Ancient Poem Is At The Heart Of 'Read With Me' Novel

Dec 18, 2017

When a poet writes a novel, it's natural to expect the story to include a poem or some reference to poetry. For her debut novel, poet Marydale Stewart uses a 10th Century verse, "The Wanderer," as a symbol for one of her main characters.

Stewart's book, The Wanderers, is our Read With Me selection for December.

Her character, medieval studies professor Kurt Schafer, is fascinated by "The Wanderer," an Anglo-Saxon poem about a warrior knocked unconscious during a battle.

"He wakes up and he's alone," Stewart said, "and he spends the next several years of his life looking for someone who knew him."

One evening, Kurt shows a modern translation of the poem to Sarah, a teacher who befriends him.

He who has tried it knows

how cruel is

sorrow as a companion

to the one who has few

beloved friends:

the path of exile holds him,

not at all twisted gold,

a frozen spirit

not the bounty of the earth.

Stewart says the poem probably was written in the north of England. "It's a very cold setting and, in the part of the poem that Sarah reads with Kurt, the narrator describes himself as a frozen spirit," she said, "and that's what has happened to Kurt."

Kurt becomes a "frozen spirit" in the Prologue, shortly after coming home from high school:

He wondered if his father was home, knocked lightly on the closed door to the larger of the two bedrooms. Sometimes his father slept during the day, if he'd had a bad night. No response, so he went slowly in.

A shocking, foul smell hit him like a heavy curtain.

His next impression was that his father had left in an unusual hurry, changing clothes and throwing the old ones in a heap on the floor. Then he saw the immense pool of blood spreading, following the slight slope of the floor.

His father lay on the floor with half his face gone. His old handgun lay in the pooling blood.

The next time we see Kurt -- 12 years later -- he's meeting his father's sister, Eva, for the first time. During dinner with Eva's friends, Kurt describes his father's traumatic childhood. The story begins in 1961 when Kurt's father Otto and Eva got cut off from the West when the Berlin Wall went up.

Kurt took a breath. "My father," he said, "grew up in an ... orphanage, well, actually, a sort of camp, in Germany." He glanced at Eva whose face crumpled for a moment. "My grandparents were killed, we think probably for being critical of Khruschev and the German Democratic Republic, and then my father was taken and placed in this special children's camp. He was about six years old."

"A re-education camp, it was called by the Stasi," Stewart said, referring to the secret police. "And he was abused in many ways. When he grew up and had Kurt, he couldn't shake his past and probably had PTSD."

Eva avoided detention and eventually left for the U.S., settling in northern Illinois. After the Berlin Wall came down, Otto moved to Canada with his wife -- Kurt's mother -- whom he later divorced. Otto remarried but hid his past from Kurt and his stepmother. Nevertheless, by taking his own life, he transferred his "baggage" to his son.

"Anyone who has experienced a suicide of a friend, or a family member, has an irrational sense of guilt," Stewart said.

This guilt may explain Kurt's behavior with his newly-discovered family, and their friends. One minute he's light-hearted, the next somewhat aloof. He also appears to have difficulty connecting on an emotional level. Sensing this, Eva invites Kurt to a therapeutic riding center she owns. The center helps people with PTSD, missing limbs, and cerebral palsy learn to ride horses.

During one visit, Kurt finds himself leading a horse named Trooper back to the stalls. The center's manager, Sky, helps him. Then she tells him to stay put for a moment.

When she returned, she was carrying a plastic caddy containing two brushes, an oval rubber currycomb, a hoofpick, a bottle of liniment, a mane comb, and a sweat scraper. She set it on the floor in front of Trooper, moved to the pony's side, unbuckled the girth, and lifted the saddle off.

"There," she said to Kurt. "He's ready to be groomed." She gave him a wide smile, as if she'd just wished him a happy birthday.

Stewart says she once boarded horses at a stable in Byron that had a similar program. "Riders of all ages -- adults and children -- can benefit from this kind of introduction to horses and riding, physically and emotionally," she said.

Caring for animals and working with them is a theme throughout Stewart's novel. "I've had enough experience watching people react to the animals they're with to understand there's a mystic connection between all creatures," she said, "and the idea of closely associating with an animal brings us together with a kind of core of understanding -- not just of living creatures, but of the earth itself."

Stewart says writing this novel was very different from the writing she's accustomed to. In an interview with WNIJ, she took pains to avoid implying that poetry is easy.

"When we write poetry, we write it over and over and over again until we get it the way we want it. But writing a novel is much harder, because there are so many different things going on at once," she said. "You're sort of a juggler. You've got the plot, and you've got the characters who you've already created -- but who have a tendency to take off on their own. And then you have the narrative arc, which is keeping that story going without faltering, and that's a very difficult thing to do sometimes."

Stewart, however, is undaunted; she's writing a sequel to The Wanderers.

Marydale Stewart, author of three poetry collections, was one of the winners of WNIJ's first poetry contest. She lives in Spring Valley.

Next month, author Kyle L. White returns to our "Read With Me" series with Neighbor As Yourself, a collection of essays.

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