The Forest, by Susan Stewart (University of Chicago Press (Phoenix Poets Series) 1995)
Reviewed by Steve Harris
What will be the role of memory in History? Not the History of the past, but of the one to come? This is the question Susan Stewart asks in her complex (and complexly beautiful) collection “The Forest.” Stewart has chosen the Forest as her central metaphor, and in the collection's opening poem, she introduces the Forest (“You should lie down, and remember the Forest”), and at the same time laments its loss (“no, the truth is, it is gone now”). And it is loss that Stewart settles on. The birds no longer sing, and there is blankness. But Stewart is not one to surrender. She incorporates an almost dance like step in the opening poem, with a refrain (“no surface, skimming”) which argues for a continuing melody, even if it is one of loss. Refrains, or perhaps recurring language and images, are important to the overall structure of the collection, and the reader will encounter them again and again as he or she reads through, amazed by the weave work Stewart has accomplished.
For all of its post modern feel, Stewart's collection seems practically Old Testament in its statements. Following the opening poem is a long sonnet sequence called “Slaughter.” With clinical (and Leviticus like) detail Stewart gives the reader a description of a slaughter house procedure (“The stunning must be short, exact --a blow or shot to the forehead at / the cross of an X between horns and eyes.”) But the voice of the poet wonders beyond bloody ritual, beyond infected memory that now seems like a “great/ beast, beached and spoiled”:
I finally grasped
what had happened, how the real could not
be evoked except in a spell for longing for
the past or the that could be, after all,
another occasion for suffering.
There would be no more instruction,
no more, in the end, hand guiding the hand.”
Next in the collection comes a sequence that takes place over a course of years in this century. Stewart seeks to show that this life of memory is, yes, a fairy tale, but a dark one. In the poems “1931”; “1936”; “The Arbor, 1937"; “The Violation 1942"; “The Gypsy 1946"; “The Coincidence, 1956"; and “The Spell”, Stewart supplies a personal history of incestuous rape, and its effects and recurring patterns on generations of mothers and daughters. But there is also a suggestion of change, a sense that something new has occurred. In the dark fairy tale of the “Gypsy, 1946", a mother and daughter silently make up the sleeping husband/father, attaching earrings, applying makeup, as it is worn in 1946, a year Stewart tell us is a “year of mild surprises.” When he awakes, the husband/father is unaware of his appearance, and brutishly eats his dinner. Both mother and daughter later find that after living years in the “giant's shadow” that now “they can speak.”
But it is an incomplete break with the past, and the following poem “The Spell” recalls images of the earlier rape, but also on creation itself: “For in the midst of Paradise was the Tree of Knowledge/ that was forbidden, yet the girl partook of it.” And it is here, whether in Edenic exile or not that Stewart finds the woman's “intention” superior to God's mechanical “design.” As she gives birth, she sees the event as ambiguous, an event that can bring a “cold sweetness” to her lips, but one that also brings the “child's cry,” a cry that “interrupted/ the circuit of her pleasure.”
In the second half of the collection, the reader finds further reinforcement of all that is in the first section. But there is also a sense of movement. If we are moving out of the Forest, we must then move through the Desert. It is a horrific journey, one that takes us through history. In the poem “Holswege” the reader finds Stewart lost in blind alleys, trying to turn away from herself, but always “hoping that some feeble maxim was the truth.” It is a terrible tension.
....It was no use looking for closure
before the world was ready to give it up. Better to follow the allee
of chestnuts even if it ends in disease and extinction, the hard truth
waiting at the close of beauty. And if not beauty the twisted keys
of what could be haltingly thought and known. This turn
to the future was of course “a kind of courage,” a wing
beating forward through an overly dramatic storm. What was hard-wrung
was also comic, full of weddings and well-wrapped presents, closely
kept secrets bursting with confidence and swerving turns
of phrase — like the song that murmurs “follow, follow,”
swept up an impoverished by its own poor echoes in a key
unnecessarily sharp or flat. In truth,
there was wax, or maybe ice, weighting the wing, trash in the alley,
some blank contingency at the close of it all. Still, I rummaged for the key
to the end of the terrible sentence, a turn, a light, a face, a truth.
And it is some sort of revelation Stewart seeks. She doubts what history has dealt out before. In “Medusa Anthology”, she takes the story of shipwreck and cannibalism, and casts it against Hopkin's poem of difficult faith — “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” She doesn't ask why terrible things happen, but instead casts the Big Question as a statement:
Show us your face, Lord,
like a spot on the sun,
and we'll remember
how the black shape was
a projection from
our long-spent longing
for a starry sign
against our delirium
It is not anger, but desire that pushes her. Something has been lost (like the Forest) old understandings corrupted, and that God should “Touch us again”, otherwise history, as a cannibalistic journey, has left us with nothing more now than God's “stone made flesh”, which is wicked irony on both “word made flesh” and Jesus' admonition at Matthew 7:9.
But Stewart is a prophet. In her paraphrasing of Lamentations (taken from an 1831 Quaker Old Testament), she assumes the mantle of Jeremiah, weeping beside the broken walls. But as a prophet she retains hope. In what, she is reluctant to say, because by saying, she may herself corrupt what she seeks by using suspect language. Perhaps what is Holy is the sense of journey or intention or longing. In her closing poem, despite earlier denials of closure, Stewart does supply some sense of dark closure with her poem “The Meadow.” In the meadow, a friend recounts a trip to a meadow, and the forms of life there. But Stewart asks him “about the charred apple tree and the starlings.” He says he didn't see them, and that “nothing that was alive now, that wasn't the color of grasses.” And it is here, and with each loss — in this case, the Forest, that we lose ourselves, our singularity, and thus our own humanity.