Book Review

"Sheltering the Creative Spirit"

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Taos, New Mexico USA

 

 

CELEBRATING THE COYOTE
Review by John Nizalowski
(from "Inside/Outside" Southwest: Books and Film, January, 2001)
 
        The last time I saw Frank Waters, the Nobel Prize nominee who wrote Book of the Hopi and The Man Who Killed the Deer, was after his 1989 College of Santa Fe talk on the changing Southwest.  It had been a breathtaking speech, a grand metaphor linking personal and regional changes with the evolution of the human spirit.  He began with his 1922 auto trip from Wyoming to California, when donkeys loaded with firewood still trudged through Santa Fe's plaza, made his way thirty years forward to his experience as an Atomic Energy Commission information specialist witnessing devastating atomic detonations on Nevada's desert plains, and concluded with the current denigration of Indian lands, especially the rape of the Hopi's Black Mesa for the coal and water that fill slurry pipelines bound for Asian ships.  Once again, Waters had proved himself a master of synthesis by linking his almost legendary life with the planet's great cultural metamorphosis.

        After the talk, I stepped outside the auditorium and lingered under the bright summer stars, contemplating the deep, internal responses created by this profound writer and thinker.  Before me, a red sports car idled at the curb, an attractive, late middle-aged blonde at the wheel.  I paid little attention to her, until a tall, slightly stooped Frank Waters emerged from the auditorium's side door and with surprising quickness, dashed to the fiery car and folded his lanky body into its plush interior.

        I realized then that the woman was Barbara Waters, the author's wife.  Still, I had a momentary shock seeing this living Western literary legend entering a crimson machine that seemed so antithetical to his image and to the spirit of his literary works.

        However, revealing the "true" Frank Waters has long been a role for Barbara Waters, his fourth and final wife.  Even before his death in 1995, her interviews and essays unmasked the imperfect human being behind Frank Waters' mythic persona, bringing to light surprising characteristics that many of his disciples find uncomfortable.  But like the red sports car, these distinctly unsaintly foibles were no less a part of Frank Waters' world than were his vivid literary images and consciousness-changing observations.

        Barbara Waters' memoir, Celebrating the Coyote, is the climax of her "revisionist" biographical work, and even addresses the reluctance of Frank Waters' followers to accept the reality underneath the authorial mask.  "In my opinion," she writes, "Frank disliked aggressive people because they reflected his own unacknowledged shadow side.  This hidden side made him passive-aggressive, and it usually came out only at home.  No one realized it existed unless they spent a lot of time with him.  When I pointed this out once to Dr. Charles Adams [a major Frank Waters' scholar], he said coldly, 'We don't know that Frank Waters.  We only know the Frank Waters glimpsed in his books.'  You could tell he didn't want to hear another word about the real Frank Waters.  It's like the woman who told me, 'I'm in the midst of reading his magical Pumpkin Seed Point.  And you tell me Frank Waters likes to eat corn beef and cabbage.  In a place called the Iron Mask.  Spare me any more details that might send me crashing to earth.'  I guess I was supposed to say he lived on ambrosia, honey, and nectar like the rest of the Olympian gods."  To any reader who may harbor a god-like image of Frank Waters, Barbara Waters, a Jungian therapist, will certainly send him or her "crashing to earth."  She details Waters' childish pranks, his tendency to over-indulge in alcohol, his occasional mean spiritedness towards family and friends, his failed marriages, his fear of death, even his terrible driving (he once rammed his car into a light pole while waving goodbye to Barbara).  Finally, there is his extremely sexist remark during a talk at Colorado College that before he married Barbara he "thought all women were good for was the bedroom and kitchen," an attitude he made manifest by repressing his wives' creative efforts.
 
         And yet, while unearthing Frank Waters' "shadow side," Barbara Waters still leaves the reader with a reverence for this major author.  For along with his imperfections, she praises her husband's greatness as a man and an artist.

        "It is easy to detail the faults, the failings, the lapses," she writes.  "But one can scarcely bring alive for others the chemistry, the stimulation, the love, the always being there for each other.  Looking forward each morning to the day's blessings, joy and excitement.  To sleeping together each night.  The sensuality.  Working together creatively.  Daring together.  Cooking, suffering, and laughing together.  Frank's curiosity, intellect, gentleness, kindness, kind as his great brown Deer Eyes.  The stability.  The completion.  The balance.  Most of all the contentment."  And I would add, most of all, the sensitive self-portrait of a woman who has lost a man she deeply, deeply loves.  Without resorting to cliché or sentimentalism, Barbara Waters evokes the soul wounding pain she feels at her husband's death -- the finest testament she could have given to the man whose writings and love utterly transformed her life.

        There is much of Barbara Waters' life in Celebrating the Coyote, including the years before she met Frank Waters and the first months after his death, and there are many aspects of that life that are fascinating -- including her hiking journeys through the Grand Canyon, her spiritual encounters across the Southwest, and her thoughts on archetypal psychology and Jungian synchronicity.  Also, she includes an extended passage on Frieda Lawrence's difficult marriage to D. H. Lawrence, with insightful parrallels to her own relationship with Frank Waters.  Readers expecting a book solely focused on Frank Waters may at first be disappointed by these explorations, but they should open themselves to the perceptions and power of this woman's story  It is an important one, examining the difficulties and joys of love and death.

        My one frustration with Celebrating the Coyote is that Barbara Waters teases the reader with sometimes brief accounts of Frank Waters' friendships with such contemporary luminaries as Edward Abbey, Dennis Hopper, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Barbara Kingsolver.  I want to shout, "Give us more!" when Barbara Waters tosses off a line like "Frank told Dennis Hopper that the incense smell of burning copal used in Guatemala's sacred places, would drive away unwanted spirits present in Mabel Luhan's house after the actor purchased it."  But Celebrating the Coyote is after all, Barbara Waters' memoir, not a thorough biography of Frank Waters, a publishing event many Southwestern readers await with restless anticipation.  Hopefully, the author of that future book will track down such connections and explore them in depth.  Meanwhile, we have Barbara Waters' many wonderful stories about her husband.  One of my favorites concerns their picnic, complete with oxygen equipment for Frank Waters' failing lungs, on Cuchama, a mountain on the Mexican border sacred to the Yuma Indians.  A police officer from Tecate interrupts their picnic to tell them of the mountain's dangers: "In the first place, this is a hiding place for those who illegally leave Mexico.  Then there are the drug smugglers.  These illegals are watching you.  In the second place, those whose duty it is to catch the illegals are watching you and them.  Shots have been known to be fired."  Frank and Barbara Waters continue their picnic and have a superb time.  Barbara adds that, "All these dangerous 'eyes' added relish."  Celebrating the Coyote is a rich and sensitive book.  While it strips away some of the saintly aura that surrounds Frank Waters, we are left with a deeper understanding of the man and the contradictions that fed his work.  The result is a far more textured portrait of this major Southwestern author than we had before, and a highly valuable biographical memoir that paradoxically adds to his increasing literary stature.
 

John Nizalowski is a writer and reader living in Delta, Colo.  He also teaches in the English Department Mesa State College, in Grand Junction.
 
 

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