Susan Stewart’s Freedom
Susan Stewart’s Cinder: New and Selected Poetry (Graywolf Press, 2017)
Susan Stewart’s Cinder: New and Selected Poetry (Graywolf Press, 2017) offers new and loyal readers an opportunity to read and reread many of the poems she has been publishing over the last thirty-five years. Susan Stewart is a former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a MacArthur Fellow. She teaches at Princeton University, where she is the Avalon Foundation University Professor in the Humanities. This new volume offers selected poems from Yellow Stars and Ice (1981), The Hive (1987), The Forest (1995), Columbarium (2003), Red Rover (2008) and Pine: New Poems (2009-2015). I want to put her poems in the context of poems by ambitious and hard-to-categorize poets who are, like her, passionately interested in creative freedom. (I will frequently quote them.) Freedom is a crucial term in her critical work, as suggested by the title of her most recent book of criticism, The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making. At the same time it has also been crucial for her creative work. At important turning points in her creative career, Stewart has navigated the possibilities of creative freedom in surprising, original ways. Her concern with freedom has influenced her sense of what a poetic career is, and how it may proceed. A distinctive and remarkable element of Susan Stewart’s career is that she has reformulated the idea of poetic progress. I should say at the outset that my readings of her work will be guided by my belief that poems, whatever their subject, are always also about poetry itself.
Any book of poems covering thirty-five years will have to be partly about the dangers that threaten to impede the poet’s work. The most dangerous, probably, are repetition and blockage. I will discuss repetition first. A poet must repeat herself in a certain sense—she is, after all, engaging in the same activity over and over, writing poem after poem. Problems arise if they start to seem like the same poem. Stewart has thought extensively as a critic and poet about various impediments to creation and investigated the stages of creation both from the point of view of the poet and, in a sense, from the point of view of the poem as well. In “Freedom from Mood” (the third chapter of The Poet’s Freedom) Stewart writes that “after several thousand years of speculation on poetics, we still seem to know very little about what it […] feel[s} like to make a poem.”
What does Stewart say about what it feels like to make a poem? In “Freedom from Mood” she writes, “What is needed as a precondition of art making seems to be something like an atmosphere of spontaneity—a situation of beginning to begin that can repeat itself without ever repeating the same consequences.” Stewart evokes in some of her poems “the situation of beginning to begin.” The word “before” recurs in her poems. Her poem “Man Dancing with a Baby” (from The Hive) begins with the lines, “Before balance, before counting, before / the record glistens and the needle slides /Grating, into the overture, there is the end /Of weight, the leaning into nothing and then // A caught breath, the record listens and the needle slides / Over slowly and all at once around us a woman’s voice /Stretches weightless, leaning into nothing.”
A voice is “all at once around us.” These lines seem to be in part about the mysterious topic of a poem’s emergence. Where do poems emerge from? It’s easier to say where they don’t emerge from. They don’t, for Stewart, come out of confessional impulses. She doesn’t, like some poets, write solely in order to offer the hungry reader overt self-disclosure. Writing poems is simplified in certain ways for confessional poets. They know what they want to talk about. Stewart, when she starts to write, doesn’t know. Here she resembles James Merrill, who told a symposium at George Mason University, “The feeling you begin with is very often just the feeling of just wanting to write a poem. With any luck,” Merrill adds slyly, “you can put it together with a so-called real emotion, love or anger.” In “Freedom from Mood,” Stewart writes, “In beginning to make a poem, we claim some measure of freedom from the context of the situation—that is, the situation itself is undetermined, ineffable, a feeling or ambience tied to the absence of intention or purpose.” She continues, “To make such work is to free the making from the very context that proposes it. As any Romantic theory of art, even those that get waylaid by notions of individual expression, will suggest, a work of art does not communicate something that is already understood. The work is a determined outcome built from an inchoate, merely suggestive, beginning.” She adds, “Works of art come to be by fulfilling or manifesting their own initiating nature.” The poet’s theoretical emphasis on the importance of receptivity means, in practice, that she is unlikely to write poems she (or someone else) has already written. I will have more to say about escaping from repetition later in this essay when I turn to the topic of poetic progress over the length of a career.
