Audubon’s Sparrow: A Biography in Poems
(Rose Metal Press, 2020)
Pennsylvania poet Juditha Dowd is, in her own words, “perpetually bewitched by the narratives we devise to re-imagine ourselves and the lives of others.” Such bewitching is the basis of her new book, Audubon’s Sparrow: A Biography in Poems (2020), which relies on historical documents and Dowd’s imagination to explore the life of Lucy Bakewell Audubon, wife of the naturalist and artist John James Audubon. In this verse biography, we come to know Lucy—the depths of her devotion to and love of John James, the ways in which she made his career possible, and the glue with which she kept their lives together even in difficult times. The narrative that emerges is simultaneously tender and gripping, direct and oblique, much like the woman herself. In understanding Lucy, we also get a fuller understanding of John James himself, as Dowd inspects Lucy’s role in his life’s work and in their life together.
Ruth Foley (Rail): I’m always fascinated by the ordering of a manuscript, and since the order of Audubon’s Sparrow is dictated in large part by biography, I’m curious about how these poems were written. Where did you get your grip on the narrative and what threads did you follow as you drafted? Did you write the poems in any order, or order them later, filling in as necessary? Did you find yourself writing to fill any holes in the story?
Juditha Dowd: I never intended to write a verse biography of Lucy Bakewell Audubon. In fact, I’d never heard of her until I borrowed my husband’s copy of Richard Rhodes’s biography John James Audubon: The Making of an American (1960) almost 10 years ago. I immediately fell for John James, who jumped off the page, brimming with energy and charm. But after a few chapters I found my interest shifting to Audubon’s wife. In a quieter way, Lucy’s strong personality seemed as interesting to me as his. I wanted her perspective on their adventures, their unusual marriage, even as I sought more information about both of them.
Soon I found Lucy or John James cropping up in some of my poems—one-offs that didn’t end up in the book but were published elsewhere. They were third-person poems, basically reactions to what I was reading. But at some point, I became committed to telling Lucy’s side of their story. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it just happened. The poems gradually became less random and more intentional. After many false starts I eventually wove a loose narrative of letters, diary entries and dramatic monologues. Once I was reasonably satisfied with the narrative arc, I moved the poems around, alert to how that affected the story. Then I revised and added more. Much later I wrote half a dozen new poems to fill in where they seemed necessary. All this took about four years.
Rail: Can you talk about how you chose which aspects of Lucy Audubon’s life and marriage to write about? How did you discover her voice when pieces of her own writing were scarce, and did you find that voice developing as the poems progressed?
Dowd: Since the book is about the Audubons’ marriage as much as their adventures, it made sense to begin when they meet as teenage immigrants in 1804. This allowed me to represent their personal growth over time, both together and apart, without having to constantly fill in backstory—which I find much more difficult with poetry than with prose. I chose moments which seemed especially important to Lucy, such as the death of a child or the dawning realization that she cannot really depend on her husband. I wanted to emphasize the strong physical attraction they shared, which I think sustained them through many trials. I also wanted to picture their everyday lives on the frontier. A variety of personae forms—letters, diary entries, monologues—added texture and allowed me alternatives to choose from.
When trying out diction and vocabulary, I thought a great deal about what is known of Lucy’s personality, character, and the conventions of her times. Her surviving letters were a great resource. But the most important thing was a change from writing third-person poems to writing in the first person. Now that the poems were in her voice rather than about her, I felt closer to Lucy. Still, something important was missing. Quite late in the writing I reexamined my relationship with a grandmother to whom I had been very close and whose life and marriage resembled Lucy’s in important ways. When I acknowledged this as a source, I was able to inhabit my character in a way that had eluded me.
Rail: What brought you the decision to make that change to first person from third?
Dowd: An editor who saw an early draft was kind enough to comment unsparingly about what she considered the manuscript’s flaws. I don’t remember her actually saying that third person was not doing enough for my characters, but that was my takeaway. As soon as I rewrote just one poem to allow Lucy to speak directly, everything began to change.
Rail: Can you say a bit more about your grandmother and her own personality?
