Susan Stewart
The University of Chicago Press, 2003

Reviewed by Jon Thompson


Making it New

In an age where contemporary American poetry tends to define itself by doctrinal allegiances to either formalism or experimentalism, Columbarium is difficult to categorize. To be sure, most of the poems in it are instances of free verse, yet what makes this collection distinctive, among other things, is its marriage of classical exactitude and grace with a will to experiment– Columbarium audaciously invents new forms (or rewrites ancient ones), uses intertexts, and goes on its nerve in so many different ways that it is difficult to avoid evoking the ghost of postmodernism, whatever its virtues or defects nowadays as a descriptive term. Columbarium is cool-but not the burned-out, affectless cool of so much postmodernist art; instead it resurrects a classical or neoclassical coolness, which being tempered, carries with it the force of passion translated into clean, well-made structures.

Using buildings as metaphors for language and poetry is very much to the point inasmuch as Columbarium itself is deeply interested in habitats and habitudes. As an epigraph to the collection reminds us, “columbarium” means both a “pigeon house” and “a subterranean sepulcher, having in its walls niches or holes for cinerary urns” and much of the book is concerned with nature and culture, their interactions, indeed the reworking of nature that is culture, and the ambiguous legacy of that refashioning. A columbarium is thus the presiding metaphor for culture in Stewart’s collection in that it aggregates to itself associations of life and death, associations that are indissolubly connected. As Stewart once said in an interview, Columbarium is “both nest and crypt.” Fitting, then, that Columbarium as a made object, contains an intricate formal architecture, one that explores in a powerfully distinctive vision, the conflict and imbrication of eros and thanatos, of salvation and destruction in the world. But, like classical art, as idiosyncratic as Stewart’s vision is, it is translated into an art that has the authority of truth itself. Paradoxically, this poetry carries that burden more because it eschews one-sided, dogmatic assertion. Artistic expression in Columbarium, so wrought, conveys the authority of inevitability.

Columbarium resists summary in that many of the poems move toward a recognition of irreducibility of experience, and thus converge on liminal moments—moments between life and death, chaos and order, the knowable and the unknowable—which by definition, are ineffable. Nevertheless, in reading this book, I am reminded of Heidegger’s famous phrase “the world in its worlding,” which conveys in its fragmentary form a great sense of the world as always in process, always in a state of becoming, always carrying with it the past; or as Stewart puts it in “Now is the minute,” “I awakened to the world as it was given” or in “Pear”: “The given world is infinite and reality is complete.” Part of Stewart’s accomplishment in Columbarium is that in so long communing with the dead–that is, in living with the learning of those who have long since passed away–she confers upon her poetry a mature sense of the long vision of things at the same time that she offers an intense awareness of the particularity of the here and now, of the pure ephemerality of experience. As she writes in “Drawn from the generation of FIRE”:

deep where flames are freed in flame, shining
the dead are lit by candlelight
around a gleaming table,
their books lie open,
the pages chosen,
soft lead softly drawn
along the margins like
a whisper

Read to me tonight, tell me what they want to say.
How the yellow glows
in the silver teaspoons, mirroring
their lips and ears and 
eyes in longing there,
convex then concave,
their faces shimmering.
I am listening
I am waiting
for your voice
to be carried, electric
on the surface of that light.

In considering “the world in its worlding,” Columbarium addresses itself to the oldest questions of Western philosophy and poetry—”What is being?” “What can we know?” “What can we say?” In a time-honored tradition, Stewart addresses these questions by harnessing the vision of the innocent. In the epigraph to the first section of the book, “The Elements,” Stewart writes: “When I was a child, like you, I thought like a child,/ and asked how all things began.” Simplicity opens up experience because it addresses it without apparent preconception and thus allows experience a greater role in discovering the terms of its own definition. Simplicity of expression—wonderment—become tools for understanding the world in something like its full complexity. The most profound question here then is the question repeated in “whisper”: “What was it?” and although the referent for that pronoun changes, it becomes a recurring question throughout the collection.

