From Wild Sleeping Waters premiere

In 2018, I came across photographer Marcin Nagraba and costume designer Agnieszka Osipa’s “Pagan Poetry” project, a series of Slavic mythology-influenced artworks, which you can see here on Bored Panda. I wrote eight texts for a song cycle inspired by the images, and my frequent artistic partner, composer Jessica Rudman, set them for mezzo-soprano and string quartet. I called the cycle “From Wild Sleeping Waters,” and it’s being premiered this Sunday at a recital by singer Megan Ihnen; Chloe Helene Groth, Violin; Gabrielle Fischler, Violin; Catherine Schilling Matushek, Viola; Jennie Brent, Cello; and Paul Macres, Double Bass. The concert will be at 4:00pm in the University of New Orleans Recital Hall. (Megan recommends that you park near the Performing Arts Center entrance off of St Anthony Ave, New Orleans, LA 70122.

I do a lot of research for my texts, and this particular project led me investigate magic and gender and superstition and cooking and nature in the places where Europe becomes Asia and vice versa, places and beliefs my own far-removed Eastern European ancestors might have known. The text was published in my chapbook Making Mythology, published by Louisiana Literature Press in 2020. Here are the lyrics, with author’s notes for each one.

From Wild Sleeping Waters

The title From Wild Sleeping Waters references linguistic hypotheses that the word “Siberia” comes from the Siberian Tatar word for “sleeping land” (Sib Ir) or the Turkic words for “water” (su) and “wild land” (bir).

     The title From Wild Sleeping Waters references linguistic hypotheses that the word “Siberia” comes from the Siberian Tatar word for “sleeping land” (Sib Ir) or the Turkic words for “water” (su) and “wild land” (bir). 

I Frost Ascending

When I am old, I shall become Frost,

and cover the trees and grass;

and red berries I will bring forth,

to sate my appetites.

I shall wear thorns of ice

and pearls of the wild sleeping waters;

I will be girded with flowers of steel;

I will stride across worlds.

     "Frost Ascending" corresponds with photo 1 in the Bored Panda gallery. The text plays on both “I shall become Death” from the 1944 Prabhavananda and Isherwood translation of the Bhagavad Gita (and the well-known quotations of it that have followed) and the Russian figure of Ded Moroz—Old Man Frost or Grandfather Frost—who originated as a snow demon, the son of Slavic pagan gods Veles and Moréna.

II My Antlers

My antlers

are the most beautiful

of the tribe’s,

coated in skin

softer than

snow on moss.

I give them                                                                           

so much blood

that my face

is as colorless

as a summer moon.

     Iron Age and Scythian art found in Siberia depicts real horned animals, particularly deer and elk, as well as fictional hybrids of antlered creatures and wholly mythological animals. Photographs 5, 19, 36, and 43 all show figures with the skulls of horned animals or wearing horns; other photographs show horned headdresses.

III Talisman

I hold Birth in my arms,

keeping her feet trapped

so she will not escape.

She must live and thrive

but be controlled

lest she slip away into the thickets,

become profligate,

and allow the young to starve.

     The rabbit, like the one held in photograph 59, is a symbol of fecundity.

IV Falls and Finds

When the sky rains iron,

I alone collect it

from the forest it burns

and the plains it scars.

You cannot trade me for it:

I will not take your sable skins

or squirrel pelts, your honey

or your wax.

I set my hands on fire

with heavy, sacred earth

and clasp and press and caress,

until I myself am ash.

I make swords that take souls

and axes to take trees;

I make sickles for wheat

and scissors for boneflowers, eyes of the day.

When the iron is gone,

so am I, burnt to a single gem.

I wait

for the stars

to rain again:

there I will appear

in the forest it burns

and the plains it scars.

     Inspired by photographs 14, 39, and 47, and the account of the Tongdian text, written between 766 and 801 CE, that describes the Yenisei Kyrgyz people gathering iron that falls from the sky—meteoric iron—and using it to make tools and weapons. “I set my hands on fire/with heavy, sacred earth” refers to the oil-rich, flammable soil of the area.  Both “bone flower” and “eye of the day” are names for the daisy. 

V Selenic Lore

There is a rabbit in the moon;

the moon is a hat worn by a goddess;

the moon and the rabbit are

made warm and gold

by the children of the sun.

