Archive for August, 2013

Just Who Are the Happy People?

I asked this question after viewing a documentary Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. In a small village of Russian settlers on the Yenisei River, which bisects central Siberia, the people live close to nature, isolated from any large city. The men trap sable, building traps the same way their ancestors did and making their own skis.  Their few concessions to modernity are chain saws, snowmobiles, and outboard motors.  During the winter months, the men leave the village to travel upriver to their huts deep in the forest where their traps are set. They endure the harsh sub-zero temperatures accompanied only by their beloved dogs.

Ket People of Siberia Today

Ket People of Siberia Today

But the glimpses that the film gives of the native Ket people of Siberia make the lasting impression. About 1200 Ket people survive. The depressed, sad facial expressions of these Russian-speaking people, who appear much like the North American native, contrast with the smiles of the Russian trappers and their families.  A Ket man who gathers drift wood for fuel along the river comments that this is the work left to them, that they are drunkards who have lost their language, their ancestral crafts, and way of life. A wrinkled old woman still keeps the wooden dolls of her culture.  A Ket man, who retains the knowledge of hollowing out logs for boats, help the Russian men build a dug-out boat.

The irony  that the natives are unhappy and the interlopers are happy does not escape the viewer. This is a world turned upside down where the newcomers have usurped the land and the way of life of an indigenous population. The Russians relate how they love the forest and their closeness to nature. They are proud of their ability to make the things they need and to live off the fish and game of the land. The long summer days of sunlight in the subarctic region produce a bountiful harvest from their gardens. The Russians live happily in Siberia while the Ket men are demoralized because they have lost their native arts and language. One Ket man laments that they no longer live in tents.

As an American I cannot help but see the similarities between the Ket people and native North-American tribes. Linguists are finding links in the language of the Ket people to Athabascan languages of North America as well as cultural and biological connections. The sadness in the eyes of the Ket remind me of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century photographs that captured the tragedy of the decimated, dying civilization of American Indians consigned to reservation land.

Maybe the director Werner Herzog intends the viewer to sense the irony and to question the stolen happiness of the Russians at the expense of the indigenous people. The Unhappy Ket People stand in the shadow of the Happy People.

The benefits of living close to the land in order to not lose a connection with all life is well-documented. That’s why so-called First World people love to dig in their gardens, why they move to the country, why they buy guns to hunt, why they go fishing, why they love to backpack and camp in the wilderness for a few weeks.  Concrete and asphalt have covered much of the earth. Aerial photography shows that electricity has illuminated practically all of the globe at night except over places like Siberia.  The back-to-nature movement cannot be unadulterated, for witness, the trappers’ use of snowmobiles and rifles.  Yet indigenous cultures do teach industrialized society what has been lost and the necessity to preserve that connection to the earth from which we sprang and to which we will return.

To end this reflection on happy people, I offer:

Ode to the First People

Grateful to grass, thankful to tree, they the first people

Walk the world in accord with plant and animal.

Woven in the Great Spirit’s web all are equal.

Seeds sprout, fish spawn, birds soar, bears slumber,

Each turning  upon the spinning wheel of time.

The battle over the plains and bison herds lost

The wails of the dead still shriek on the wind

Where warriors and their way of life both fell.

Wise elders rise to recite tales of stolen lands,

Broken promises and bullets in the back,

Frozen corpses in burn-out camps and death

Songs of the walking dead who trudge trails

Toward ground where the game have all fled,

Creeks run dry and no ancestors are buried.

Keenly they see even on their High Plains’ refuge

The land yet teems with the spirits of whatever

Has ever walked, breathed and finally cast off

Its coil to merge again with earth, sky and water.

This the way of the people, their ancient wisdom

To respect the union of what flies and what crawls,

What tricks and what sustains; they the hawk,

The snake, the coyote and the herds of bison.

Even as flint, the berry bush and willow branch

Tenderly wrought for hand and mouth of men

Deserve reverence and receive their blessings

As we the first people, grateful to grass, thankful to tree

Still walk the world in accord with plant and animal

Aware all are woven equally in the Great Spirit’s web.


A Short Short Story Winner

Previously, I questioned whether I could produce a story that develops a viable arc from complication, to conflict, to climax, and to resolution within 1300 words. I included some of my efforts in this experiment in The Cat Who Would Be a Woman, which I published last year. Since then I have written another story within these perimeters for a small literary magazine that featured a contest, particularly attractive because there was no entry fee. Other than the limitation on length, the entry had to relate somehow to the theme of frost.

I thought what the heck. There’s nothing to lose by trying my hand at a made-to-order story.  I enjoyed the exercise and sent my entry off with a fond adieu.

Surprisingly, the summer issue of the magazine arrived.  Featured in it was my piece, one of the winners in the frost contest.  I’ll take advantage of its brevity and make it available on my blog–a quick read with cooling thoughts on perhaps a hot August day:

Out in the Cold

A touch of frost settled on my left cheek bone as I escaped the house. Had the nippy December air created this chilly filament on my sallow skin? I smelled snow but no snow had fallen yet this season. I prayed the snow would stay away long enough for me to flee the noise of holiday merrymakers.

