Commonwealth of Wings: An Ornithological Biography Based on the Life of John James Audubon

Commonwealth of Wings: An Ornithological Biography Based on the Life of John James Audubon

by Pamela Alexander

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<P>Combining the best of poetry, nature writing, a 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 naturalistic-artist and gives him voice to tell his life story in fragments and letters, journal entries, actual vignettes, and lyrical passages. Captivating, and accessible, her poem reads with the authority of autobiography, the dramatic coherence of a novel, and the evocative clarity of an Audubon print. The reader, briefly transported to the natural world of America a century and a half ago, cannot help but contrast its condition today and feel a poignant sense of loss.</P>

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819569929
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 02/08/2012
Series: Wesleyan Poetry Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 72
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

<P>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.</P>

Read an Excerpt



Audubon Enfant

I First met the light and shook it Aux Cayes, my mother la créole Rabin who dies. I am one. Father finds for me a stepmother and they together a halfsister,
Muguet called Rosa,
& he is away. In his fields I cut pieces of cane for me & Rosa to suck. I am Jean.
My father marin learned this language in an English prison.
Later I count my days from France sometimes,
this place Saint Domingue maman hard to remember. New

world it is, my warm island, wilderness churning beyond the lines of coffee plants. The woman names me again Fougère you would say Fern,
names are charms and we need them.
There are places I cannot take the little one.
Edges of things are dangerous — where sea and land meet, or field and forest,
things get loose from their names.
On the edge of my family I call myself LaForêt my first self before I knew French or african or english words.
I saw red birds sign themselves in air before they sang, flourishing.
"Parroquet. Trogon." She carried me outdoors
& I reached for them, my stepmother said.
I am Jean Jacques Fougère LaForêt Rabin Audubon.

We Lose St. Domingue

My island has been gone for days, it shrank & flattened
& then sank like a skimmed stone. Rosa chuckled along with the water & didn't notice.
Father calls them rooster tails, the white arcs our ship trails at her fastest, when he is happy
& says the waves are French because they wear berets. We lean into the wind, we lean to France because the island darkened, the servants muttered among themselves & wouldn't answer.
Now I have no place to go. The waves march past us in rows, & talk, & make a chorus behind my father's stories, who never said so much ashore. Birds balance on the wind beside our sails or make chevrons on the big shoulders of clouds so they are captains. He says France will show me new animals & birds and I will have as many islands as I want,
I'll jingle them like pocket change, he says I am his little archipelago,
& I think how far we are going,
how big the world will be when we stop.

Nantes, the Revolution

Nantes. Geography, music threaten daily, école.
Four different seasons,
& rabbits & Larks are shy,
no sugar birds here to pick insects from furniture, neatly.
Buildings dress in uniform,
steep slate roofs the same blues
& grays as pigeons that settle
& scatter hourly from spires where metal flowers swing
& bang. Windows close to keep outside

out, where I find muskrats, watch their whiskers move
& the color of their fur change as it dries. Meetings,
loud talk, then not school but
siège, the city slams shut, bells are unmounted
& melted for cannon, the mouths of waterspouts taken from squares, coffins raised & opened for their lead. That is bad, will bring the dead among us & no one here knows the words to sing or where to pick the cleansing herbs.
Guns mark the hours now, raggedly,
some so close that when they speak my body rings
& I am disconnected, float without hearing my boots hit the stone street where I am fastest among grandfathers
& bell-shaped women. My paper boat rides to the current, I race along the bank

& find him & fight still as I do for animals but there is nothing to scare, only man-shape in wet clothes, in reeds, it doesn't matter his mouth is full of mud.
Old men bury him & he is not the last I find this spring.

The Siege Outlasted,

life is worse. Shivering royalists stand at the cathedral wall, those who faint are shot first so not to be overlooked.
Townspeople watch but only the muskets clap.
Flies come long before the carts. Loads are thrown into the Loire until the current slows then dropped midstream but the bodies make another bridge below,
& swell, & won't budge. We have no other place. Fevers take as many, more, than bullets, & death seems less because there are many.

At Coueron. My First Gun.

Mama & I
& Rosa, we hope never to meet another war. Here the land is flat & trim, sheep swerve together, hedges & fences keep order. I explore margins & flawed places while Rosa's piano turns a pretty flurry. I take chocolate in waxy papers & a basket to bring back nests & lichens, more strange than my lessons. The daily murders of the city are far, fewer,
then stop, & I forget them.

We grow apart, my sister and I, she domestic, says my blown eggs & stuffed birds stink. I close the door.