The rabbit in the moon

makes a meal, makes medicine;

the moon and the rabbit are one

and they keep me alive in the night.

I love the moon

whose pearls and braids

lead me across the

star-shot sky.

I love the moon

whose rabbit

is soft and serene

and calms me

when the nocnitsa comes—

if only the goddess of iron

would make a bed

for the rabbit and the moon and me.

There is a rabbit in the moon

and the moon is full of rabbit

and the rabbit guards my dreams

and the moon gives me light.

     Numerous photographs in the series, including 3, 10, 27, 29, 57, and others depict the moon and moon-shaped headdresses. The rabbit in the moon is from Asian folklore, particularly that of Japan. The nocnitsa (“noch-neet-za”) is a Slavic nightmare spirit. This is one of my favorite poems to read aloud. 

VI Stock

To make magic your recipe

must include chicken feet;

they do more than making your home

in the forest

safe and mobile.

To hear a new song from the gods,

combine them with

white herbaceous flowers,

and a dazzling insect of your choice.

For spells regarding love,

wear two toes and a crown of flowers;

for spells to lift the dark,

use the claws to

adorn your face with teardrops.

The most beautiful chicken feet

bring happiness in solitude

and protection against bruising.

With nacre and opal,

slender feet, worn on the brow,

or, with iridescent wings and shells,

worn on a hoop through the nose,

hide your face from

recognition.

Ammonites and sand

and three pairs of matched cock spurs

bring audacity and cause

events to come to an end.

Black chicken feet

worn around the neck

bless children with temporary

invisibility,

but make adults

prone to wasp attacks.

Placed above the head

on a charred birch bough,

eleven chicken feet,

twisted into trunks and limbs,

will turn old people

into trees.

Always have chicken feet

on hand.   

     In Russian folklore, the house of the witch Baba Yaga stands in the forest on chicken feet. Chicken feet appear in photographs #9, #32, #42 and #49; insects are in photographs 33, 40, 41, 53, 56, and 58.

VII Kupala Night

Lie with me

on blossoming fern,

softly, softly.

Unravel my braids

slowly, slowly.

Unfold the twists

gently, gently.

Put your hands

deep in my hair,

pulling, stroking.

Open my tresses,

spread them wide,

and I will

ravish

you.

     Braids were a common hairstyle for unmarried and married women alike. The night before a wedding, a woman’s friends would braid her hair with flowers, and the best man would unbraid her hair in a symbolic “stealing of the bride.” Photographs 44, 53, 57, and 60 feature women wearing braids. Kupala Night is a celebration of the summer solstice and a traditional time for match-making and sex. 

VIII Change of Season

What do you see

in the snow-bit candlefrost?

Do the trees try to capture

the sickle moon?

Do you see me

in my frost-knit camouflage?

My heart is beating

in the hollow of this tree.

Seek and find me

deep in the brassy honeycombs;

seek and find me,

deep in the river-king’s nest.

I am waiting to dismantle

every thing that weighs me down.

Lift away my lunar headdress;

uncoil the ropes around my frame.

My antlers fall to the leafy carpet.

I cast away collars, high and tight.

Take the buzzing and cawing creatures;

pluck away my crocheted cage.

My fins and my wings and my hands are free.

I open my eyes and scent the wolf and the fox.

Release me from armor and wax and cocoons;

shatter the bonds of ice, night, and smoke.

My paint and my glamours dissolve into rime; I shift in my bones and become a new god.

     This combines elements of many of the images. 

Book reviews: P. Djèlí Clark’s Dead Cat Tail Assassins, Ann Leckie, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and more

What the Mountains Remember by Joy Callaway. 3/5
In this romance about keeping one’s background secret for reasons of social standing, Callaway tries so hard to make her characters work, but in the end, it just doesn’t work. Belle is slated to marry Worth (god, these names, please, can we be at least a little more subtle?), but Belle comes from a poor family. Belle’s mother has obfuscated her past, and married a rich man after Belle’s father died in a mine collapse. Worth’s parents and, apparently, his fiancée, died in a fire. Both are pledged not to love, ever, because love brings pain. (Sigh.) Everyone is on holiday in Asheville, NC, to see the building of the Grove Park Inn. As they figure out their relationship, which consists of numerous broken engagements and attempts to break engagements, they fall in love. Of course. At the same time, Belle begins to write an article about the men building the Inn, which gives her the opportunity to show that laborers and craftspeople are people too! But the “article” included near the d of the book does no such thing, and while Belle is happy that her husband covers costs for the workers’ health care and housing, she’s still horrified by her own roots, except when they are useful for her to gain favor with Worth and others in their circle. You can also play Gothic bingo here: young woman in love with inappropriate man; man who is a cad; tuberculosis; poor but proud people; escaping on horseback; possible illegitimate child; charred ruins of Worth’s parents’ home; sneaking around in the dark; lots of costume changes; Worth’s manly chest. 3/5 for effort.

