I think of Jesus, the circuitous way he wove images together to explain to his disciples things they hadn’t seen, but he had. It’s like this, and then also: it’s like that. I imagine the disciples nodding, their desire to understand so ingenuous, so severe, that they almost convince themselves they do understand. And in the next moment, as they scatter their separate ways, each one carries his own set of images from their teacher’s exposition. The answers have jumbled together. They seem to have lost their meaning. But all they have lost is their hard edge of certainty. Now, the questions gleam brighter than before.
Hawk Parable is like this. A pastiche of locations, of first- and second- and third-hand observations, it is daydream as much as elegy. It veils its hunt for truth in the guise of a birdwalk. As it wanders, it opens our eyes to see what we might see:
...You arrive like an answer
to a question I didn’t ask....
Many of the poems in Hawk Parable have titles that indicate they are to be understood as some other form. Among them are a parable, a dream, a hypothesis, a reaction, three songs, a speech, an oath, some field notes, and a personal history. Each of these seems to be an attempt to see history plainly, to approach a difficult truth from different angles. I tried to piece them together into a fully formed image, but their edges were ragged and left gaps. I wanted to understand so sincerely that I almost thought I grasped an answer, but there is none. Along with the narrator in the final lines of “Negative Peeled from a Cardboard Album,”
to teeth, I feel a question come—
The question comes throughout the book, and keeps coming. My grandfather’s possible involvement in the Nagasaki mission has remained a mystery, the Notes section tells us. Neither we hearers nor its teller have gained any answers from this Hawk Parable. Rather, each poem illuminates one of the many facets of the question. Woven together, they form a story we almost understand.
The Notes section itself is a sort of poem, a litany of sources “borrowed from” and “alluded to.” As we read and recite this litany, we understand more of the work’s many layers. Among the sources are Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons; John Donne’s “The Sun Rising”; accounts of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings; Leviticus 16:22; the December 1943 issue of National Geographic; Declassified U.S. Nuclear Test Films #12 and #56; Pantone colors; Google Maps; and the 1937 biography, Madame Curie. In her search for answers, the narrator casts a wide net of questions, assuming the dispassionate methodology of a researcher to address an accumulating set of deeply personal and passionate concerns.
This dispassionate passion finds a moving form in the section of prose poems called “Repository.” Coming mid-way through the collection, they seem to acknowledge that the author’s intuitive, reflective quest has yielded no answers—that perhaps a different approach is necessary. They read as a field guide to a bizarre, true world that is “a value of gray that reminds me of the moon.” In this world, “We buried tools and clothes from some of the 106 atomic bombs we exploded in the Pacific and the 911 atomic bombs we exploded in Nevada....” This is a world in which we feel the need to warn societies 10,000 years hence of our misdeeds. But how? “We want faces that portray horror and sickness. We do not want these faces to be stolen and displayed in museums and private collections.”
And yet, the narrator also recounts the way “Christian monks preserved early English poems—trees becoming Christ. In lettering the early songs by daylight, then candlelight, these monks happened to create an archive.” The theme of archives coheres this collection. Here, the opening line of the final poem, “Elegy for the Human Shadow Etched in Stone”:
Archive of a person, you cross your legs
below the sun....
What, then, is the difference between a museum and an archive? Perhaps it is the hiddenness of the archive, its potential to engender private meanings, to keep secrets in its assorted scraps. As opposed to a museum that curates and explains, an archive offers raw material that may or may not hold the meaning we seek. And yet, we keep seeking. Hawk Parable is like that.
The collection’s central question (that “mystery”) is revealed slowly, even as it leads to deeper and more complex questions, hinted at, muffled, all but unasked. In “‘Mike’ Test,” the narrator “swallow[s] vomit after watching” a video of
...the coral shore
my grandfather could have flown over—
the typed label of his photo
With her, we intuit what we haven’t read on the torn label, what we didn’t hear the grandfather say:
My grandfather told [my brother] once: to escape,
fly so high, the enemy can’t read you,
the clouds wound in balls
of cotton candy, the drop
tickle in the stomach, the lift—
he hardly spoke to us
the rest of the afternoon.
For all the scraps it collects, Hawk Parable distinguishes itself by the spaces it leaves. What is unsaid, unwritten, or unknown nevertheless develops its own reality and takes a visceral hold on the narrator, on her grandfather, and on the reader. In one of the most moving sections of the book, the “Exposure” sequence, Mills “borrows from accounts of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.” In the last piece of this sequence, “It is,” we hear the survivor, the narrator, and the grandfather seemingly speaking in unison:
It is impossible
for me to write
After all that we have witnessed in these pages—the said, the unsaid, the documented, the imagined—we do not begrudge the speaker this silence.
Philip C. Maurer is a poet and essayist who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in the Christian Century and elsewhere