Dowd: I lived with my maternal grandparents during World War II. She was born just a few years after Lucy Audubon died and resembled Lucy in her character, skills, outlook, service to others and ancestry. Like John James, my grandfather had a charismatic personality, artistic talent, and an interest in the natural world. Their marriage was not as dramatic as the Audubons’, but there were common themes that influenced me from an early age. It took me a while to recognize this, but when I did it seemed to open another window.
Rail: Is there any way in which questions of the uncredited work of women arose that you haven’t addressed here (either in the book or in its preface)? Lucy herself, for example, often only hints at the amount of labor she is doing on her husband’s behalf, thus minimizing it herself. For example, in “He Breaks with Rozier,” she allows herself a quick “I admit I am relieved”—the shortest sentence in the entire poem and one which speaks volumes about the amount of work the split with Rozier has relieved her of. In “This Afternoon We Saw Them Off,” she says only that she must collect John James’s back wages, with no indication of the discussions and negotiations between her and John James that must have occurred when he failed to collect them himself. Do you want to talk about this silence (or any other, or several—there are lots)? Related question: Audubon also elides Lucy’s work (see, as an early example, “Broad-Winged Hawk” and his, “My wife sat beside me, reading to me at intervals,” which, while giving a nod to her presence and support, reduces that support to a very minor role). What does his silence say?
Dowd: In my view, both Audubons were very much of their times. And 19thcentury America was a man’s world, even more so on the frontier. Before arriving in America, Lucy’s family of wealthy English gentry had been part of a circle that included the Darwin and Priestley families. Though these were educated people, much influenced by the Enlightenment’s emphasis on liberty and reason, women were viewed as weaker and by nature best suited to a subordinate role. Which is not to say they were considered unimportant or ignored. John James spoke of his wife respectfully and fondly, but I have no doubt he saw his destiny as her destiny. I think she would have agreed. He made most of the decisions, and she made the best of them. (Of course, these attitudes, in some form or another, persisted throughout the 20th century and can still be found today.) So it follows that women of Lucy’s class and era were discouraged from speaking their minds too forcefully, reticence being a good trait. But still they managed to have their say. Lucy was both smart and well-educated for her time. I see her as skilled but careful with language, particularly in the early years of marriage, winning her way (when she could) by reason, persuasion, patience and perseverance. These habits of language are reflected in her letters to others, as well—her sister, father, cousin. She had been schooled in them from birth.
As to Lucy’s thoughts about work, it’s important to understand that in her time women were mostly barred from paid employment. Women, of course, had a great deal of work to do at home, especially those who could not afford help, but that went along with their perceived nature and role. For unmarried or widowed women who were not supported by their families, few respectable jobs could be had. Fortunately for the Audubons one was teaching, considered a form of domestic service and poorly paid. In fact, sometimes, room and board might be the only compensation. (In Audubon’s Sparrow, Lucy mentions her difficulty collecting overdue tuitions in New Orleans). Without Lucy’s work, which supported the family for long periods and eventually helped John James fund the publication of his early bird folios, I don’t know how the family would have survived. And while I think Lucy was a talented teacher who probably gained considerable satisfaction from exercising this skill, her life was at its most challenging and painful during those years.
Rail: Let’s talk about the illustrations you included and why you included them, beyond the poems that address them correctly. Why these specific illustrations? What speaks to you—or to Lucy’s story—in ways that other illustrations might not? Why, for example, is there no illustration for “The Passenger Pigeon”?
Dowd: Originally Audubon’s Sparrow didn’t have illustrations, not because I didn’t want them but because I believed it would impede my finding a publisher for an unusual book of poetry. And I did have trouble placing it with presses that generally publish collections, even though the book was a finalist in three book contests. When Rose Metal Press, a publisher of hybrid and other hard-to-categorize books, accepted Audubon’s Sparrow it confirmed for me that I had earlier misjudged my market. Rose Metal’s editors had great suggestions for expanding the book, many of which were things I’d wanted from the start but didn’t dare hope for—including a chronology, a family tree, and yes, Audubon bird illustrations. In all, the book grew by 40 pages. But we agreed not to overemphasize these illustrations in a book primarily about Lucy. I chose the five plates carefully. They are not the best-known birds, but each was relevant to the part of the book where it appears. Often they’re a visual echo to something in a nearby poem. And though I love the passenger pigeon plate, it is one of his best-known and seemed to have less to do with the dual narrative.