I shoot well, corks I toss come down in showers, my fingers gleam with powder. The gun kicks my shoulder,
its shout & smell clear me.
The bird falls,
always. I watch its color & shine & flare for weeks before I fire, but my sketch preserves only its deadness. I burn my pencil's generation of cripples on my birthday.

Sometimes I sleep near my Originals, on leaf litter beneath the trees they close their eyes in,
sometimes I lie awake in the quiet house
& listen to the nightwatch kept by the river, old water clock,
& by whickering horses standing to their sleep.

Father's Home,

leg-wounded, lung-sore, lieutenant de vasseau
pensioned. Puts the box of medals in the bottom of his trunk,
sits in the courtyard by the orangery and dozes when the sun is on him. White petals fall & mingle with his hair.
The chair tilts on the flags, he starts awake and finishes reading. Each letter makes the news bad & worse, finally the plantation in St. Domingue is lost complete. La Gerbetière, this place of limestone walks & box-maze, parterre & pigeon lofts,
has two journals of land. With a farm called Mill Grove in Pennsylvania, America, it is his last fortune.

His mind is busy with wars. The world is always burning somewhere, he says:
he smells it. He has a sip of wine
& coughs again, and says he fears my conscription. I will hide, pockets full of shot & powder, chalk, paper, cheese —
he shakes his head too slowly to mean No.

We Are Gentlemen Abroad

My French partner's passport's Dutch, I'm native to New Orleans to escape Napoleon's levies,
to which

our ship struck by privateers & stripped of wine, pigs, our best two sailors,
& kept in Rattlesnake's lee a day, in pistol range,
off Sandy Hook New York

is trifling.

sunburned & excited,
I learn that the body remembers motion: rooms & streets swoop seawise. I laugh at my sailor's walk but am suddenly weak —

burning, I ride long arcs, moan, crest in sunlight & slide, dizzy, down. Is it water makes such huge noise? Some dark thing looms, I struggle,
drenched, in a disarray of quilts —

So my English comes pirated,
fevered, Quakered. They wear gray dresses, & when they open windows trees waver in ordinary light
& I am John James, agent in America for Audubon père
who is words on paper here,
an Atlantic of days away from Rozier & me, men of business.



Mill Grove

My life is curious, immense, unruled as its new country in which my father's wars mutter only in the occasional basso among the river's many voices. High in one rocky bank I find a large dry cave and draw there;
a phoebe finds it too, then another.
Their conversations transpire above the pink bells of anemones, above trilliums white & red. I follow the creek called Perkiomen. I follow deer trails
& bear tracks & birdsong,
I follow currents of air. Soon every tree knows my name, the cane brake rattles to attention! I draw from life now
& finish nothing, dissatisfied, make outlines of hundreds of flying swifts and finches,
lively but incomplete, & fill my book with the cooperative faces of my neighbors the Bakewells. He, William, though english,
is a good shot and possessed of handsome daughters, excellent pointer dogs, and a son Thomas. Around us the woods cool
& flare with foxes, the Schuylkill River hardens for our skating parties
& we are rampant.

The Englishman's Eldest Daughter

We watched, Lucy Bakewell and I,
through the open window in the drawing room at Fatland Ford,
her father's pillared home I call the Parthenon to her. Within inches of the sill the nesting Wren takes ants and spiders,
still struggling, from her mate's bill.
When he flies into the room
& sings, I slide the sash down gently and he lets Lucy touch him; Lucy holds him in her hand.


I have always slept the way I ride, dance, and shoot —
when I want, and well. Tonight sleep is harder than waking,
my muscles at ready as if for danger, here at midnight on the edge of an obscure continent with my house and farm holding me,
quiet. My heart startles me, its surging so close to the surface. Is it always so? To put the parts of sleep together I tell my muscles one by one to be loose. Why should I not sleep? I was sick once, my fever on landing,
but I have never been afraid.
My heart slows. Under my hand it kicks

evenly, like a boy sitting on a wooden bridge who swings his lower legs as if walking on the green current below while he thinks he is not afraid, thinks he doesn't mind that his friends have slid out of sight leaving him perched, alone, too high! although he saw the water accept and then hold the others up, saw their backs gleam in the dark river, their heels graze the surface from beneath in a slow flutter,
although he knows from lesser jumps that the rush of water past his ears will sound like applause —

falling, I wake.

The Current

Lucy, look at that root diverting the current, leaving a still place where water & bank fit together perfectly, the water rising slightly around each stone to hold it, intimate as a nest around a dove. See the green rays that the sun behind us draws on the water, rays streaming outward from the shadows of our heads as if we were painted saints, see when we move closer we perceive each other's radiance more clearly? Closer.

