Saturday, October 19, 2013

Review of Beaver Soul by Sharon D. Ewing

Canada Geese in Huntley Meadows, Alexandria, but similar geese came into the poems I wrote along the Haw in Saxapahaw in 1992.


Review of Judy Hogan’s chapbook, Beaver Soul

These poems should be read slowly and savored. Beaver Soul is a collection of meditations evoked by a closely observed world of nature ranging from the Haw River in North Carolina to the Russian countryside of Kostroma, and ending on the banks of the River Teign in Devon, England .Through a seamless blending of the language of metaphor with the descriptive language of the empirical natural world, the poet discovers and shares with us her insights. She both shows and tells us of her journey. 

The opening line of the first poem (This River 6) launches us into both worlds with a simile: Memories are like fish. The page is dotted with abstract words, with concepts: Love, Belief, Truth, but the poet grapples with her demand for proofs and finds in her observation of the beaver’s life, evidence that satisfies a trusting heart. The poem shifts seamlessly from natural descriptions of the beaver’s work, from observations of “bites of wood and bark,” and distinguishing “pale orange of fresh wood from the gray” to a “she” who “can build a whole world on one sentence she almost didn’t/hear.” The poet has moved us from observing the beaver to seeing into the inner life of the poet.  

By the third poem, (Beaver Soul 1) the poet identifies her spirit with “this beaver who understands the river,/ not perfectly but in all ways that/ matter. I’ve inherited, by long study,/ her beaver soul.” 

The following poem, (Beaver Soul 6) is prefaced by a Russian proverb: “When trouble arrives, open the gates.” And the poet does indeed open the gate, she lets her terror go, accepts the mud as well as the Light of spring; and, as she watches, the mud settles deeper as turtles swim upward to “the sun-warmed air” and with shells “still loggy with cold. . . bathe in sun.” Then, in a Miltonian extended metaphor, these sunbathing turtles become a flotilla of “the unwardoffable Greeks. . . come again to retrieve Helen.” We are suddenly in Homer’s world, and the poet knows “Light is on their side, but they will suffer this time too.” And she knows that if she wants, like Homer, to “sing words that can call old turtles up . . . wake up throaty peepers . . . and soothe the ache/ in branches still alive, which ice has cruelly snapped and left for dead,” she must “Remember: the world is/ nothing else. Just mud and light.” And by the next poem, (Beaver Soul 8), she has, by “The power of one yellow narcissus on a cold spring Sunday afternoon,” moved from the dark brown of the dead of winter to the promise of the resurrection of spring. 

As the poet identifies her spirit with the beaver, her Beaver Soul, she moves to a greater understanding of the Russian concept of “soul” as her friendships with Russians develop long-distance through letters, and by mid-summer (Beaver Soul 15), she is in Russia, falling in love with Russian fields, meadows, and people: “I sleep in a Russian field. . . . Russia is mine. Nothing/ can take my peacefulness away. . . My soul comes to rest. The meadow welcomes/ me now because the people here/ have tugged the heavy gate that/ was between us open. . . . Our fears have retreated. . . We find all the words we want. And our eyes/ say the rest. Our language is/ the only human one.”
But it is not easy, this new and different world. “Even in a fairyland, one needs a guide.” (Beaver Soul 19) and the poet pens a poem of thanks for Boris, who “invited me to conversation, you who made tea, set out cakes, invited others to talk with me./ You who tugged open the heavy/door and released the Komarovo white/nights for me.” The spiritual life of the poet, her Beaver Soul, is not one of pure joy: The appreciation and love expressed for her host, friend and literary colleague, Mikhail (Beaver Soul 21) and the many people who fuel her growing love of Russia, has its dark side in the let-down she experiences in Gorka (Beaver Soul 23), where, not allowed to eat from the common bowl, she feels alone, different, not totally accepted as a part of the family she loves. “But my/ tears are still washing my soul./My different soul, alone, stranded/ in this river where I don’t belong.” 

Months later, on the banks of the River Teign in Devon, she again meditates on the meaning of love: (Beaver Soul 27). It is October, an afternoon without sun, and the subject is Love. The poet accepts the dying year and the coming winter as revealing “the truth of Love.” This final poem is, appropriately, a paean to love, a hymn of praise and thanksgiving, informed by what the poet has learned through long study of Nature and the acceptance of paradox: “You can have all the love you/ want if you aren’t greedy.” It is appropriately a paean to the sun, for it was Apollo, the Sun God, to whom ancient paeans were first offered.  The meditations close with a promise: “And/ every year the graceful grasses/ stretch up because the sun,/ of course, leans down.”

Reading these poems made me think of these lines from Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Idea of Order in Key West.”

She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea.
Whatever self it had, became the self 
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang, and singing, made.

Judy Hogan is indeed a singer of songs, a maker of the world she presents to us in her poems. And our world is richer for the making

Sharon D. Ewing Alexandria, Virginia October 10, 2013


Can you see these turtles on their logs at Huntley Meadows? I saw them and wrote about them also along the Haw, though the flotilla I saw was light sparkling and bouncing as the sun hit the water, and it moved toward me.  Sharon saw those turtles.  It doesn't really matter.  Take time to visit a river or a wetlands and see what you can see!  Thanks to Sharon and John Ewing for the photos.  

Judy Hogan


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