Blockage is another danger. Sometimes the situation of “beginning to begin” goes wrong. Instead of writing a poem she has essentially already written, the poet can neither start nor finish the poem. A vague force, a force without form teases the poet (she will use the word “teaser” in a poem) with the feeling of incipient clarity, then doesn’t deliver it. Stewart might let the poem go, or she might incorporate the confusion, allowing it to enter the poem. Many poets are, in Keats’s famous words, “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” in relation to the immediate prehistory of their poem but Stewart might choose to show– minute by minute, word by word, phrase by phrase– what sort of confusion or cloudiness or half-light that poems have to emerge from. In a poem (not collected in this volume) from Columbarium, called “Now in the minute,” Stewart writes, “Now in the minute, in the half-life when the rose /light lights the high leaves, rises /and then the sun itself appears, when / the shadow at the back of something like /a thought, implacable, still clouds, / what, what was it? The vaguely milky half-light, / a tick or jolt—what was it?” The poet might never find out. It was “something like a thought” but it remained amorphous. In her recent poem “A Clown,” she gives us two terse dispirited phrases: “Desert saint of drowned beginnings. / Refugee of a vanished rite.”
In The Poet’s Freedom, Stewart writes about the fates that may befall a poem: ‘it might not have been conceived; it could have been left unfinished; it might have been, and still might be, destroyed.” In a poem called “Channel” (which recently appeared in The Paris Review) Stewart writes of “a beginning—before the beginning, /a needle on a gauge between something and nothing, nothing /and something—then sticking at something.” Something and nothing are in an intimate, constantly shifting relation here and elsewhere in Stewart’s work. In her poem, “whisper,” from Columbarium, we see again, “nothing then something / then nothing again.” For Emily Dickinson, it’s a sort of lesson: It is by “hindered Words / the human heart is told /of Nothing,” she writes. In “Man Dancing with a Baby,” Stewart referred to “the leaning into nothing.” Variations of that phrase recur. The poet leans into nothing, as far she can, hoping. In “Forms of Forts,” from the same book, she writes of the desire “that there might be something where before there was nothing.”
With so much talk of “something” and “nothing” the reader may long to be able to visualize something, a place maybe, to represent a poem’s prehistory. That prehistory is sometimes, for Stewart and other poets, represented by the image of a meadow. And a field too, of course, though with fields the poet is often already in the later history of the poem, where the work with breath and lines and syllables is done. There are, of course, countless meadows in poetry. There are fewer in essays, unless they’re nature essays about actual meadows. (In essays about poetry we read about fields, in memory of Charles Olson.) But meadows are everywhere in poetry. A fast reader might hardly register the word “meadow” or “mead” in lyric poetry or pause to visualize one. Wikipedia tells us that meadows “are often conceived of as artificial or cultural habitats, since they have emerged from and continually require human intervention to persist and flourish.” It’s a useful definition in our context. The words “persist” and “flourish” perfectly describe the opposite of blockage. The meadow will be a different experience for different poets. The meadow may, for some poets, be a place of feeling, intense, inchoate, seemingly impossible to articulate.
Meadows aren’t sublime; they’re too small to serve as a metaphor for the prehistory of the epic, say. Instead—to use Edmund Burke’s distinction—they’re beautiful. They may be filled with milkweed pods. “Remember this,” Stewart writes, “the way the milkweed pods /fly open with a shout, the way their white / wings sail out into the meadow with the sureness /of some immortal animal […]” (Wings, meadow, and animal are words with special resonance for her, as we’ll see.) The poet may also find thorns and thistles. In “king of the hill,” (an uncollected section of her poem “Games from Children”), she writes, “There were flowers in the meadow: buttercups and love-/lies bleeding; milkweed pods with down bursting from their tops;/daisies by whose petals lovers swore / to love forever; and thorns / left behind the leafy blind / of the thistles.” Despite the hidden thorns and the thistles, the poet returns as often as permitted.