I had not expected to be out in the cold alone this of all nights. I had set out with every expectation that this would be an unparalleled evening, the inauguration of a career and the advent of a marriage. Within the span of a few minutes, joy to the world collapsed and the warmth of the Yule log in the Appleton’s great room fireplace had smoldered into frigidity. Grabbing my coat and averting my tear-stained face from the guests baffled by my hasty departure, I hurried toward the door.

“The party’s just getting started, Liz,” the hostess called after me.

“Sorry. I feel sick,” and pushed past her.

I inhaled deeply on the front sidewalk. Eliot had just broken off our engagement. The sequence of events culminating with his bombshell announcement fast-forwarded in my brain. I recalled him guiding me into the den presumably for a quiet tête-à-tête away from party chatter. He had gently pushed me onto the loveseat, and then positioned himself beside me. His somber expression had frightened me, but nothing could have prepared me for his next words.

“I don’t want to get married—not now.”

“But why. . . we’ve both finished our degrees. You’ve applied for that position at the law firm and I have the fellowship for doctoral studies at Columbia. We’re going to start a family.”

“Liz, I need space.”

“Space? You have all the space you need. I’m not a ball and chain around your neck.”

“No, it’s not that. You’re great. You’re wonderful, but—”

“But, what?”

“I want to play the field.”

“What the hell does that mean? I’m not enough woman for you?”

He lowered his head like a boy caught with his hand in a candy jar.

“You’re the only real girlfriend I’ve ever had. I want to date other women.”

“You said you wanted to marry and to start a family before you’re thirty.”

“I realize that I’m not ready for fatherhood yet.”

That’s the point at which my spirit sank and my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth like it was fixed there with epoxy. I dropped into a pit of profound dolor. I felt like I would pass out from lack of oxygen. I was powerless to deliver my own surprise announcement, which I had carefully rehearsed. Later in the afterglow of the party I would tell him that I was pregnant, expecting our first child and expecting that, of course, he would suggest that we move up the wedding date.

Even if I hadn’t been speechless, I realized I couldn’t grovel or plead; I couldn’t play for sympathy or use that age-old card of pregnancy to trap him into a marriage he did not want. Reality smacked me, smothering me, and I ran from the horror of confrontation, leaving him as dumbstruck on the loveseat as he had left me a minute earlier.

I moved robotically toward my parked VW bug and got in. I turned the key in the ignition and was about to drive away when I emerged sufficiently from my stupor to realize that a thin layer of frost covered the windshield. I didn’t feel like stepping outside to scrape, so I waited for the heat to defrost the window, watching the line of hot air rising from the dashboard slowly melt the frost. The process mesmerized me, easing my heartache, leaving a dull mist in my brain. As I stared, emotion was emptying from my system.

When the window cleared, I shifted into drive.  On the way to my apartment building, the car drove as if on automatic pilot. By the time I pulled into my parking space at the rear of my apartment, my mind had started to clear. Options began to formulate in my brain. The dullness was now a full-blown headache, but it did not prevent my attempt to analyze coherently my situation for the first time after the shock.

I could see one course clearly. Marriage to Eliot was off the table. I was on my own. That left two courses: either terminate the pregnancy or carry the child to term. Carrying the child to term left me two courses: either raise the child alone or give it up for adoption. Thank God, my university education had given me some vestige of power to grapple with dilemmas. I stepped out of the car. The cold nipped my cheeks and nose again, but I welcomed it. I’d have to coat my heart with ice if I were to look starkly at my predicament and make a choice devoid of emotion.

Before going into my apartment, I stood in the open air, leaning against the hood of the car and inviting the cold. If I were chilled to the bone, I wouldn’t care. I was glad I wore no hat or gloves. I invited the cold to freeze my ear lobes and fingertips. I’d get deathly sick and lose the baby in the process. Then this horrible wish abashed me and I banished it from further consideration, thinking of my own childhood. My mother had raised me alone. My father was killed in the Vietnam War before I was born. It was no fun not having a father in the household. My mother did the best that she could, especially in my teenage years. We fought our own war during that time, eventually declaring an uneasy peace until she died of breast cancer five years ago. No, raising a child alone was not an option, especially if the child turned out to be a boy. Far worse for him growing up without a father than it had been for me. Of that I was certain.

That left one option—the rational one.  Astounding, how rapidly I had deduced my course of action. Could I attribute it to the crystalline air of the winter night? I still ached, but I felt resolve now and an interior strength. I turned toward the apartment building.

As soon as I entered the foyer, the warmth hit that sturdy resolve. I heard a male voice greeting me. My neighbor Joe Quigley was emerging from the elevator door. Unexpectedly, I broke down and burst into tears. Joe rushed toward me and held me in his bear-like arms. Joe was built like a boxer, short and stout, a rugged face and Neanderthal look; but he was good-natured and helpful whenever I needed anything fixed in my apartment.

I blubbered the news of my broken engagement. He wiped my eyes, comforting me.

“Come up to my apartment and I’ll make you a cup of hot chocolate.”

