Katherine Hazzard

Susan Stewart: The Forest
(Phoenix Press, 1995)

Susan Stewart's mesmerizing new book of poems The Forest suggests not only that we live, or will sometime in the future live, in a place in which an actual forest might be at most a trace memory, but that this memory and others are carried with us by the incantatory force of language alone. The title poem describes an intense desire for preservation, a desire beginning at the moment disappearance is first suspected, when it is already too late:

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 language—its "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 it—a 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:

    I will gladly pay you a nickel today
    for an enormous, dark, and terrible canvas
    on which you will represent yourself to me
    and others who should like to know you
    better. "It sunk three feet
    immediately and the people were shoved
    and huddled together so tightly none
    could move or cry out."

    The great roof fretted with gold,
    the goodly frame bereft of terror
    and fear—where 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

Although these poems are much closer in tone to John Ashbery's, or to Lucie Brock-Broido's "Master Letter" poems which explore and absorb Dickinson's language, their deeply experimental impulse is reminiscent too of Susan Howe's radical rewritings of Puritan history. Phrases from Hopkins' "Wreck of the Deutschland" blend, rather than clash, with contemporary images of disaster, and the strength of a theme in these poems—survival, for instance—is tested by its ability to describe and inscribe itself in language, and in the obsessive forms and rhythms this language finds itself voiced in. It is, more than anything, the sense of inevitable loss which provides the occasion for these poems; they enact and continue to reenact an insoluble conflict between the idea that in language there is no difference among past, present, literature and life, and the disturbing losses resulting from too fervent a belief in that fact. The result is a postmodern lyricism as daring and frightening as it is consoling.


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