What does it mean to sacrifice for someone else’s art? Audubon’s Sparrow answers this question by way of a verse biography of Lucy Bakewell, the intrepid and largely unsung wife of the artist and naturalist John James Audubon. Set in the early decades of the 19th century, an era of dramatic growth and expansion in America, the book follows Lucy and John James as they fall in love, marry, and set off to make a life on the western frontier. Juditha Dowd weaves together lyric poems, imagined letters, and diary entries in Lucy’s voice with excerpts from Audubon’s journals and published works (which many believe Lucy helped to write and edit) to offer an intimate exploration of the thoughts of a young wife and mother. Moving from port to port along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, Lucy struggles to square the family’s poverty with her husband’s desire to abandon business and pursue his passion for nature. In a time when women are rarely permitted to work outside the home, Lucy draws on her education and musical talents to become a teacher, freeing Audubon to travel abroad seeking a publisher for The Birds of America. As she wards off financial ruin, Lucy’s natural confidence and independence emerge, along with a very different life from the one she expected. Nimbly written and sympathetically rendered, Audubon’s Sparrow is an enchanting blend of research and imagination—an indelible portrait of an American woman in need of rediscovery.
«Meticulously researched as well as beautifully imagined, Juditha Dowd’s Audubon’s Sparrow paints an affecting, intimate portrait of the marriage of the Audubons, told mostly from Lucy Bakewell Audubon’s point of view. The evocative simplicity of Dowd’s poetry lets us experience, better than in any of the existing biographies, the boundless resilience and inner strength that helped Lucy survive searing poverty, the loss of two daughters, and years of loneliness and hard work while her unreliable husband was away pursuing his art. Powerfully attracted to each other, Dowd’s two lovers inhabit their world as fully and uncompromisingly as the birds depicted in Audubon’s vivid plates.»
Christoph Irmscher, editor of Audubon’s Writings and Drawings
«How is a marriage sustained through bankruptcy, distance, the loss of children, and one partner’s single-minded focus on what, for many years, seems to be a pipe dream? In Audubon’s Sparrow, Juditha Dowd delves deep into both historical archives and her own imagination to craft a compelling portrait of Lucy Audubon, the unsung hero of her more famous husband’s story. If, as Lucy laments, ‘[h]e ishusband to his birds now, / and I am… I am what?’ then Dowd skillfully answers this question. In time-traveling verses, she brings the reader into the world of the Audubons—a world of ‘birds and mammals,’ ‘muddy feet,’ and ‘tender years,’ too.»
Irène Mathieu, author of Grand Marronage
«In Audubon’s Sparrow, Juditha Dowd masterfully blends lyric intensity with narrative in a sequence that gives us Lucy Bakewell Audubon not only as the wife of the renowned ornithologist, but also as a compassionate woman of great resourcefulness and courage. Using imagined diary entries and letters, the book moves us from the sweetness of a first love embedded in the natural world (“you have taught me to see / not only the cardinal // but light itself”) through the many challenges and resolutions of a life made difficult by poverty and a famous husband’s mercurial temperament.»
Pamela Alexander, author of Commonwealth of Wings: An Ornithological Biography Based on the Life of John James Audubon
«In Juditha Dowd’s Audubon’s Sparrow, in which Audubon’s wife, Lucy Bakewell, recounts her life with the great artist, some poems are airy, light, like little wrens flitting tree to tree, branch to branch; others, more like owls perched there, above the world but of it, their unblinking eyes taking in everything—both equal parts of Lucy’s character. More distant, high in the sky and hovering, always hovering, is Audubon himself, that glitzy, powerful and mercurial raptor of a man and artist casting his large shadow. In Dowd’s poetic hands, though, Lucy escapes that shadow, emerging into light. This, and the poetic vitality and variety of form she brings to bear, mark Dowd’s high achievement.»
George Drew, author of Drumming Armageddon
«With Audubon’s birds perched, like witnesses, in the corner of its and the readers’ imaginations, this intimate and moving collection sings a richly woven, whispery tale of their creation. At its center, Lucy Bakewell Audubon and her world of early America come to scrabbling, courageous life, one of sacrifice, mystery, and endurance—of love, in other words. What I find mysterious, to paraphrase a philosopher, is the background against which what I experience has its meaning. Juditha Dowd’s elegant and enchanting Audubon’s Sparrow provides a version of that background for these birds and these lives, against which they sing a newly meaningful song.»
David Daniel, author of Ornaments
«These persona poems form a book-length narrative which tells the story of the Audubons’ courtship and marriage, their journey west, the many moves, the long years of separation and crossed letters, Audubon’s petulance, and Lucy’s making a life of her own, on her own. Some take the form of letters, some are tender love poems: ‘I am your cello / bowed allegro moderato / I am your wild persimmon sweet and ripe.’ Lucy calls Audubon ‘Bird-catcher,’ ‘Dreamer,’ ‘my errant passerine,’ ‘husband to his birds.’ This is a compelling story, which reads like a novel and wisely leaves the last word to Lucy.»
Barbara Crooker, author of Some Glad Morning
Juditha Dowd is the author of a full-length poetry collection, Mango in Winter (Grayson Books, 2013), as well as short fiction, lyric essays, and three poetry chapbooks—The Weathermancer (Finishing Line, 2006), What Remains (Finishing Line, 2009), and Back Where We Belong (Casa de Cinco Hermanas, 2012). Her work appears in many journals and anthologies, including Poet Lore, Poetry Daily, The Florida Review, Spillway, Rock & Sling, Kestrel, and About Place. With the ensemble Cool Women she regularly performs poetry in the New York-Philadelphia metro area and occasionally on the west coast. Juditha currently lives in Easton, Pennsylvania with her husband and two cats, not far from where Lucy Bakewell began her long-ago adventure with John James Audubon. Visit her website at www.judithadowd.org.