Rail: How did you decide when (and in what ways) to include John James Audubon’s voice in the book? How do you see those poems as serving the whole?
Dowd: It became increasingly difficult to tell the Audubon story exclusively from Lucy’s point of view because John James was away so much. I wanted to show the contrast between two lives that sharply diverged for long periods. Making Lucy solely responsible for the dual narrative was inconsistent with my goal of freeing her voice and allowing her to focus on herself. Occasionally giving John James his say also helped flesh out the narrative. Adding in bits of his published works was an experiment that came late in the writing, but it proved a useful window into life on the frontier, as well as the years John James spent in Europe trying to publish The Birds of America (1827).
Rail: Lucy often shows her adoration of John James in quiet ways—I think of her description of him in “My Husband Does Not Lie,” coming back from the woods, passionately engaged in his work. As when she speaks of her own work (or doesn’t), I see her silences as containing much more than she is willing to put to words. Even when she is speaking directly of passion (as in “Almost Morning”), her words are spare and separated by white space. Is Lucy, as you see her, a woman who is uncomfortable allowing her thoughts to be made external, or one who deliberately leaves them unsaid with the knowledge that she will be understood? Is her quietude behind the idea that others might see her as “put[ting] on airs”?
Dowd: Again, this would seem connected to Lucy’s particular upbringing, as well as her era. Women were not encouraged to spout their feelings. Modesty and reticence were praised. Moreover, William Bakewell, Lucy’s father, was a no-nonsense, practical man guided by reason rather than emotion. His children were raised and educated in this manner. While there is every indication he was a good father, it is doubtful he was expressive or doting. Perhaps this might explain Lucy’s attraction to Audubon, an effusive, flamboyant and impulsive man who was visibly passionate about so much, including Lucy herself.
What we haven’t mentioned yet is that, like John James, Lucy was physical and athletic. Throughout her life she loved to ride, swim, dance, garden. She was attuned to the senses. I’ve imagined Audubon as awakening the sexual aspect of that natural physicality. In “Almost Morning” she is awash in pleasure, not really thinking about anything.
Rail: Again and again, I am struck by Lucy’s willingness to do whatever needs to be done, and John James’s unwillingness (what Lucy would likely call “inability”) to do so. Do you want to talk about that at all?
Dowd: In fairness to Audubon, it appears he tried for some period of time to adhere to what was expected of him, ambitiously starting several enterprises, despite his seeming lack of talent for business. The Audubon family lost everything in the financial trauma caused by repayment of the Louisiana Purchase debt, as did many other settlers. Had this not been the case the story may have been quite different. In the end I think John James had an increasingly powerful obsession and couldn’t resist giving it his all. Lucy attempted to understand and support this, even as she did everything possible to keep the family afloat. But did she resent it, question it, sometimes despair of it? I think the answer is yes.
Rail: I’m also struck by John James’s willingness to be driven by emotion and his discomfort should Lucy do so. I don’t know that this is a question, but it feels clearly related to the above.
Dowd: John James was clearly driven by emotion, though he may well have been good at offering practical excuses for his actions. Willingly or not, Lucy became the counterweight to that emotional drive, and perhaps he depended on it to keep him steady. At any rate, without this balance it seems unlikely their relationship could have survived. On the other hand, divorce or even formal separation had huge negative ramifications for a woman of her era, including shame and penury. She might well have seen that as intolerable, even at her most frustrated. After she created and made a success of her school on two New Orleans plantations, Lucy gained badly-needed confidence, some financial security and a renewed sense of self. Had her husband not at last come to get her in New Orleans, instead insisting that she meet him in Philadelphia when he returned from England, I suspect the marriage would have ended at that point.
Rail: What's next for you?
Dowd: Since writing this “accidental” verse biography, I’ve become very interested in what others are currently doing with persona poems and historical figures. Right now I’m reading Gray Jacobik’s brilliant Eleanor (2020), just out from CavanKerry Press, and The Hand That Rounded Peter’s Dome (2010), a wonderful poetic biography on Michelangelo by George Drew. At the same time, I’m reconsidering a long-stalled project of my own that suddenly seems alive with new possibilities.