Short Story and Poetry
Carol Flake Chapman
2nd Tier Publishing
Paperback, ISBN: 978-1-7350664-4-8, 101 pp.
August 23, 2021
In Wild Surprises: Stories and Poems about Encounters That Shifted My World, Carol Flake Chapman reflects on her interactions with animals in the wild. A narrative of each event is sandwiched between a photograph and a poem. With this format, there is something to appeal to every taste.
Her spiritual connection with nature can be felt on every page. Raised in Lake Jackson, Texas, Chapman learned much from her father, an outdoorsman whose knowledge went back to his Choctaw ancestry. The author believes all living things have a desire to connect through “the deep, primal, but infinitely diverse language of earth-based relatedness.”
The diversity of the author’s previous experiences contributes to the strength of her writing.
After earning a PhD in Modern Poetry, the author moved into journalism, becoming one of the founding editors of Vanity Fair. Chapman was horse racing correspondent for The New Yorker, rock critic for the Village Voice, Texas correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, and editor and columnist for The Boston Globe. Her work can also be found in Harper's, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Vogue, Conde Nast Traveler, Connoisseur, The Nation, Texas Monthly, and The New Republic. She has covered subjects from religion, culture, politics, travel, and nature.
When her husband unexpectedly dies on a river in Guatemala, Chapman discovers that the “deep hole in her heart” can be “filled with wonder.” For her “meaningful coincidences” happen within the natural world. Whether gazing deeply into the eyes of Kwabili, a gorilla in Rwanda, or being surrounded by “a cloud of fluttering blue morpho butterflies,” the writer takes readers with her on her adventures.
In “The Winning Camel,” she follows Mahna, a champion racing camel owned by Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid, a defense minister in Dubai. Against the glitzy backdrop of the modern city, camel racing has become symbolic of past nomadic life, when Bedouins raced the animals across the desert. Chapman says, “Mahna, who was now seven years old, was undefeated in five years of racing.” Men play tagruds, recordings of old songs once used to pace camels on long journeys over the desert. An interesting fact she includes is that all competing camels were female. Trainers and owners sang to the animals, kissed them, and wrote them kaseedas, praise poems from a tradition spanning centuries.
The author decides to write her own kaseeda about Mahna, her “reddish coat gleaming” as she wins the race. After a TV camera captures her reading it, she’s surrounded by smiling Bedouin trainers. Even though they don’t understand English, they recognize poetry. The Gulf News of Dubai publishes the poem the next day and she receives a camel medallion of Mahna from Sheikh Mohammed. Of course, the kaseeda is included in the book. Reading it, we can feel the camel, rocking her way across desert dunes.
Three of the nineteen chapters in Wild Surprises are about butterflies--the mysteries of migration, metamorphosis, and cycle of life. In Macheros, a pueblo in Michoacan, Mexico, Chapman climbs a mountaintop to observe the most remote of five local monarch sanctuaries. Above 11,000 feet, she witnesses monarchs on their yearly migration but laments how illegal logging has ravaged the firs on which they roost. Chapman says, “It was a Pentecost of butterflies. The strange crackling sound made from their collective fluttering is known as susurrus, and I felt as though they were speaking a kinetic language.” Soon the resting butterflies roost on her. Migrating south, they travel as much as 265 miles a day, some from as far away as Canada.
Many arrive in Mexico on November 1, the Dia del los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Legends suggest the butterflies are the souls of the dead returning for a visit. Chapman says,
I watch the monarchs flutter down
Like tongues of flame of the Pentecost
Teaching us all the languages we need
To talk to the earth and to hear each other.
She goes on to explain that metamorphosis is “always a kind of miracle, though not without pain.” In order to survive her husband’s death, Chapman realizes she too will have to grow wings and find a new way of being.
In “The Baby Bird at Chartres,” the writer and her friends rescue a tiny bird that’s fallen from a nest. She slowly climbs a tree to return the bird. The author realizes animals and plants also need healing. She says,
So we enter into a new kind of relationship
With the once wild world that needs us
As much as we have always needed her
Carol Flake Chapmen succeeds in forming new connections. Her intriguing insights backed up with mystical, lyrical poetry create an irresistible reading experience. Wild Surprises is a book to read again and again.
Carol Flake Chapman started out as an academic, with a Ph.D in modern poetry and an esoteric dissertation on Wallace Stevens. She bailed out quickly in favor of journalism, and after a fling as a starving writer in New York became one of the founding editors of Vanity Fair. She has written for many notable newspapers and magazines, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, The New Republic, and the Boston Globe.
Her first book was Redemptorama: Culture, Politics and the New Evangelicalism, about the rise of the religious right, which is still used in college courses on religion in America.
Following the sudden death of her husband on a wild river in Guatemala, the course of her career changed dramatically. She wrote about her journey of grief and healing in her book Written in Water: A Memoir of Love, Death and Mystery. And as her path of healing progressed, she returned to poetry, her first love. Her dissertation, written in her early 20s, about the poet Wallace Stevens, is still cited in many literary and academic journals. She began writing poems not only about grief and loss, but also about her deep connection to nature, which had been integral in her healing. Her poems began to reflect her Native American roots as well. She received the Joy Harjo prize for poetry in 2019 and was cited as one of the leading poets that year. She has performed her poems in gatherings around the world, from Texas and California to Mexico, France and Mongolia. Her poems have been included in a number of anthologies and literary journals.