The Angel of Indian Lake by Stephen Graham Jones. 5/5
The third and final installment in Jones’s horror series surrounding “final girl” and horror flick expert Jade Daniels, The Angel Of Indian Lake has plenty of smarts and gore to match. Horror fans will love Jade’s inner monologue and its deep, deep knowledge of the genre, and those who enjoy Jones’s take on Indigenous lore will come away very happy from this novel, where these facets are entwined in fantastic and brutal ways. I do recommend that readers read the trilogy in order: this last book relies heavily on reader knowledge of what happened in the previous two novels. I love how Jade as changed (and not changed) since the previous book, how Jones depicts her CPTSD and responses, and how her allies have developed as well.

The Seventh Veil of Salome by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 5/5
Moreno-Garcia never fails to amaze me. Every book has a different angle, but all tell stories of humanity and need and the darkness of the heart. Here, a young woman is plucked out of obscurity to star as Salome in a 1920s silent epic, and Moreno-Garcia weaves her story of Salome (or the film’s treatment, as it was called then) with the young actor’s life in a brilliant and compelling way. It’s old Hollywood, and all of the gossip and camp and scandal and ways to survive are on display . It’s a great read.

The Dead Cat Tail Assassins by P. Djèlí Clark. 5/5
This is a brilliant and hilarious tour-de-force from Clark, whose other work I have enjoyed to no end. Here, an assassin is sent to kill….someone who might very well be her younger self, literally. When the assassin runs, taking her quarry with her, adventures ensue, involving the world’s equivalent of mediocre, White, crypto-flogging men in tech, other assassins, and goddesses. It’s a romp through popular culture and fantasy tropes, and is glorious. (“Edgelords” had me laughing out loud.)

Lake of Souls by Ann Leckie. 4/5
This collection of short stories and novellas by Leckie brings together tales from both her Imperial Radch world and the world of The Raven Tower, as well as stand-alone pieces. For me, Leckie’s writing is best in her Radch pieces. It’s strong and clear, and the world is a place with deliberate rules and expectations. It’s crisper than her writing for the Raven Tower world, where intent and action is murkier, and where the world is less well-defined. I have to admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by the stand-alones, although the often unexpected narrators and points of view are interesting. A few of these would benefit from further careful editing to tighten them up, but overall, fans will appreciate having Leckie’s shorter pieces in one collection.

The Gilded Ones #3: The Eternal Ones by Namina Forna. 1/5
If you want to read this–which you might not–you’ll need to have books 1 and 2 fresh in your memory for it to make any sense. I really liked the first book in this series, but book 2 was repetitive and character actions and development didn’t always make sense. This installment, book 3, is even worse that book 2. There’s a lot of awkward backstory, the characters and their relationships are ambiguous–and the relationships seem to turn on a dime–and the plot is only vaguely perceptible.

Dominoes by Phoebe McIntosh. 2/5
When Layla’s best friend Sera sends Layla a video explaining that Layla’s White fiance’s racist family might have owned her Black family, Layla is thrown into doubt about race and relationships and what it means to be Black (but sometimes passing as White). Layla agonizes, Sera ends their decades-long friendship, Layla goes to visit her family in Jamaica. There, Layla learns that even Black families had slaves, and that despite them having the same surname, a professional genealogist can’t find proof that Layla’s fiance owned hers. Layla begins to recognize the microaggressions Sera has been exposed to all her life, and realizes that she needs to do a lot of thinking about how the world treats Black and mixed-race folks. She returns her engagement ring, likely bought with slave trade money, to her fiance, and they buy a new one and get married and everyone who needed to gets a little more woke.