The word “permitted” calls to mind the title of one of Robert Duncan’s poems: “Often I am permitted to return to a meadow.” Stewart is also interested in the idea of permission. In “Games from Children,” she tells us how she first met “the god of permissions,” a god whom, earlier in the poem, she has summoned with these words: “pleaser, permitter, / decider, old teaser, / spirit moving /formless through the startled leaves.” One can imagine him as the genius loci of the meadow, perhaps. For Duncan the meadow is “near to the heart.” Nevertheless (or because of that), it’s a remote place, hard to get to, hard to get back to. That force–“permitter /decider, old teaser”–may not always permit the poet to return to the meadow.
There are thorns and thistles but the meadow is also, in Stewart’s account, exposed to ominous forces that wait above it. In her poem, “Fire Ceremony,” Stewart remembers that “an orange light stained /the sky above the meadow.” And in her haunting poem, “Four Questions Regarding the Dreams of Animals” she tells us that “lightning […] scars the horizon of the meadow.” These may seem, in bad moments, analogous to stains and scars of a life lived away from the meadow, a life never to be narrated unless obliquely. A confessional poet, of course, will tell all.
Sometimes the poet will leave something behind in the meadow, as Stewart tells us in her poem, ‘Wrought from the generation of EARTH” (not collected in this volume.) She writes, “what will come back comes back and what / doesn’t come back stays, too, somehow nascent or caught within the bramble, / slowly losing its name and form.” (It’s hard not to wonder how many promising poems have been caught within that bramble, slowly losing their name and form.) To go to a meadow, then, is to go to the origin of one’s creativity and to return from it is to begin to write. To go there the first few times is to discover the form one’s freedom will take. For Stewart, the main form it takes will be strangeness. The poet will have to be responsive to that strangeness, protect it, welcome it, allow it to be as new and strange as it wants to be, try to keep it from vanishing back into vagueness. She will, in other words, have to be extraordinarily receptive and hospitable to its strangeness. (Strangeness is a word to which I will now have such frequent recourse that the word itself, fittingly, will come to sound strange.)
Susan Stewart has, by my count, at least ten varieties of strangeness. Her eccentricity is not like that of A. R. Ammons (in his first book of poems, Ommateum: With Doxology) or early (and late) Allen Grossman. It’s not, for one thing, estranging, usually, perhaps because she has so many ways of being strange, and doesn’t seem unaccountably and unnervingly locked into one. It’s worth pointing out that the oddity of her poems seems utterly natural to them, and never affected. At the same time it is a choice. She’s allowing her poems to be as odd as they are. Permission is granted poets, but poets can also give permission themselves. Her strangeness is evidence (the first evidence) of her freedom and, because it is, it has a kind of exuberance.
I want to try to enumerate her varieties of strangeness. The first kind of strangeness can be heard in her voice, which is, in some poems, courteous and ceremonial and old worldly: “This was the first// evening of autumn,” she informs us. Or she tells us, “Now the long evenings begin.” In her second and third varieties of strangeness her old-worldly voice evokes an even older world. In some poems she employs archaic language (compasseth, goeth, a-bounden, clerkes, for example.) In other poems she uses the speeded-up rhythms and the déjà vu locutions of children’s games. Drawn to laid aside, long-lost languages, she experiments in The Forest with biblical prophetic language. In her poem, “Lamentations,” she paraphrases a nineteenth century Quaker Bible. Prophecy, then, is the fourth variety. She is, as I said, versatile. Allen Grossman writes about Hart Crane’s “treatment of the history of styles as an array of undisqualified possibilities.” Stewart has a similar view of that history.
