“He really was an enchanting person. In some way he was like the spiritual father of everybody…. It is hard to imagine Central Park without Charles Kennedy.” Marie Winn, author of Red-tails in Love, and close friend of Charles, remembering him after his death in October 2004

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Review of Pale Male and The Fish Jumps by E.J. McAdams

This review, by E.J McAdams, appeared in the NYC Audubon Newsletter The Urban Audubon Nov-Dec 2009 issue. (Thank you, Marcia Fowle!) Visit NYC Audubon at www.nycaudubon.org


The Fish Jumps Out of the Moon: Haiku of Charles Kennedy
Edited by Steve Kennedy and Dan Guenther
Xlibris, 2009

Pale Male and Family: Essays and Photos of Charles Kennedy
Edited by Steve Kennedy
Xlibris, 2009

The human star of Frederic Lilien’s documentary film Pale Male was Charles Kennedy, who passed away in 2004. If you saw that film you know that Charles was kind, funny, Romantic, and obsessed with Pale Male. His role as one of the most dedicated of the Regulars is what gave the film its human heart. If you loved the moments that Charles was on camera – and you would have to have a pretty hard heart not to – then Steve Kennedy, Charles’ devoted nephew, has edited the book for you. Pale Male and Family gives us the first-person perspective on his experience with Pale Male that the film only provides glimpses of.

The book is a collection of unpublished photos that he took of Pale Male and his many mates and progeny, along with vignettes that Charles wrote about these photos. If you knew Charles personally – and many people did because he was so outgoing and friendly – you might have read some of these individual pieces, but Steve Kennedy has done a great service for Pale Male’s fans by bringing these together in one book.

Charles was an attentive naturalist, an unabashed sensualist, an incredible self-taught photographer, a natural philosopher, a trickster, and a generous teacher. All of these modes come across in the work. What distinguishes his book from Marie Winn’s seminal Red-tails in Love and Lilien’s film is the concentration on the (photographic) moment of observation: for example, the three chicks on their nest looking off in different directions who seem ready to “declare their opinion to the sky.” Although Steve Kennedy has gently wrangled these discrete pieces into a narrative of the hawklings from birth to adulthood, the book is really a poetic diary that follows the thread of Charles’ delight. It makes the book a delight to read and a welcome addition to the growing Pale Male bibliography.

What is especially striking is the intimacy of the photos and the writing – how close he came to the birds, both physically and imaginatively. Whereas much nature writing concentrates on description, Charles’ writing is very concerned with relationship: his relationship with the hawks, the fledglings with their parents, predator and prey. “Stuffed Crop” is my favorite meditation: the photo is of a fledgling shot from below, its yellow-tinged crop bulging with what we find out is a rat. Although the rat has been consumed Charles opens this chapter saying: “This is a photograph of not one animal but two.” It is the “living” presence of the dead rat in the hawk that is so spooky and wonderful – and rare to find in other authors’ nature writing.


After all of that praise, I would still say the better of these two wonderful books is The Fish Jumps Out of the Moon.

The reason is that haiku is the perfect literary form to capture the moment. He is very accomplished in haiku and brings an unusual mix of western and eastern tendencies, especially in the series “Cicada,” as if he were channeling Basho the master haiku poet and Ovid the ultimate poet of metamorphosis.

If haiku are typically thought of as cool and “objective,” Charles returns the warmth and longing (and sexuality) back to haiku:

great sex life

plus a mushroom diet

oh to be a slug

Because his subjects vary from slugs to spiders to owls and of course hawks, Charles has the chance to introduce other interests like jazz, food, and books. The suite “Spider Songs” goes to great lengths to capture the “music” he hears in his moments alone with the orb weavers.

Some of my favorite photos are collected in this book. Again and again Charles zooms in so close that we are almost touching the subjects. In contrast to the prose in Pale Male and Family, here the writing doesn’t so much describe what is being presented in these close-up photos of animals as play around and against the images. These memorable haiku are an equal art to his photos.


It is important to note that I am not at all unbiased in this review. I am one of the ones who was under the spell of Charles Kennedy. It is a spell that made every moment charged with significance and wonder. Thanks to Steve Kennedy, a wide audience of readers now has a chance to fall under that spell too.

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