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On Mortality and Margaret Renkl's Late Migrations

Near the center of Margaret Renkl's Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, you will find "Bare Ruin'd Choirs." Like all of the snapshot essays collected here, this one is brief, barely edging onto the second page. Also similar to many of Renkl's pieces is the literary allusion in the title. So frequent is this practice that Renkl includes a Works Cited section at the back of the book. Scholars might not need the annotation, recognizing those words - Bare Ruin'd Choirs - from William Shakespeare's Sonnet 73: That time of year thou mayest in me behold, which reads:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see'st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire,

Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In these words, planted in the heart of her book, is found the root and seed and trunk and flowering of Renkl's collection. Late Migrations is a unique and uniquely beautiful book, a reflection on that which has occupied each of us, even Shakespeare, for all time: mortality.

Besides being the core of the book, "Bare Ruin'd Choirs" is also my favorite. In it, Renkl enfolds the natural and the human, wrapping a sadness within a contentment, the poetic inside her prose:

My favorite season is spring --- until fall arrives, and then my favorite season is fall: the seasons of change, the seasons that tell me to wake up, to remember that every passing moment of every careening day is always the last moment, always the very last time, always the only instant I will ever take that precise breath or watch that exact cloud scud across that particular blue of the sky.
How foolish it is for a mortal being to need such reminders, but oh how much easier it is to pay attention when the world beckons, when the world holds out its cupped hands and says, "Lean close. Look at this!"

Foolish it may be, but we do need such reminders, to pay attention, to search the trees and light poles for hawks or to follow the gaze and cry of the squirrels and jays into the grass where a snake might be hunting. We do need to be reminded that the stories of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers deserve to be preserved because they are also our stories. We need to be reminded of this great truth:

"In the stir of too much motion:

Hold still.

Be quiet.


Interspersed with quietly stunning artwork from the author's brother, Billy Renkl, this book insists on connections, those between members of a family, and those between humans and the natural world. It is, as the subtitle indicates, a reminder that

the shadow side of love is always loss, and grief is only love's own twin.

Or as the great bard put it:

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Renkl's book is the perfect accompaniment to these season-changing days, the days of captured attention in the sunlight and the grieving days both. For what is a life, after all, if not these things?


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