There’s a peculiar tonal aura a poet can instantly provide a poem by using more than one superlative. That’s the fifth variety. Her early poem, for example, “Yellow Stars and Ice” uses the word “deepest” three times and the word “cleanest” once. Another early poem, “The Summons” offers the words “oldest,” “darkest” and “darkest.” The record may be held by Wallace Stevens who, in his poem, “On the Way Home,” uses, in a single quatrain, the words “largest,” “longest,” “roundest,” “warmest,” “closest” and “strongest.” Does the reader believe in the poet’s superlatives? Does the poet? Do they have to? Does the poet believe he has located for the reader the most perfect or extreme version of a thing? Stevens often uses one of his favorite adjectives, “intensest,” as if he believed that the thing it described really was the intensest of all things and also, maybe, that the word “intensest” was the intensest word. Or does he? It’s hard to know. In his poem, “Man on the Dump,” he offers us “the floweriest flowers dewed by the dewiest dews.” He keeps a straight face, however, and it’s hard to say if the humor is intentional or unintentional. Stewart maintains that face as well.
Her sixth variety she shares with Lucie Brock-Broido. It’s spell casting. Stewart’s voice in her poems is often spellbound. A reader picturing Robert Duncan writing is likely to imagine him hushed with awe at his poem’s proceedings. In the middle of one of his poems, though, he suddenly assumes a voice of bravado: “I see it, I see it all the way thru to the next phrase.” It’s as if he’s fallen, clumsily though not unhappily, out of his own spell. Stewart doesn’t fall out of her own spells nor she does she allow us to escape from them. There is, of course, the danger right at the start (a danger that seems not to have bothered Duncan) that poets will have cast the spell on themselves but not the reader. Stewart’s early poems do cast a spell on us, in part because the words she uses to cast her spells seem so unassuming. Their designs, if they have them, seem at first simply aesthetic, like other words used in lyric poetry. But their real designs reveal themselves as we read.
James Salter said that when he was writing his novel, A Sport and a Pastime, he was obsessed with the three words, blue, ice and silence. His repeated use of those words in his novel provided him, he said, with an intense and mysterious satisfaction. In her early poems, Stewart introduces her favorite words. Here is a list, unscientifically compiled, of some of them: animal (a wide variety of animals, sometimes an ordinary animal like a calf, sometimes a speculative one: “You are as far as an unimagined animal /who, frightened by everything, never appears”), wind, stars, ashes, wood, river, distance, silence, moss, grass, frost, lightning, lightning-scarred, dead, sleep, forest, rain, darkening, gods, dust, dusk, moon, night, fire, limit, edge, dream, milkweed pods, brambles, field, meadow. These aren’t words you can take indoors and not many of her poems take place there. The reader notices after a while that houses are likely to be empty and farmhouses abandoned. (When the poet stumbles, as she tells us in her poem, “Consecration,” on her childhood house, she finds that a wrecking ball has had its way with it and that it’s a “perfectly / empty rectangle” now.) Her words are good for spell casting. They’re words a poet could use without waking herself up.
One might identify her seventh way of being strange by the single word, “distance.” Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the words on the list. Part of what makes her poems work is what feels like her simultaneous distance from them and their distance from us. Some readers, used to more confiding and intimacy-thirsty poets, might be frustrated by the distances. But poets, when they write poems, are poets, which is not quite the same thing as being people, and readers are readers when they read them, which is also not really the same thing as being people. Poets, that is to say, ought to be able to keep a distance from readers without it bringing about a relational crisis with them. Still, poetry that evokes the theory and practice of distance as much as Stewart’s does is going to seem aloof in ways that might activate such a crisis for a certain kind of reader. Some poets express remorse. Charles Olson, in his poem, “Maximus, to Himself” says that he worries that the “sharpness […] / I note in others / makes more sense / than my own distances.” But the remorse is generally momentary and usually non-existent. Still, the sense of being in a spell might help some readers. Poet and reader, however distant at times, are sharing the same spell, after all.
