Sunday, December 15, 2013

Russia 1992: The Story Behind Beaver Soul

All the drawings, including the cover, are by Mikhail Bazankov for the first, Russian edition of Beaver Soul  in 1997.


Since I’ve had only one recent comment about Beaver Soul, I thought I’d share some stories from that same summer of 1992, when I wrote most of it.

Thanks, first, to Gary Tyson, who wrote in an email of 11-26-13:

Judy, just had the opportunity to read the poems in Beaver Soul.  The poems reach depths that can only be reached through the eyes of your own soul.  With words as powerful as the Proverbs of King Solomon you truly took the reader to a new place that was a little frightening, but once you got there, you knew you belonged.  Thanks so much for sharing your journey.

My first journey to Russia as part of a Sister Cities exchange between Durham and Kostroma was in early August,1990.  I was in Kostroma only six days.  I quickly realized that I needed to learn Russian, and beginning in 1991, I did study Russian with several tutors, primarily for basic conversation, but also so I could write letters to my new friends, who, for the most part, didn’t know English.  Their foreign language in school had been German.  I also learned to read Russian, with a dictionary.  By 1992, Mikhail Bazankov, who was working with me on the writer exchanges, had visited Durham and Saxapahaw, where I lived.  We had interpreters for programs, but often I was his only source of information–in Russian.  He learned to speak child’s Russian to me, and I learned, that if I could start a sentence, even if I couldn’t remember the proper endings for the nouns and verbs, that he often caught my meaning and finished the sentence.

Driving through the Smoky Mountains I took him to visit the mother of a poet I had published, Amon Liner, who had died in 1976, the same day my new press, Carolina Wren, published his book Chrome Grass.  In June 1992 we had lunch with Amon’s mother and sister, and when we left, Mikhail asked me where Amon was.  Apparently our conversation had suggested to him that Amon was still alive.  I didn’t know the word for dead, and I was driving, so I waited until we got to a rest stop and looked it up in my dictionary.  Poets do live a long time, see?

The summer of 1992, during my visit to the Kostroma Region, during regular programs, there again were interpreters, but when I went with Mikhail into the countryside around Sharya, where he had lived for many years, several hundred miles from Kostroma, we again depended on my Russian in informal gatherings.
I learned that summer that the Russians gave great value to “meetings,” both first meetings and any meetings after some time had passed.  I also learned that meetings usually involved a lot of food–many courses–plus a lot of vodka and wine–and many toasts.

Soon after my arrival in Sharya, Mikhail took me, with the Sharya District’s chief administrator, Vera, to meet people in a small village nearby.  We were taken to the home of a priest.  In 1991, many Americans sent clothes, food, medicine to the Russians, as it was a difficult year, and I think our federal government also sent food. The villagers wanted to thank me.  I was their American, and so they prepared a huge feast, and about twenty of us were seated around a large table.  

I was given vodka and was sipping it, when an older woman, who seemed to have the role of a church elder, one of those strong women in any church who make sure everything goes the way it should.  My minister father found them hard, he once admitted. She was emphatic, with gestures, that I wasn’t drinking my vodka correctly.  I was to drink it bottoms up.  She was angry.  Later I learned that not drinking vodka bottoms up was believed to bring bad luck.  I simply couldn’t do it, and she frowned for the rest of the visit.  Nor could I eat adequately of the huge feast.  Dishes kept arriving, and I was supposed to eat some of all of them.  I did my best.

Mikhail’s wife, Katya, had given me a “big breakfast for the road.” This lunch feast began about eleven o’clock and lasted a couple of hours.

Then Vera took us to another village and another dinner.  By now it was around two o’clock.  There were also dancers and music.  I admitted to Vera that I couldn’t possibly eat for awhile, and unlike the fierce village woman, Vera accepted this and said we could take a walk.  On the walk I learned to hug trees.  Vera showed me her special tree.  So I hugged a tree.  It’s a good way to calm down actually.  I still do it sometimes.  Eventually we did eat, and I ate as little as possible, and I was able to take only a tiny amount in my vodka glass, so I could drink it bottoms up.  

Then we went home to Mikhail’s son’s wife’s parents’ place.  They also had prepared a huge feast in my honor.  They were even more understanding, and we again walked around.  I could admire how much food they managed to grow, including fruit trees, on a very small plot of land.  I can’t say I ate much, but I was learning that when you think the dishes have stopped coming, more will come. Those were the appetizers.  Now here comes the main dish.

We then traveled to Katya’s home village, Gorka, and her brother’s home.  I enjoyed being in the village.  They wouldn’t let me do any work, but I ranged nearby and wrote some poems watching the small Mezha River pass by (See Beaver Soul 23).  I talked to an elderly woman in my simple Russian, and she understood me and also spoke simply.  She thought life would be better in America, and I told her no.  She had a good life, with the natural world around her.  The village was surrounded by forest, and the women went into it to pick raspberries (See Beaver Soul 24).  She admitted she loved the preroda–the natural world.  

Why did I tell her she had it better where she was?  Few Americans form the bonds with others that most Russians have with their families and friends.  We focus a lot here on being independent and self-sufficient.  A Russian can get very lonely here.  Some Americans open themselves to other people and to the natural world around them and give wonderful support to each other, but it’s rarer and rarer.

Then Mikhail took me, Katya, and their son Aleksei for a “meeting” with the Mezha District administrators, and they took us deep into the taiga or wild forest, in the area where Mikhail was born, to the place where his rodina (birthplace, very important in Russian culture) had once been.  The village was gone–many such villages were lost because of the loss of men during World War II (25 million) and because of the collectivization of the villages in the 20s and 30s)–but we came to the hills above the Black River.  

They asked me if I was afraid of bears, as the wild forest held many wild animals.  This was a hunting lodge.  I said, “No, you’ll protect me.”  So another feast began, this one lasting from late morning until nearly dark, and many toasts, and many bottles of wine.  I took only a little, and I did my best to make toasts.  These administrators were very flirtatious.  They all wanted to dance with me.  

1992 I was fifty-five, the age when a Russian woman becomes a pensioner.  They also wanted to get me drunk.  I don’t like to get drunk.  I tried it once in my twenties.  So I was trying not to drink, and Mikhail was no help.  His solution was to pour the drink down my sleeve, which didn’t appeal.  So they were pretty pushy, and finally I said that they could probably get Russian women to do what they wanted, but I was an American.  Of course they redoubled their efforts to get me drunk, and they succeeded by the end of the day.

Then we drove back to the main town of the district where they lived, but on the road they all stopped after we crossed a stream, and they said that under this bridge was a beaver, and I had to look and see the beaver.  I knew I could not bend over in my drunken state or I would fall into the river, so I refused. They said they’d hold me, but by this time I didn’t trust any of them, including Mikhail.  They nagged.  Finally I sat down and wouldn’t move.  So finally they gave up, or they realized that enough was enough.  So then we went into a forest clearing, and we stood around a campfire they built, and they finished the bottles left.  They didn’t press me any more after that.  Perhaps they were worried by this time. 

 Somehow the conversation turned to love, and I said, “You don’t have to get drunk to love somebody,” and I assured them that I loved them.  I have no idea what they thought of this Amerikanka who was so difficult both sober and drunk.  It’s a story I love to tell though, whatever that means.

Now, gentle readers, how about some more comments from those of you who have read Beaver Soul?  It does my soul good to hear what readers think.  Please?  Judy Hogan

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