Audubon's Sparrow: A Biography-in-Poems
Audubon’s Sparrow is a unique book, a biography in poems of John James Audubon’s wife Lucy Bakewell. Author Juditha Dowd manages in this brief volume to vividly render the lesser known partner of the renowned ornithological artist.
Lucy most often on these pages speaks for herself through imagined diary entries and letters, crafted as original poems by the author, including occasional direct quotations from Lucy’s actual letters.
John James Audubon’s voice is also heard through this deft combination of original poetry with quotations from his journals and letters. The arc of the couple’s initial romance and later life proceeds chronologically—often Dowd introduces a poem with date and place, as in a letter or diary entry.
The couple meet and fall in love in 1805 when he comes from his home in Haiti to Pennsylvania. She is eighteen, they marry three years later, as soon as her father would permit it. The couple’s passion endures but changes over the course of time and difficulty. They experience the loss of two of their four children, bankruptcy, and long separations while John James paints in the wilderness, later brokers his work to publishers in Europe, and all the while depends on Lucy’s work as a tutor to support him and their family.
Lucy’s voice remains consistent, but changes in tone and depth as she matures and weathers the hardships of their life. She was a pianist and a cellist; music and birdsong are constant refrains in these pages, though in an increasingly minor key. Here, for example, in an early passage is her youthful exuberance as a bride:
“Headed west this rainy morning
the track more rock than road
I remember our courtship husband
(again the thrilling word)
how we begged the fathers to permit our marriage . . .
and that phoebe pair you showed me once
lovebirds you called them
leveling your gaze.”
And here, 20 years on, the tone is tinged with weariness and anger as Lucy writes of a mockingbird outside her window:
“. . . this is the bird I’ve heard all night.
Does it tease me with its changing tunes
or is the thing (as I am) too confined
and too confused
to have one of its own?
Perhaps we both are pining for a world
that’s slipped away from us
Or a mate that’s flown.”
This is a slim volume, but each spare page contains a depth and breadth of story. Rather than reading like fictionalized biography or autobiography these poems convey concentrated, allusive evocations of Lucy’s deepest feelings. Dowd becomes Lucy, addressing a demanding, difficult, beloved husband. The simple, restrained language suits her time; the suffering and the love are timeless.
The author notes in her introduction the shortage of biographical information about Lucy Bakewell Audubon. “While Lucy’s words can be found in her surviving letters, we most often glimpse her obliquely, in the shared life as told by others, the spotlight on her flamboyant husband. This is a poet’s loss and luxury.” Dowd uses that loss and luxury fully, incorporating what is known, and intuiting what is not. Ultimately, the author lets Lucy quietly step into the light and command centerstage of her own story.
Dowd introduces one section of the book with an epigraph from Eudora Welty’s story “A Still Moment.” Readers who seek out that story (in The Wide Net and Other Stories, 1947) will find John James Audubon himself among the characters whose paths converge and almost collide just as a snow white heron appears in a quiet but transformative moment. It is hard not to believe that Lucy Bakewell Audubon might approve of Welty’s story, and be equally pleased with Dowd’s lyrical imagining and telling of her own overlooked story in Audubon’s Sparrow.
Audubon was artist and ornithologist, Lucy was both teacher and musician, and Audubon’s Sparrow as a book is artfully produced by Rose Metal Press: a small feather floats at the corner of each page, reproductions of Audubon’s plates, and portraits of Lucy and her husband add another dimension. Dowd’s combined depth of research and imaginative understanding, results in a remarkable work—brief, spare, and deeply rewarding to read.