Mikhail Bazankov's Cover Drawing for the Russian Beaver Soul
Not long ago I learned to my delight that my book of poems Beaver Soul will be published in 2013 by Finishing Line Press of Kentucky. Beaver Soul was written in 1992, the early part along the Haw River in Saxapahaw, on what I called my poetry rock near a beaver dam. The second part was written in Russia, where I spent two months, July and August, that year, the first month in two Houses for Creativity, Peredelkino, near Moscow, and Komarovo, near St. Petersburg, and the second month in the Kostroma region, in Sharya, then in the Mezha District, in the village of Gorka, and later in Kostroma. The final poem in the book was written in Devon, near the River Teign, where I was able to spend another month.
The Kostroma Writers’ Organization published Beaver Soul [Bobrinaya Dusha] in Russian translation in 1997. I had wanted to see it published in English, so finally 21 years after it was written, it will come out in English. I’m going to give you my Russian editor’s preface and the first poem, to give you a feeling for the book. It will sell for $12, and if you order ahead of time [Details when I know them], it’s only $2 postage. Welcome to the world of Beaver Soul.
Russian Editor’s Preface A Smile from Across the Ocean
When he smiles, a person causes kindness to come into being for himself and for others. People say that a smile helps us be happy. I’m thinking about this, having received an interesting photograph and trying to see across the ocean a face not yet known to me, using my imagination to fill in what her character is like, what her situation in life is, and it seems to me that somewhere once before I’ve seen this woman from America. I can hear her voice in the lines of her letter, her speech which brings with it a long ago melody, maybe from the last century. Just now, on that continent lying on the opposite side of the water, in the state of North Carolina, it’s a different time of day. Probably Mrs. Judy Hogan is thinking about her children. There are three of them, already adults now, living in different cities and her responsibilities as a mother haven’t decreased, although in her letters sent to Kostroma, she doesn’t often mention them. Even once I thought: if my mama composed such long letters, she would definitely have mentioned each one of her eleven children, which one she was happy about, which one she’d reprimanded, which one she worried about, feeling in her heart that all was not okay. If you will, she wouldn’t have considered or worried her head about journeys, or if so, it would, for her, have been better to visit her grandchildren. I will think about this again later on when meeting with the mother of Judy Hogan, who is a famous mountain climber.
But Judy’s smile and her confessions about another life and other interests, suggest that there is another psychology, another understanding of the idea of being human. “When I was young, I was very serious, but, as my life has gone on, I have learned to laugh more and more. I think my own struggles and my difficulties and troubles have tended to mean I had to laugh more and more.”
A person is always more important and better than other people realize, than what the people immediately around him know, and he himself doesn’t know everything about himself, if he doesn’t manage to break out from a conventional way of life, if he doesn’t take into account, doesn’t realize all his possibilities, and, because of that, he isn’t even able to say what the chief thing about him is. Obviously, my new acquaintance’s varied activities and communications with others helped her to be self-confident and to feel emancipated. The letters and books of Judy Hogan share her character, her artistic taste, her organizing ability, attract attention to her reflections about creativity, conceptions of what it is to be a human being enjoying all the signs of freedom and independence, her methods of working with people of different ages interested in creative writing.
The letters, books, collections of poetry of Judy Hogan, and the manuscript of poems only just now appearing to the author of these notes, strengthened his interest and involved him thoroughly in a conversation about “eternal questions,” about creativity, about masters of world literature. We were tactful and patient, we didn’t have to reproach one another for not understanding or not agreeing as to the value of the authoritative works of the last and present centuries. We had apparently already mastered the idea in the words of Pushkin from his article on Radishchev: “there is no ability to persuade in slander, and, where there is no love, there is no truth.” Now I know: in our joyful conversations about “the gift” that is given to others and about how, in getting closer to the truth through getting acquainted with the loved thing, which breaks through in the love for one’s fellow countrymen, we influenced each other.
The distance, the lack of time, and the language barrier slowed down our communication by letter. But literature ennobled it and made it more complex. It gave us the possibility to push farther our understanding, the stories about these subjects in our letters, and it determined the orientation of our discussions. It opened the perspective and inclined us to realistic thoughts of a project for cultural ties between the sister cities. Now it’s impossible to mention all the subjects of our letter dialogues across the ocean. Of course, we didn’t neglect to mention Chekhov, Turgenev, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Bunin, Akhmatova, Esenin, Tsvetaeva. It turned out that we spoke only of those who are already well known in America, but now she’s probably also oriented to some other authors, because I reminded her of them.
