Susan Stewart: The Forest
(Phoenix Press, 1995)
Not the one you had hoped for, but a life
you should lie down now and remember the forest
nonetheless, you might call it "in the forest,"
no the truth is, it is gone now,
starting somewhere near the beginning, that edge, . . .
By the end of the poem the forest and "the forest" are inseparable. The speaker's voice has entered the forest it is remembering, has taken and tried on its languageits "texture of drying moss" and "marred twines of cinquefoil, false strawberry, sumac"and by doing so has also allowed language and its varying contexts and distracting rhythms to supplant the physical. And yet it is only by reentering the forest of language, these poems seem to say, that the trees themselves (or historical particulars) can even be seen.
More than half of these poems have dates attached to their titles, and the book as a whole suggests the necessity of a painstaking attention to chronology, even if historical accuracy reflects the vain attempt to contain what is impossible to contain within the boundaries of a single poem. "The Violation 1942" is a cryptic six-line poem, somewhat puzzling on its own: "Stubble in the burnt field, / her red plaid, flagging, / flagged; burnt in the straw, / stiff, stubbed, / stubbed out, / out." Later in the book, however, the lines of this poem are explained, played out and played with when each is made the inspirational epigraph for a section of a long poem "The Spell." In this poem the voice is continually circling back and redefining what has already been described, circling back through time as well as language. What begins as a lyrical scene of sexual awakening turns unflinchingly into a violent scene of rape, which in turn blends into the pain of childbirth. Lines such as: "Who laid a hand / on her that day / laid a hand on us" or "the child's cry now across that oceanic / space was the cry that interrupted / the circuit of her pleasure." allow the future (and not merely thoughts of it) to intrude violently on the present, while still making a defiant gesture against the inevitable "lack / of an aftermath."
The perpetual desire of these poems seems to be to restore and redefine the past through the language that both represents and distorts ita desire expressed, either directly by the pantoumlike form of many of these poems, or by the wavelike rhythm and dialogue of the language, language which obsessively resurfaces, echoes and reforms itself and what are often the horrific details it describes. In the long sonnet sequence "Slaughter" the elaborate description of killing and skinning an ox is both diffused and intensified; as if working against the very lyricism of language the speaker clamors for details, demanding them from stories which, by having been retold so many times, have lost touch with their own language. The concern in "Slaughter" for infusing new details into a story so old it has lost its effect, as well as for connecting butchery and responsibility, foreshadow the description of the cannibalism shipwreck survivors resort to in "Medusa Anthology," the most impressive poem in the collection. A poem in thirty-five eight-line stanzas, "Medusa Anthology," tells an oblique narrative in different but consonant voices, one picking up or filling in for another. Stewart uses diction from different sources for the poem; a few she acknowledges include: Hopkins' "Wreck of the Deutschland," Hamlet, Dell Hymes' Pidginization and Creolization of Languages and Lorenz Einer's Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa." Other, more contemporary influences surface as well, however, and the entirely persuasive effect of the poem, is enhanced by the deft skill Stewart exhibits in pastiche:
The great roof fretted with gold,
the goodly frame bereft of terror
and fearwhere were you when they
bundled the poor one away,
her brown coat, her matted hair,
collapsed on the curb: rain,
red tip, ginkgo budding out,
that day, the fire/medic truck
Copyright © 1996
Electronic Poetry Review