“A Fire in Shadow, A Flame at the Throat:”
Katharyn Howd Machan on Redwing
I began writing the Redwing poems in January of 1985, two weeks after my mother’s death on New Year’s Day. Why? I don’t know yet. Maybe they’re my way of saying what so often goes unsaid in families, between friends, among neighbors, the words we hold back sometimes even from ourselves. Redwing is a place in my imagination. Each of its women and men, boys and girls, has a story to tell. In their secrets and silences, their losses and dreams, their satisfactions, we all live, too, I think.
The first Redwing poem came to me without any conscious effort on my part. A voice simply began speaking, the voice of a woman being brought into a household as a second, secret wife, perhaps to pose as the sister of the husband’s first wife. I had no name for her. I had no name for the town. All I was certain about was that her story and the stories that quickly followed in the form of other poetic monologues, was set in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Not until many months later did the characters take on names, as I consciously turned to study the history of the time. It was well over a year before I gave the town a name, and longer still until I set Redwing in the also-fictional Tuscarora County, located in my imagination about two hours west of Ithaca, New York, my home.
What writer ever fully knows the source of his or her creations? I drew from my own life and from the lives of numerous friends as well as from the historical accounts of folks living in Central/Western New York in the 1880s. I took many of the names for Redwing residents from old gravestones, mixing and matching first and last according to sound and feeling. Research at the Chautauqua Institute and in the city of Rochester was particularly helpful. But all of these tangible sources doe not add up to the ultimately intangible combination of fact and fiction, reflection and speculation, tales spun in a dreamscape drive from some essential craving. And mysteries continue to unfold and surprise me; not until March of 1995, for example, on a return visit to Key West, where I had gone a decade earlier for a mourning retreat after my mother’s death, did I suddenly gain the insight that the time-setting for Redwing grew out of my appreciation for the beautiful gingerbread architecture of that island city, whose pre-tourism heyday was the 1880s and 1890s!
Will Redwing continue to grow in my imagination? Oh, yes—voice after voice. And unlike when the town and its inhabitants first took shape in my mind, I am engaged in a good marriage and have a real family around me: Eric, CoraRose, Benjamin. Active love, rather than the anguish of mourning, now spins Redwing stories from my heart and mind.
Redwing is a fire in shadow, a flame at the throat, a crimson flash in dark flight.