She comforted us, she gave us hope, both in the idea that there are still people with the capacity for reading and understanding Pushkin and who are striving to know some Russian writers besides those famous in America. There appeared in the dialogue that we had aspirations which united us, in which neither the ocean, nor the language barrier, nor our different styles of life were able to be hindrances. Judy Hogan agrees with me in this.
So we “closed ranks” in everything, in our individual lives and our past, and what was thought by others, in different decades, in different centuries, on the different shores of the ocean and on different sides of the earth, in villages and cities, in various forms of society. From one family home we are drawn invisibly to go to another.
Judy’s as free as the sun (she has written about this in her poems). She confirms: “We are changed, and we give ourselves up to the joy of living, to the attractive stars. In the darkness the fireflies are drawn toward the light and they open places where we feel even more at home.”
Editor for the Kostroma Writers Organization publication, 1997
THIS RIVER 6 January 6, 1991
Memories are like fish: they rarely break
the surface. The trick is remembering
they’re there, more active where there’s no air,
where they least appear to move. The beavers,
too, do more than shows. I watch for signs
of their nocturnal labors, hold the bites
of wood and bark in my hands, distinguish
the pale orange of fresh wood from the grey
look that follows rain; think I see their
prints. Definitely deer have passed this
way, and raccoon. The beaver eludes me
like the fish do–so much so that, when
I did once see her swimming near shore,
it took me days to believe my eyes.
Love is like this. Lulled among
our memories, it rarely shows itself,
and then we don’t believe what we’ve seen.
Belief. In the absence of those chance flips
in the air. Belief. In the secret life of
the beaver to which she devotes her whole
intelligence in order to preserve her life,
her livelihood, and the lodge where her
children grow fat and strong; the lodge she
has hidden so well that I am baffled: I
can’t read the signs, tell whether the old
lodges are newly inhabited; I think not.
Probably she has a new nest; has outwitted
me; has not only safety on her mind, but
longevity. She has learned from the river
winds how to fool the eye, how to blind the
heart that isn’t pure and able to believe
what it has seen. The truth is always there:
it’s in the way the current follows the
river bed, however dammed and held back that
flowing is. And the beaver’s life leaves
proofs a trusting heart has no trouble taking
for evidence: a few fresh chips of wood,
and she knows the whole story. So she can build
a world on one sentence she almost didn’t
hear, which it took her months to believe.
The life of the river birds is known to her,
too. When they flap off, she knows by
their not having warned the other inhabitants,
that she is recognized, and that, after she
has settled on her chosen stone and begun
to trace the current of the poem across
the page, that they will swing back in
to their favorite fishing shallows soundlessly,
keeping her form in mind, but not thinking
of her; their keen eyes more on the motion
of the water which implies fish are moving
their way. She always has wanted proofs:
she has been so demanding, she frightened those
who loved her away. She would force their secrets
from them in order to have what she needed:
their pledge. Now she understands that she
must not drag the river for proofs;
that every day the river is new for her.
That her memories are not by any means inert, but
feed and grow large, and sometimes, when she
least expects it, leap for pure joy into an
air so foreign to them, and risky, but ultimately
so attractive in its quiescence, because
it asks nothing, is simply there, responsive
to the wind’s tricks and the sun’s showing off,
yet not fooled by either. Her intelligence
is mobile and ingenious and, like the air, it
buoys up the creature or the man who breathes it
deeply even into his very soul. It holds the
river smells–mud and old sticks, dead
fish and new eggs, the gradual salting by those
particles worn off rocks and swept from earth.
Water, mud, and air: they are our universe.
Without them we can’t live, much less invent
our lives. For Life learns to hide herself
not just for safety, but for the pleasure
of those leaps into the welcoming embrace of
air, so soft today, and comforting; as knowing
as old trees that it is wise to surrender
willingly to the teeth of the beaver, to allow
oneself to be as erotically alive as are
the fish, snug in their muddy beds.