Richard Wirick: “the stamp of its self shines out like a weakening lamp”


Birches outside Novosibirsk (Photo: Brian Jeffery Beggerly)

Some time ago I wrote about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; the title of the post was “I welcome your snowballs,” quoting a Bookslut piece by Richard Wirick.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I received an email from Rick Wirick, who is a Los Angeles lawyer, as well as author – apparently, when he was an undergraduate at Berkeley, Czesław Miłosz was the advisor for the literary quarterly he co-founded, Transformation. So, through Milosz, we have another connection.

Afterward, he sent me his 2006 book, One Hundred Siberian Postcards, literary snapshots of his journey to Siberia to adopt a baby girl with his wife.  I spent a February in Siberia once – actually, it wasn’t as bad as Detroit, but the miseries of Michigan are unsupported by a literary canon.

But Rick describes a Siberia I didn’t see in the booming town of Novosibirsk (which reminded me, rather, of the Pacific Northwest).  This revisited the Russia I described in my recent post about PBS’ Great Famine, based on the research of Bertrand Patenaude.

Rick’s description begins with a TV set, then moves to staggering portrayal of hunger everywhere:

The images become indelible as I watch new coverage of the famine and warfare in the Sudan. The images clutch around my heart like dread, like the little prongs that hold a diamond solitaire. It is hard to tell the dying from the dead. The TV camera rests on a stooped body, and you keep waiting for it to move. Then, finally, you see something like a fly lighting on the eye, and you wonder if it had taken the cameraman as long as it took you to realize what was going on.  …

States of privation, of deprivation. We see them everywhere once we’re out in the grocery store parking lots; rags and bottles of water in their hands, shopping carts, children and cardboard signs: ‘Chechnya Veteran’ and ‘Need Work.’  Scores of them rush at me from the factory entrances at twilight, clothes flapping in the wind.  Once I am out of change the last of them flits through the hole in the cyclone fence and down to the darkening mounds of the construction site.

The eyes here have grown hollower, for there are a few that we recognize. And no matter how many there are and how closely they crowd together, we never for a second confuse any two of them. The crowd of faces never merges.  These are not the masses our distance makes of the dead at Ingushetia or their neighboring cities, the ‘mountain phantoms.’ These stay differentiated. Pain and hunger individualize.  However much a face might thin and tend toward the skull, the stamp of its self shines out like a weakening lamp. It is this, this light, that makes us feel their pain, feel ourselves in their shoes.

Food as a paradise of flavor and abundance, a Garden of Earthly Delights. It is this heaven, this brimming Eden the hungry are cast from. They want a return to the furnishings of the fallen world just like we want a return to that first world, where we didn’t even have the knowledge of want. There are places where food, or the raw stuff of whatever will become it, comes at us with a richness we see nowhere else.

Rick will be at Kepler‘s soon to read from his new collection, Kicking In, though I don’t see him on the bookstore’s schedule. Frankly, as a high-powered attorney, I’m surprised he has enough energy at the end of the day to do more than go home and babble at a wall.

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One Response to “Richard Wirick: “the stamp of its self shines out like a weakening lamp””

  1. Amazing Brain Indonesia Says:

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