. She is both my words, and beyond them.

What I forgot to Ask

finding my inner earthworm

My explorations of voice and point of view have led me to the creation and publication of Mouthbrooders which is now available through Homebound Publications and where ever books are sold.

During six months of vocal cord paralysis, author and professor Amy Nawrocki turned to the written word and fell in love with language again. The result of this exploration is her stunning collection Mouthbrooders, full of the sounds and their echoes—ravens screeching, eggs cracking, and acorns falling. Faucets drip, pens brood, souvenirs slip through fingers. As Nawrocki struggles to find her own voice again, she midwives the voices of catastrophe, of memory, and of the small miracles of everyday life.

back-cover copy

A few years back, I ran a workshop at the Miller Memorial Library in Hamden, CT, where we discussed our connections (personal and literary) to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll’s book never really grabbed me as a young reader, and after reflecting as an adult, my associations were more negative than positive. This isn’t really surprising, since at their roots, the imagery and adventures in the children’s tale are scary and uncomfortable.

On the other hand, rereading the text, I began to notice the language and the way that Alice (and Carroll) described the processes of transformation. In particular, at the bottom of the rabbit hole, she encounters the “small passage” and “[longs] to get out of that dark hall and wander those beds of bright flowers.” As she laments, she wishes that she could “shut up like a telescope.” The phrase struck me as peculiar, both visual and metaphorical. I couldn’t get the phrase out of my head, and so eventually wrote “Shutting Up Like a Telescope” to probe my own ideas about fitting into spaces.

Shutting Up Like a Telescope–“an earthworm’s titanic nucleotide”

Here is a different exploration of my reflections on Alice and her adventures. I wrote this exploratory memoir following the workshop:

Finding My Inner Alice

I come to Alice from a tree branch, from a separate limb. Maybe I’m the Cheshire Cat, watching myself watch her. I have no immediately accessible memory of time or place. No matter. I see from my pocket watch that I’ve arrived too late. She’s already gone down, and only by looking back—or looking through—or catching my reflection in my own looking glass—does she manifest. 

My mother read to us often, and I recall, impressionistically, other books: their muted green covers, gold edged pages and pen-and-ink drawings. This is how I can render Toad and Rat and Badger in my mind from Wind in the Willows. I can still touch those pages.

Though I can’t pinpoint how I came to know her, it’s not hard to picture Alice, her blue dress and white pinafore painted like so many others in the Technicolor of Disney. But whether her image is a piece from a specific moment or a combination of moments, I don’t know for sure.

But it seems that my memory of Alice begins on page 8. I imagine that I’ve seen this drawing before, and that the first time I saw it I felt something. The image of long-necked Alice, stretched like silly putty and uncomfortably large, frightens me even now. It conjures in my mind a sense memory, something tactile, as if I can feel the vertebrae in my own neck separate. But unlike the thrill of seeing each inch of your life penciled on a hallway wall as you grow and age, I see Alice’s elastic neck as strangulation, instead of release. The key I need is out of reach.

Instead of watching my feet disappear underneath me, I watch a body in torment, and just for good measure the Queen of Hearts has come along to say with all the echo of childhood discomfort: “Off with her head!” The rabbit hole is dark, and the looking glass reflects a fat little girl who can’t stand to be seen.

Alice’s neck is most vivid because it speaks to my nine-year-old self and the torture that my own body inflicted on me. Betrayed by the little cakes and drinks of “cherry-tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffee and hot buttered toast;” betrayed by birthdays and elongating limbs, adolescence simply became “curiouser and curiouser,” and I became sadder and sadder. Even now, Alice’s long neck frightens me out of my skin.

Purchase your copy of Mouthbrooders and check me out on Soundcloud.

When do you rest?

from “What I Forgot to Ask”

My latest collection, Mouthbrooders, is set for an official release on June 10. Order now from Homebound Publications and use  INDIESTRONG when you check out to receive 20% off on your entire order.

During six months of vocal cord paralysis, author and professor Amy Nawrocki turned to the written word and fell in love with language again. The result of this exploration is her stunning collection Mouthbrooders, full of sounds and their echoes—ravens screeching, eggs cracking, and acorns falling. As Nawrocki struggles to find her own voice again, she midwives the voices of catastrophe, of memory, and of the small miracles of everyday life.

Mouthbrooders, published by Homebound Publications

“With language that freshens and lends intrigue to the familiar, Amy Nawrocki makes a sacrament of life’s ordinary rituals from gardening to shoveling snow to waiting at the DMV. Whether it’s a walk in the woods, a meal, or the travails of illness, readers are in the moment with her. I delight in worlds with ‘lollipops that suck away loneliness,’ where a woman is ‘foraging for her lover’s shoulder,’ and there’s a ‘taxidermy of goodbyes.’ I want to linger and read again.”

–David K. Leff, author of The Breach and Terranexus

Wintering

Almost a foot of snow fell last night, and this morning’s best-laid plans were tossed away when the plowman’s tires spun more quickly than the clock which told me I’d be late for class. Machines did what machines do, a little better than we can do ourselves.

Here’s to shovels shoveling.


Waiting for the Plowman

In the morning: Rousseau’s Confessions. Breakfast:
something forgettable and unfulfilling, toast,
the white of an egg circling a shiny yolk.

By midday, the desert of chalk buries the laurel
and watching juncos burrow under the feeder
suffices for motion. Blank under its plastic face

the kitchen dial signals two o’clock with sleek
anemic hands. Within the hour, sugar held
in the spoon’s mouth is let go into black liquid,

and boots, scuffed and sheltered alert the tangled
knit scarf to concoct itself. At four, shovel in hand
I depart to do the job myself. The man

and his truck are nowhere to be found
even though the blizzard’s end is new
and he promised and there is a lot of it.

Lighter than a pile of proverbial feathers
but sticky and heaping, the first bundle I take
begins to build a dune around the driveway

but there is nowhere else to go and no rest
and nothing to do to lessen the white
except to bend at the knees and let it fly.

“Waiting for the Plowman” first appeared in the summer 2016 issue of Sixfold, and will appear in my forthcoming collection Mouthbrooders, coming out this summer from Homebound Publications.

New Release

Just released, the first episode of The Vanguard Podcast featuring writers David K. Leff, Katherine Hauswirth, and me, along with musician Lys Guillorn. Join these conversations at the Forefront of Creativity with hosts L.M. Browning and Kelly Kancyr.

See also The Vanguard Podcast to subscribe (or listen on iTunes, YouTube, and more).

This episode includes a conversation between me and L.M Browning about my poetry, teaching, my inspiration for writing, and finding my way into prose. My essay “Giving Up the Choke Hold” is a tangent to The Comet’s Tail: A Memoir of No Memory, so I’m excited the podcast is available now. Both start at about the 19-minute mark.

Here’s a poem from Reconnaissance to celebrate The Vanguard Podcast’s release.

Birdsongs

Having forgotten
what a line looks like
on a page, I unwrap
a notebook and tune
to Charlie Parker. If I Should
Lose You, wait for the record,
metal now and shiny,
to hiccup into
its grooves. Scattered
over an unseen stave of five
parallel lines, the blue
narcotic notes from
a saxophone scatter
like debris
in a wind tunnel.