More might be said about distance in relation to Stewart’s work. None of the poems in Stewart’s New and Selected Poems is dedicated to another person, at least not on the page on which the poem appears. Dedications, if any, are given in notes at the back of the book. (A reader might speculate that the poet’s dedication to her ideal of freedom is so concentrated that a dedication to a friend would dilute it.) The first person is mostly avoided in her poems. We read about “a woman” or “a girl.” Parental figures are evoked, but they do not tempt or trick the daughter figure into using the first person. Natasha Trethewey, in “Geography,’ a poem about her father, may write of “the distance between us” and Louise Gluck may explicitly connect distance to her mother: “I saw / Myself at seven learning / Distance at my mother’s knee.” It isn’t easy to imagine Stewart writing lines like that or to imagine wishing she would. There are a few love poems in the New and Selected Poems but they aren’t happy ones. Distance is a word (like all the words on my list) with resonance for Stewart; it may be she doesn’t want to limit that resonance it by connecting it to romantic love or the family romance. What else does she not write about? There aren’t poems about the distances possible between married people. Many people are present in her poetry, but the poems do not usually anatomize their relationships or analyze their passions or try to enter their minds. She seems, as a poet, not to be interested in the problem of other minds unless the minds belong to animals. But she’s not, I don’t think, engaging in a theatrical “escape from personality.” Instead, it seems as if she isn’t overly interested, when writing poems, in who she is when she isn’t writing. Keats in a letter to Benjamin Haydon refers to “the cold not of heartlessness but abstraction.” Coleridge, in his Notebooks, perhaps trying to escape the infinite spaces of abstract thought, writes: “Mem. Write an Ode to Meat & Drink.” Here is the closest Stewart comes: “The god chose meat /instead of fruit /and the earth was stained /forever.”
Distance is the seventh kind of strangeness in the poems, then. Here is the eighth: summoning. It’s top speed summoning in some of the early poems; everything that happens in those poems happens fast. Some of the early poems (“The Delta Parade” for example, and others not collected in this volume) are catalogue poems of a sort, in which Stewart gives us quirky, constantly shifting vivid-for-a-second images. Written, it’s tempting to conjecture, before she naturalized herself in her more characteristic language, they are noisy, hectic, exhilarating. (There are many parades. The only thing one can say for certain about these poems is that she loves a parade.) In the uncollected “Ornament: The Towns of Sleep,” she writes, “Now the parade of the hoops and the sticks /and the jack-in the-box begins /the parade of the skeleton trumpets / rattling on the admiral’s chest.” Part of the strangeness of such poems is that, although they take place in public spaces, and nothing really private seems to happen, they appear to have entirely private significance. Something interior has been made exterior and in the process made psychologically not completely intelligible to us but somehow dramatically compelling and pleasurable. It’s pleasurable, for example, simultaneously to recognize the poet’s total conviction in the poems and one’s own difficulty in imagining the poet’s motivation for writing the poems. One keeps wondering: where is she summoning all these images from? It doesn’t seem like she’s getting them from the world, really, though they’re real things. Or from her imagination, exactly. All prowess and velocity, these poems are perhaps inspired at some remove by Charles Olson who, in his essay, “Projective Verse,” tells poets to “get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen.” With her high speed image-summoning Stewart, obligingly, creates a sort of rapid trance music that has no reason ever to end. Her poems seem eager to join what Stevens, in his poem, “Academic Discourse in Havana,” calls an “infinite incantation.” It might be noted here that Stewart, when she reprinted “The Delta Parade” in her New and Selected Poems, omitted the poem’s original ending. Here it is: “Like a smooth /yellow pebble that is rubbing and rubbing /in the new left boot of the drummer /that someone skimmed on the river /exactly at three o’clock. / Not out of anger or of boredom /this time, but as if it could almost /wear wings.” Those wings will come back.
More than one kind of summoning takes place in the poems. A reader might notice that her characteristic words seem sometimes to summon each other. Here is a stanza from her poem, “Fire Ceremony”: “Then through the brittle fields / the wind came rustling, /carrying an animal fear; / the black calf with his damp nose, / now dusted by ashes, / a spindly goat crazy in the heat. / The wind came up on its charred wings.” Fields, wind, animal, calf, dust, ashes. These are all words from the list and they seem somehow aware here of their proximity to each other. Now they’re associating with each other, reflecting each other’s luster. But it’s also as if there were a secret relation between them, as if there were a poem they could make if allowed somehow secretly to assemble on their own.