Letter to Lucy

Pennsylvanian earth resembles us —
red flesh veiny with water, perfused with motion & stirred by all the quirky Energies of life, ours or a windy marsh with bitterns and ducks — that's a business fit for a man like myself, strong & quick as you can find, Lucy, and not to be found much longer in the pestilent port of New York as apprentice-clerk in a commercial house.
I did not realize how dearly I would detest it,
seventy-five thousand persons calling one place home! & me a merchant! My life has not subdued itself to Indigo & wine. Thoughts of thee were like the silver thread I tied last spring around the phoebe's leg, knotted loose to cause no injury but to hold forever. & soon I will return from a year of scribbling bad english in a dim room to show your father my worth. My sum would be no greater for any more of that. One year given him,
Love, I offer you the rest.

Our Conspiracy of Pleasure

I came from wildness and across it, at large among waves the size of this house, my journeys since that crossing shorter but innumerable. I have pressed my bootsoles into mud & moss & dry leaf duff, improvising paths in rangy curvilinear abundance as I followed my whim
& joy, that flew ahead, half-seen.
Your mother's frown, your father's sombre approval blow away in the vastness where waves lean & fall & resume, where new leaves loosen.
My hopes for us change as fast as light on water. I am rich! You are!
Your brothers & sisters dance, the candles gutter to their motion. Tomorrow, Lucy, Wife, we'll start our wedding trip, sunlit, we'll wade through the shallow mist that rises from April snow, then slide slowly a thousand miles south,
clothes and drawings bundled,
flatboated, Ohio-floated,
Kentucky bound,
with stores of things to sell because we must. But we will not complicate ourselves. Let others keep the books!



We Find the Outset Erratic

The first day the wind comes against us so hard a man can't turn toward it & breathe,
and we tie up in the lee of a bend since the bulky craft makes no way. Among a dozen of us passengers only Rozier is impatient, counting the hours as money lost. I lie with thee beneath four blankets in the half-open cabin, pleased,
listening to twigs skitter across the canvas roof.
The wind subsides at dusk, & the river changes its shaggy coat for close-lapped triangles that shiver apart & reappear. Among the men I am clairvoyant of weather, the captain's
confrère, and best at pushing us free of mud bars.
The current is our pilot now that moves us faster in the narrow channels beside shrubbed islands like large animals grazing on bottom weeds. Salt pork & biscuit is our fare, though I volunteer to shoot a fat fresh dinner given half an hour ashore. The captain refuses. Let him unstick us then at the next impasse. Are we alone in leisureliness? Yes, & doomed I see to an efficient honeymoon! Still Rozier fumes. In Louisville we'll set up shop and make him rich — he has nothing better to do — while thou & I will study to be Savants of happiness.

The Inn, Louisville

I feel you rend.
When I hear his cry I think my life has flown to another body.
And so it has.
Victor Gifford Audubon slides into this world on the third floor of the Indian Queen at leaf-height, at daybreak in my twenty-fourth year.

A Visit from Wilson

Business is a burden. We need cash.
The resolution of two unpleasantnesses charms me with simplicity — sell the business! At last life allows Gain and Ease to agree. Who would buy trouble? My partner Rozier is our profit here,
who will be paid in kind for being mercenary
& Dull witted, as he showed himself again when that odd Scotsman visited the store.
Naturalist, he called himself, & carried dozens of drawings, Folio size. Spread on the counter they astonished me. His best were small-headed Flycatcher & Mississippi Kite, neither as life-like as I have them. He talked of publication
& I was curious about his life altogether —
but Rozier, muttering the while in French which the Scot seemed not to know,
burst out in english worse than mine that I would have no more money to throw away especially for silly pictures. Today the stranger is gone, & the querulous flute from his room late at night. Rozier sulks. The man's a mule.
I'll put this business on his back.

At Ease

If I had known such contentment existed I would have sought it sooner. I knew I wanted thee, & now the home I didn't know I longed for is real, built at Bayou Sara of logs & lichens & of our selves.
My life is with you & with my wandering,
the mill runs itself which suits me better than a store.
Geese preen in the dooryard & spread their clipped wings.
Soon Victor will be hunting bigger game than the dozen turtles he has grabbed, giggling.
Now he watches them sun, delicious,
inconspicuous, in the fenced pond.
Johnny, who came while I was away,
is old enough just to rock & be sung to,
Sur le pont d'Avignon l'on y danse l'on y danse.
Our few disturbances are natural: storms,
& ice on the river breaking in spring with a sound like artillery.


I have cause to despair and will not.
I owed & was owed, availed myself of a dozen niggling Partners,
my steam Mill did worse and I was forced to sell my horses,
house, land, the unfortunate Machine itself, now stilled except squirrel-flickered & shouted at by Jays that eat from open sacks of grain.
Jailed for debt, I do not repent the three good years wooden shafts turned at the center of my excursions.

