The Medka

The nurses flocked, they flocked to me
              like jackdaws thirsting
And me without a jaw left behind
              in the mouth of a Kamchatka brown bear
Airlifted and onto trolleys, recomposing surgeries
              discomposed, composing
(Is my jaw now compost? Half my face for gruel)
              their reinvention with chalk lines drawn
And I with hymns and old prayers, half-remembered
              in dragon’s mist, tamping
Down hysteria, breathing, breathing, wondering
              at my new name, Even-given, transfigured
By suffering into medka, call me medka, half-
              human, half-bear,
Conflated by misunderstanding, or was it evil,
              this force of Nature’s kiss
Which bit off more than it could chew at one sitting,
              to make of an anthropologist
A believer in transfiguration, to wish for the Other
              when left to the mercy of human hands.


N.B. This poem is solely my personal interpretation based on what I’ve read in reviews of a recent book by Nastassja Martin, an anthropologist studying the indigenous Even people of Siberia, in which she recounts her experiences after a Kamchatka bear “went off with a chunk of my jaw clenched in his own.”

In the Eye of the Wild begins with an account of the French anthropologist Nastassja Martin’s near fatal run-in with a Kamchatka bear in the mountains of Siberia. Martin’s professional interest is animism; she addresses philosophical questions about the relation of humankind to nature, and in her work she seeks to partake as fully as she can in the lives of the indigenous peoples she studies. Her violent encounter with the bear, however, brings her face-to-face with something entirely beyond her ken—the untamed, the nonhuman, the animal, the wild. In the course of that encounter something in the balance of her world shifts. A change takes place that she must somehow reckon with.

Left severely mutilated, dazed with pain, Martin undergoes multiple operations in a provincial Russian hospital, while also being grilled by the secret police. Back in France, she finds herself back on the operating table, a source of new trauma. She realizes that the only thing for her to do is to return to Kamchatka. She must discover what it means to have become, as the Even people call it, medka, a person who is half human, half bear.

In the Eye of the Wild is a fascinating, mind-altering book about terror, pain, endurance, and self-transformation, comparable in its intensity of perception and originality of style to J. A. Baker’s classic The Peregrine. Here Nastassja Martin takes us to the farthest limits of human being.”

Publisher’s note: In the Eye of the Wild (2021) by Nastassja Martin
Written for Shay's Word Garden List from which list of 20 words she implores us to use at least 3. I've used, counting, counting, seven, 6.

14 thoughts on “The Medka

  1. Someone said to me once that there is a gift in every trial, and the size of the gift is commensurate with the size of the wound. That was many years ago and I’m still not sure I believe that, or at least not in every case, but who knows? Certainly this experience took the Medka down paths she never would have gone otherwise. Bear medicine is very potent stuff, and I just don’t feel like this can have been random. Most of what rocks our worlds and changes us the most is stuff we never would have wanted or sought out, but there it is, and you either believe it has purpose or it doesn’t. Like any good Gemini, I’m a believer in dual spirits, but wow, that kiss had to be some radical way of getting there.

    –Shay

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    1. From what I’ve read, Martin saw it as a transforming experience, and what pushed her to that place was the trauma not just of the bear attack but cruelty of people who dealt with the wounds of that attack. Compared to the latter, the bear attack was a “kiss” not of death but of identification with the “other,” someone who she now was to those ministering to her. My take on suffering is from a Christian point of view. The bear/the people/the visceral wounds without and within are all part of the fallen world that everyone to a greater or lesser extent endure. The Other is God whom we have fallen away from until in Christ we are reunited to Him. He gives meaning to what we endure because He alone can redeem it for our good. Apart from Him, the only logical resort is Nietzsche’s.

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  2. Sherry Marr

    What an amazing story, which bears out my insistence that what happens in reality is far more unbelievable than what we can make up in fiction. I will have to read that memoir. I love your poem, you told the tale well. A transformative event for sure.

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  3. Wow. Fascinating, Dora. Your interpretation and seeing through Nastassja’s eyes is incredibly empathic and insightful, giving us a glimpse into the strength of the woman. And isn’t it true that the straight up truth can also be the most unbelievable? Really enjoyed this, excellent write ❤

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    1. Thank you, Sunra. Some experiences have to be heard to be believed and then they’re so incredible they strain credulity. Yet they show the resilience of the human spirit and reaching out for something outside of oneself almost instinctively, knowing survival requires it.

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    1. If I remember correctly, Len, she endured not only the surgeries and implants by incompetent surgeons as well as nurses harboring resentment/hostility as they regard her a monstrosity, but also people like the man sneakily snapping pictures of her in the hospital right after her attack. Also incident of a nurse committing medical abuse while she had a feeding tube. It’s all horrific when you consider that in comparison she felt the bear’s mauling to have been a “kiss.”

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  4. This is crazy great. Phenomenal language and imagery throughout. You had me at the opening line: The nurses flocked, they flocked to me / like jackdaws thirsting” Amazing.

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  5. Susie Clevenger

    This goes straight to my heart. In the last days of my daughter’s life she was treated cruelly by a hospital that seemed like it was not based in today’s reality. Your poem is powerfully, brilliantly written.

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    1. That’s truly heart-breaking, and I pray you will find peace while dealing with the memory of her suffering. I know from experience it’s not easy, having had family members and friends endure harshness, yes, cruelty, when we/they are most vulnerable physically and emotionally. That is one of the reasons Martin’s story spoke to me on such a visceral level.

      Thank you for your kind comments about the poem.

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