The story that sets the poem “Audubon” into motion is true: the night my father died I was miles away in Texas while he, who had suffered for so long in California, accepted the inevitable as it in turn accepted him. Unable to sleep, I set out to write a passage through the difficulty, my heart cast out of its usual place, exposed. It did not matter much to me if I had broken some decorum, if I made selfish use of suffering, his, mine, or that of future readers who knew the man. I was doing what a love of words had prepared me to do, to make something, to transfigure, as tragedies do, pain into meaning, heartbreak into the redemptive and confrontational pleasures of form. So much for emotions recollected in tranquility. I was in the thick of something that seemed not hostile to art, but rather at the core of the unspeakable from which art derives its language. To speak this place into being is both a form of supplication and a violation. It is to attempt the impossible, which seems to me still to be the function of art, to honor silence in its own tongue.
This is not to say I do not understand the objections some folks have to the unabashed and ready rendering of the tragic, though to see this as “exploitation” oddly suggests not only selfish motives but also an act at the expense of another’s well-being. I understand as well that the sudden creative transformation of grief may figure in some contexts as premature or an exercise in bad taste. But I also think a general denial of the paradoxical nature of art’s engagement with the horrible via the aesthetic is common. In her book Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Hélène Cixious talks at length about how when your write about something, you kill it off. One interpretation I brought to this was the sense that representation is at once a negation and an affirmation, a barrier and a bridge to that elusive referent beyond our language for it. Thus whatever mastery we might sense in the act of creation is likewise mitigated by a certain helplessness, a knowledge that otherness can never announce itself as purely other.
All this set the scene for my encounter with Audubon, who clearly loved birds but not enough to spare their lives in the service of his art. His particular form of aesthetic murder, being literal, exploited his subject in a way that exaggerated the self-interest implicit in the act of creation. By way of his story, the troubling implications of the “detached attachment” of the artist’s gaze come into focus. I admit, I love Audubon’s paintings, and that love disturbs me when I think of the cruelty that made them possible. Part of what I admire is Audubon’s powers of attention, his near religious devotion to the designs of nature, not to mention the paint itself. As such his work, like all art, calls upon a simultaneous control and abandon, a ready hand, an open eye. Where the eye opens, the heart is soon to follow: such is our hope. In my poem “Audubon,” I wanted less to stand above Audubon in moral judgment than to make his tension my own. The only credible affection I know is through a hole in the self not the other direction entirely. I wanted the father now to participate in the writing act, to make of it less a declaration of feeling than an invocation to the unseen; less a testament of will than a collaboration with silence, the thing that dies the moment that it speaks.