A Review of Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations
July 24, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Courtney Ruttenbur Bulsiewicz
Margaret Renkl and I are strangers, yet as I was reading her collection Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, I couldn’t believe how much we share.
Parts of our hearts are held in Alabama, where she spent her entire childhood, and I spent part of mine. Both of us “were always barefoot.” I too “grew up playing in the woods, and all my life I’ve turned to woodland paths when the world is too much with me.” We both have realized as adults that “Sometimes Santa Claus has to wait till the hour before the store closes on Christmas Eve to get the markdown prices.”
Both of us have dealt with postpartum “depression, mastitis . . . loneliness, a baby who needed to be held all the time . . . . We moved from bed to sofa and back again, day after day after day. I smelled of sour milk and vomit.” And, unfortunately, we share our heaviest common ground: the grief of losing both parents, our fathers first and then our mothers.
Loss surrounds us. Renkl writes, “This life thrives on death.” And she gives us multiple instances showing how this happens in nature: crows eat the cardinal’s eggs, “Someone steps on a cockroach on the dark sidewalk, and by morning the ants have arrived to carry it off.” Cottontails eat their young. In the world of birds and snakes it is easy to see how one animal’s death feeds the life of another, but how, in relation to the personal losses we all experience of our loved ones, does life thrive on death?
Though I know Renkl is onto something here, I don’t want her to be. I don’t want goodness to come from the awfulness of my parents’ deaths. How could I thrive after that? When I lost them, I was still in my 20s, a time of life when most young adults are thriving, but life as I knew it ended—twice. Renkl’s parents died later in life, and she knows this pain. She knows how death kills not only the deceased but the living as well. Her description of losing her mother is wholly accurate: “I felt as if a madman had blown a hole through my own heart. Unmoored, I could not stop weeping.” Several years removed from my losses, I still weep. But even in that grief, I think I know what she means. I can see now how growth has come from decay.
Since losing my parents I have consoled others through the loss of a parent. I have gained confidence in my ability to push through devastation. I am determined to work out, trying to stay as healthy as possible because, like Renkl, I don’t “want my own children to face the agony of losing a parent too soon,” though as she points out, “loss is too often something I can do nothing about.” I have become more cognizant and grateful for my time with my loved ones since losing two people I wish I had all the time in the world. This is perhaps the aspect of death that fulfills Renkl’s thesis the most, that has the potential to bring more life: death helps us see what is important, what can bring us joy, pushing us to take in moments with our spouses, children, siblings, in-laws, extended family, friends. Loss helps us remember what was important. What is gone but still a part of us is still capable of bringing us joy through remembrance. Renkl writes:
Human beings are creatures made for joy. Against all evidence, we tell ourselves that grief and loneliness and despair are tragedies, unwelcome variations from the pleasure and calm and safety that in the right way of the world would form the firm ground of our being. In the fairy tale we tell ourselves, darkness holds nothing resembling a gift. What we feel always contains its own truth, but it is not the only truth, and darkness almost always harbors some bit of goodness tucked out of sight, waiting for an unexpected light to shine, to reveal it in its deepest hiding place.
Late Migrations is just that: an unexpected light shining, bringing beauty and clarity to loss. Renkl has depicted a glorious world in this collection—a glorious world not despite its darkness, but because of it. Her prose warms and welcomes you into her world of bewildering opposites that we all experience and can connect to grief and joy, life and death, fear and acceptance.
Renkl takes you through her thoughts and emotions as she unearths the landscape and ancestry that surrounds and shapes her. She weaves lyrical passages on nature, like the clamor of songbirds warning of a rat snake hunting in the weeds, alongside stories of her family, like when her grandmother ate so many peaches while canning that she mistook labor pains for a tummy ache. Illustrations by Renkl’s brother help us see thriving life, prime us for the essays that follow so we can interpret parallels alongside her, and help connect us even more to the love Renkl has for nature and for her family.
This collection reminded me of my own family, of the life we shared in the woods of the south. It let me go back to an earlier, easier time, when my parents were still living. It kept me on the tips of my fingers, turning the pages, leaving me wanting more and more and more, but of course, at some point, there was no more. Instead I was left in awe and with gratitude, wanting to thank Renkl for attending to “that natural human urge to share something wonderful, even with a stranger.”
Courtney Ruttenbur Bulsiewicz is an essayist whose work has been published in The Tusculum Review, Inscape, and Context. She lives in the Mountain West with her husband and two sons.