If you were born in a furnace, you might dream of snow. If you came of age amidst ice-gloved trees, you’d reach for the brazier.
In Theodora Goss’ “The Bear’s Daughter”, heat is on short supply in the Celsius and Fahrenheit sense, but it unspools in other, hearth-hot ways. We meet the eponymous bear’s daughter of the poem as she roams the silent northern castle of her current, nonviolent confines. When we encounter her, she is “Wandering through the silent castle, / Where snow has covered the parapets, and the windows / Are covered with frost, like panes of isinglass”. What a good and true sanctum this might be for an ice maiden, and yet the bear’s daughter longs for heat, casts her wishes to the south, land of pomegranates and olive trees.
Goss gives us a rich, dense history here: the bear-daughter’s mama is a woman of the south, and while her daughter roams the frigid northern castle keep, she slumbers in the arms of her bear-husband, seemingly content. What a captive this poem makes of my curiosity, of my desire to understand how the happiness in this household may have skipped generations. Goss’ poem here functions almost as veiled, suggestive parable: that the mother’s joy may engender the daughter’s disillusion.
The unique longing of the daughter may bear its own unhappiness even surrounded by cold northern beauty. I love this way of thinking of the poem as an enclosure which, when prised open, reveals yet another walled garden. Sorrow and exultation, restraint and excess, layer on each other like this in what we call real life: why not in the castle of a bear king? The least is said of the bear himself, slumbering, breathed into by his wife. Does he sense the heat signature of his daughter’s seeking heart?
This is the thirteenth installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.