Yet there is as much retrospection in Columbarium as there is being-in-the-moment, perhaps more so (and not infrequently the here-and-now is approached from a retrospective point of view). As a backward looking book, Columbarium meditates not so much upon the ambiguity of human achievement as on the ambiguity of human desire. Drawn to the Icarian—the human desire for that which goes beyond the given, that which exceeds what is—in Columbarium the Icarian virtually becomes a metaphor for the mystery of poetry itself. In “the survival of Icarus,” there is the voice of Icarus, who is presented as surviving his fall from the sky:

I had heard that voice before
in some far time beyond this place
and I think of it now as a living net,
though I do not know how it spans our world
or if it sings from its strings or its spaces.

There is much that is elemental in this book—indeed book-ending sections in Columbarium are devoted to air and fire, and earth and water, respectively. To be of this earth, to be worldly, is to be of these elements and for Stewart, human destiny involves the Icarian desire to exceed limitation. In Columbarium, it is the ambiguity of this legacy that is stressed. Fire, for example, is seen as a consuming force, but it also warms, and illuminates; it takes away, but it also provides vital powers of light, which allow for communion with the dead through the written word. The interconnectedness of everything, of presumed antinomies, becomes one of the chief subjects of this collection. This is nowhere more beautifully realized than in “Bees”—itself a poem fashioned out of a passage from Virgil’s Georgics:

                                                       And that a thousand stirring wings
will come forth into the day like a storm of arrows made of wind

and light. And the flesh will fall back into the earth, and the horror
into sweetness and the dark into the sun and the bees
thus born.

Here the “bees born in the corpse of the injured animal” become quite literally life born out death, life come from death, sweetness from horror. Knowledge is illumination that comes from the dead: this is found to be as true of the workings of nature as it is of the observer-poet who in turn discovers illumination in the dead—in the work of the poet Virgil himself. Eschewing superficial differences—and the easy consolations found therein–the movement of this poetry is to discover the ways in which the world surprises by disclosing deeper levels of affiliation, finding in the shadows, or even in the light, the undersides of truth. In Columbarium, a classical sense of form is wed to iconoclastic thinking, and much of the achieved tension, and the pleasure in reading it, comes from the observation of the rich and subtle interplay between the two.

What emerges powerfully from these poems is an abiding sense of the strangeness of the world; indeed, it is presented as beautiful and strange in almost equal measures, as in “To You and For You”:

When you say you are afraid there is something else there, some figure
              by the window, or someone
                          coming nearer, a voice in another
                                       room that isn’t 
                           quite a voice, somehow the difference

between things and persons and the difference between persons and things,

                                       so given and irreducible,
becomes like the clouding of

the past
            and the present at 
                        the moment when you want to return
            toward the future

and find yourself leaden
               with hesitation.

                                            I do not know where the dead are, or if they are. It is as easy
                                            to say they are with us as to say they are irrevocably gone.

This attitude of wonder before the irreducible complexity of the given world explains in part the distinctive combination of tones that define Columbarium—celebration and elegy. Yet these modes are not ultimately oppositional either, for to celebrate the world rightly is also to mourn it, and to mourn it (its ephemerality as well as its losses) is also, inevitably, to celebrate it—even in its indeterminacy, which as here, is seen as a kind of bounty, rather than cause for despair.

There is much in Stewart’s poetry that is reminiscent of ancient Stoicism–a patient sense of the many lessons of existence, acuteness of perception, an emphasis on the virtue of clearness of perception (as well as the limitations of human perception), a rich and simultaneously chastened sense of what it is we can know and do, hemmed in, as we are by history and circumstance, but always here there is the desire to see the world as it is. Consider “Weather”:

              My love, whenever
you look for the weather,

you look at nothing
more or less than the aftermath

of signs that came before
what is happening

became what is happening.
A mood falls over the present

like a thud or a blackout,
a breeze or a shadow, for

a door has opened up in the heavens
and that door is as likely

to close. We live below
in the cave of will and

stick out a finger from
time to time to test the wind’s

direction. Up there it all
depends. You could shake it slowly

through a sieve and still know less
than you knew when you started.

There’s no one in that place
with a passing thought for us.

It is fitting that this poem, too, is a reworking of Virgil, but it is also—undeniably—Stewart’s poem, carrying as it does, so lightly, the thread of meanings and associations running through her book. The achievement of Columbarium is that it enters into, and extends, the various poetic traditions—ancient as well as contemporary—that it speaks to with such evident regard.



Jon Thompson edits Free Verse: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry & Poetics.


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