The air is odd, now, empty of racket that attended all my homecomings, grown noisier otherwise with the children, one old enough to follow me.
He must see how few men bow to his father on the street although I decline to notice, just as I ignored the garment the gaoler tossed me after taking my silk shirt to sell with all else incidental. Long hair fell over my bare shoulders & warmed me until Lucy brought another shirt,
less fine but my own. The sheriff said I acted like an Indian which I will take to mean honorably & misunderstood.
I own now these clothes, one gun, drawings considered worthless
& my confidence. The drawings must be seen. I will be admired by more than myself & family, or I mistake my efforts.

A Profitable Life

eludes me. Risen again to the world, I thought to settle, taxidermist at the Museum in Philadelphia,
but have stuffed myself most industriously out of business, even did fishes after all the Fowl.
The man who hired me has left and no one else knows how to sign my name to a note? Lucy no matter. We have been unmoneyed before.
My purpose, that had staggered,

lifts. It makes me simple, a curve my hand draws without government by a round thought.
Enjoying my life I will enlarge it
& for this must peregrinate, reckless in others' eyes but regular to my Plan
& you will be my astronomer, you will see its shape, my hope realized, ah! thrush by thrush.

I give my self a year to make one Hundred drawings & here begin with my young friend Joseph Mason, & Dash the game-wise dog,
our first productions a Telltale Godwit and hermit Thrush
& further a portrait of a shoemaker and his Wife in fair trade for two pairs of boots, Dash needing none.
We take our work & comforts from the woods as far as New Orleans, a penny between us.

We will stay the winter. I wear my good shirt to the bookseller's to glimpse Wilson's book which is dear. Joseph & I finish 20 drawings including boat tailed Grackle, brown pelican and a Warbler not described by the Scot. I am improved,
laying a ground of water colours under the pastels to prevent appearance of the paper, but the work slows with necessity, the city parries employment with expense.
A few warm days we set up on the street & draw from memory faces of persons famous here, to show our skill
& have some reward. Twice we are awakened to take likenesses of old men dying, and one clergyman disinters his young daughter that we can preserve her Forever.
In March having made portraits everywhere we find no more sitters & leave, pockets full of chalk.


Excerpted from "Commonwealth of Wings"
by .
Copyright © 1991 Pamela Alexander.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

I. 1785–1803,
Audubon Enfant,
We Lose St. Domingue,
Nantes, the Revolution,
The Siege Outlasted,
At Coueron. My First Gun.,
Father's Home,
We Are Gentlemen Abroad,
II. 1803–1808,
Mill Grove,
The Englishman's Eldest Daughter,
The Current,
Letter to Lucy,
Our Conspiracy of Pleasure,
III. 1808–1826,
We Find the Outset Erratic,
The Inn, Louisville,
A Visit from Wilson,
At Ease,
A Profitable Life,
My Ornithology Proceeds,
Letter to Lucy,
Journal, at Sea,
IV. 1826–1829,
Letter to Lucy,
From My Journal,
Letter to Victor,
I Imagine Thee,
V. 1829–1840,
After the Stir & Sweep of Travel,
I Am Restless despite Myself,
Cape Florida,
To Lucy,
Inventory. Journal.,
Aboard the Ripley,
Inventory. Resolve.,
VI. 1840–1851,
Letter to John Bachman,

What People are Saying About This

James Merrill

“Thanks to Pamela Alexander a legendary life hatches before our eyes: the precise glint of detail, the gradual soaring of diction.”

Linda Gregerson

"It is very rare indeed to encounter a poet so willing to submit to the imaginative discipline of a life separated from her own by cultural circumstance, by gender, by vocation, by temperament, by history. Pamela Alexander has minutely attended to the life and work of John James Audubon and to his voice as recorded in letters and journals. She has produced a poetic sequence of great stateliness and scruple, a sequence mobile in its wit and sympathies, articulate in its passions, accomplished in its music."

From the Publisher

"It is very rare indeed to encounter a poet so willing to submit to the imaginative discipline of a life separated from her own by cultural circumstance, by gender, by vocation, by temperament, by history. Pamela Alexander has minutely attended to the life and work of John James Audubon and to his voice as recorded in letters and journals. She has produced a poetic sequence of great stateliness and scruple, a sequence mobile in its wit and sympathies, articulate in its passions, accomplished in its music."—Linda Gregerson

"Thanks to Pamela Alexander a legendary life hatches before our eyes: the precise glint of detail, the gradual soaring of diction."—James Merrill

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