I let him lead me to his apartment where I found it easy to sit and cry my eyes out on his sofa, relating every detail of my quandary.

“A child needs a mother and a father. I will not raise this child alone,” I concluded firmly, blowing my nose one last time and thinking that I had my cry at Joe’s expense. “Thanks for listening,” I meekly said.

“No problem. What if I marry you, Liz?”

I looked at him agog for a moment, initially feeling the absurdity of his suggestion. I refocused my eyes. My vision cleared even more. The throbbing of my head faded. He was smiling at me, waiting for a response.

I saw him as he was—ugly as sin, but a man capable of being one of the best fathers in America.

Sonata Mulattica by Rita Dove

My fondness for verse-novels persists. Sonata Mulattica, subtitled A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play, is a collection of poems that narrate the life and times of mulatto violinist George Augustus Polgreen Hightower, the son of an African/Caribbean father and Polish/German mother. George, something of a child prodigy, played for royalty in London, Paris and Vienna. At one time, he met Ludwig van Beethoven, who originally intended to dedicate his Kreutzer Sonata to Hightower, but the two musicians had a falling-out, which Dove imagines involved rivalry over a woman. The short play dramatizes the conflict between Hightower and Beethoven. Rita Dove does a fine job of embellishing on what details exist about the life of the musician who lived from 1790 to 1860.

Dove follows a chronological order in Hightower’s story, some times recounting events through the voices of other characters such as Beethoven, black Billy Waters, a London street fiddler or Mrs. Papendieck, the queen’s wardrobe keeper. The poems are written in different styles and rhythms, presenting a panoply of the musical climate in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century.  Dove is equally comfortable with free or formal verse. One of my particular favorites is the villanelle, “Black Billy Waters, at His Pitch, Adelphi Theatre, 1790s,” which begins:

All men are beggars, white or black;

some worship gold, some peddle brass.

My only house is on my back.

But I appreciated all the poems in this collection, so it does an injustice to her accomplishment to isolate one poem.  Dove has written the type of rich thematic tapestry that transcends the personal that I hold as the gold standard of the art. The effect produces a narrative of a little-known mulatto musician in the courts of Europe overshadowed in his day by the likes of Haydn and Beethoven. In the poem that ends the book, “The End, with MapQuest,” Dove does add a personal note–her response to visiting Peckham, South London, where Hightower died.

Do I care enough, George Augustus Bridgetower,

to miss you? I don’t even know if I really like you.

I don’t know if your playing was truly gorgeous

or if it was just you, the sheer miracle . . .

I do know that I really like Dove’s poetry and that her writing is truly gorgeous.  Sonata Mulattica satisfies several of my loves: for poetry, for history,  and for an unusual, engrossing narrative line. I care enough to tell others about this outstanding book.

Dry Spell

DessicationI am in between writing projects and I am unsure whether another story will ever consume me. I know some writers have a list of ideas for potential projects always sitting on the back burner. Sadly, I have exhausted my list just as I have exhausted items on my bucket list.  When I told a doctor that I had done everything on my bucket list, he suggested I compile a new list of things I wanted to do before I die.

I could transfer the doctor’s idea to my current dilemma, but my problem runs deeper than nothing on a writing to-do list. The real cause for disturbance is the lack of a burning conception that compels me to give it artistic shape–an idea that won’t let me sleep, and when I do sleep, inhabits my dreams. To work my way through this dry spell, I have turned to reading the works of prolific writers.  Joyce Carol Oates’s novels The Gravedigger’s Daughter and Middle Age: A Romance are better than Anne Rice’s recent offerings of Angel Time and Of Good and Evil, in which Rice’s troubled Toby O’Dare is whisked back into Renaissance times, first in England and than in Italy. Rice should have situated her story completely in the past and created a richer, denser fabric similar to what she accomplished years ago with Cry to Heaven and A Feast of All Saints.

I use reading to fire my own imagination.  While I appreciate the texture of Oates’ storytelling and I recognize the shortcomings of some of Rice’s supernatural narratives, reading their novels starts my mind churning. To force a project prematurely, I fear, is liable to result in a mediocre work or one inferior to an author’s previous work. Being prolific has its pitfalls. Great productivity doesn’t equate to works of equal greatness.

There are other methods to jump-start the creative juices. For instance, foreign travel, or maybe a hike, even a short walk off a long pier. Armchair tourism is good too. Watching an excellent film set in an equatorial jungle or in a Hungarian castle may stimulate the imagination.

So what to do?  Nothing. Simply, pass the dry spell sitting in the sun on the deck and searching the sky for signs of rain.  Or write this ditty about the dilemma:

Dry spells—empty wells—

writers sometimes have,

squeezing words, last drops

from a sponge; phrases

shrivel, dead on arrival.


Better to fold the arms,

look into the sky and wait

in silence for parched earth

to receive a cloud burst

when the ocean upends.


Better to read another’s book

and drink another’s draft,

whetting appetite for taste,

sound, smell, touch of print:

delicious rain of language


Better sit a spell and think

than to scratch at word-making

in dust and drought that leaves

readers hungrier than when

they begin the bland fare.