Some of the characters are annoying–Layla, for one–but others are people you’d want to play dominoes with, like her Grandpa. The character development isn’t as dramatic as it might have been, and the wedding scenes in which Layla’s mother dances with the White father of the groom is a little bit pat. The scenes with Layla teaching are painfully awkward and cringeworthy, but the first person narration of the rest of the book works well and is easy to follow, although as a protagonist, Layla remains a bit vague and blurry.

Finally. the author chose to set the story during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, and because of that and the way certain characters react to the lockdowns and recommended safety precautions, the story is also about ableism and disability. I was pretty angry that characters who readers are supposed to like were so thoughtless when it came to keeping others safe. It changed how I viewed some of the characters and made me less sympathetic to Layla and others.

Book reviews: a great new werewolf tale and short stories about Canada

Learn to Howl by Jennifer R. Donohue. 5/5

One of the things I love about werewolf writing is that you can do infinitely different things with it. In Learn to Howl, author Donohue presents Allie, a young woman from a family in which all of the women–and just the women, mind you–are werewolves. Allie’s mom has kept her daughter’s wolf suppressed with mysterious “vitamins,” but when Allie is attacked by a classmate, Allie finds her destiny in claws and teeth. Allie’s hurries her off to Allie’s aunts, who live a mostly off-grid life in rural New Jersey. There, Allie struggles to catch up on many lost years of werewolf lore and training, and must soon make complex alliances when her aunts are kidnapped by a pharmaceutical company for experimentation. I think this is brilliant–of course Big Pharma would want to figure out what makes werewolves tick! Allie, her newfound cousins, and another pack of werewolves–whose men turn, but not the women, which makes the inclusion of a transman character interesting and thought-provoking–to rescue her aunts. The writing is tight, the characters pop right off the page and sound and feel like very real people, and the layers of relationships, family histories, and magic and lore are excellently put together. I can’t wait for the next one!

Splinter and Shard by Lulu Keating. 5/5

I loved these often-entwined, often-overlapping stories about the ways people adapt, embrace new opportunities or decide not to face them, grapple with a changing world, and figure out who they are. Spanning a century and a lot of Canada, Keating’s stories are about the hypocrisy and cruelty of the Catholic church, desperate love, becoming independent, parenting, being the adult child of difficult parents, seeking a place to call home, and the effect of place on the psyche. The characters are memorable and true, each worth a novel of their own. Highly recommended.

Dominoes by Phoebe McIntosh. 2/5

When Layla’s best friend Sera sends Layla a video explaining that Layla’s White fiance’s racist family might have owned her Black family, Layla is thrown into doubt about race and relationships and what it means to be Black (but sometimes passing as White). Layla agonizes, Sera ends their decades-long friendship, Layla goes to visit her family in Jamaica. There, Layla learns that even Black families had slaves, and that despite them having the same surname, a professional genealogist can’t find proof that Layla’s fiance owned hers. Layla begins to recognize the microaggressions Sera has been exposed to all her life, and realizes that she needs to do a lot of thinking about how the world treats Black and mixed-race folks. She returns her engagement ring, likely bought with slave trade money, to her fiance, and they buy a new one and get married and everyone who needed to gets a little more woke.

Some of the characters are annoying–Layla, for one–but others are people you’d want to play dominoes with, like her Grandpa. The character development isn’t as dramatic as it might have been, and the wedding scenes in which Layla’s mother dances with the White father of the groom is a little bit pat. The scenes with Layla teaching are painfully awkward and cringeworthy, but the first person narration of the rest of the book works well and is easy to follow, although as a protagonist, Layla remains a bit vague and blurry.

Finally. the author chose to set the story during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, and because of that and the way certain characters react to the lockdowns and recommended safety precautions, the story is also about ableism and disability. I was pretty angry that characters who readers are supposed to like were so thoughtless when it came to keeping others safe. It changed how I viewed some of the characters and made me less sympathetic to Layla and others.

The Gilded Ones #3: The Eternal Ones by Namina Forna. 1/5

If you want to read this–which you might not–you’ll need to have books 1 and 2 fresh in your memory for it to make any sense. I really liked the first book in this series, but book 2 was repetitive and character actions and development didn’t always make sense. This installment, book 3, is even worse that book 2. There’s a lot of awkward backstory, the characters and their relationships are ambiguous–and the relationships seem to turn on a dime–and the plot is only vaguely perceptible.