In addition, her words summon other words that physically resemble them. This is especially evident in her most recent poems. In her poem, “The Knot,” she writes, “Tangle like a bramble, /like a rose. Start, /start again against the tight-/ening.” And in “Two Poems on the Name of Vermeer,” she writes, “The sea teems /with somethings chasing /nothings all around, and minor irritations, /iridescent.” A poem called “Wrens” begins: “their tumbling joy/decanted, descanting /over cobble stones.” It’s as if she wants to close “the space between word and word.” (The phrase is from “Yellow Stars and Ice.”) At the same time, words generate words from their own final syllable, as in her echo poem called “listen.” In a discussion of Eliot’s Four Quartets in one of the footnotes in The Poet’s Freedom, Stewart calls it “regeneration by echo.” In addition, as she notes in an interview with Jon Thompson, there are echoes between her poems and not just within them.
The ninth kind of strangeness comes from dreams. Dreams bring images from a distance but it’s as if they’re given to the poet. One doesn’t have the sense that they’re summoned by her. They are useful to a poet, they can regenerate the poetic imagination with their echoes. There are dangers, though. Some poets might sequester themselves with their dreams as if with some treasure of inestimable value, and write airless, haunted but not haunting poems. Or dreams can be feverish, unrevelatory, full of punctuation and numbers. Claudia Rankine, in her poem, “Dirtied up,” describes one such dream: “She is dreaming the story of recurring commas, /the one that gossips of simple equations, complicated /solution obstructed—“. Poets love recurring words and depend on them but a story of recurring commas is a nightmare parody of recurrence and Rankine reports it, aghast. Or the poet, absorbed with dreams, might find herself making very insistent discriminations. In her poem, “the figure in the garden,” Stewart writes, “I was dreaming of a meadow, /not a garden. I thought, I remembered, just now / how I was dreaming, not of a garden, /but of a meadow.” Or one starts dreaming about one’s preoccupation with dreams. Franz Wright begins one of his poems with the line, “This time I dreamed I was writing a poem down.” His poem is called “Time to Stop Keeping a Dream Journal.”
How can a poet or artist escape the echo chamber? One might, as an initial step away from the seemingly open but actually closed world of one’s dreams, take an interest in the dreams of others. (Note that Rankine uses the third person.) One might even use the dreams of others. Denise Levertov has a poem about her husband’s dreams, called “A Ring of Changes.” “Your dreams! Have they not nourished my life? /Didn’t I poach among them […]” Again, there are dangers: what began as taking an interest might end, as it did for Walt Whitman, in the triumphant pronouncement of the completist. In his poem, “The Sleepers,” he writes, “I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers.” Stewart isn’t that ambitious, though she does admit, in one poem, to the night she “dreamed of Constantine’s dream.”
There may be something spurious about dreams, finally, for some poets. Or futile. Responsibilities do not, it turns out, begin in them. In “Beginning,” the first chapter of The Poet’s Freedom, Stewart quotes Sartre: “dreaming is incompatible with freedom because dreaming leaves us with no field of action.” For the poet’s purposes the field of action is the field of the poem, industrious, flourishing, a place where one is concerned with breathing rather than dreaming. Dreams can come to seem like the kind of strangeness that doesn’t involve freedom, the kind that is merely strange. Where, a certain kind of reader might ask, is the possibility of any kind of creative progress? Only in Jungian analysis, probably, can one make progress in dreams.
I said at the start that Stewart has reformulated the idea of poetic progress. One might ask at this point why the idea of progress in the context of poem writing has such an odd ring to it. Do artists (and critics) so frequently call attention to changes in style and content out of a sense of anxiety about the idea of progress? Does progress have to involve change? Does change always lead to progress? Must change involve a rejection of the old, or can it involve retaining the old while adding the new?
Stewart’s poetry changes. One can sense a change will come when, in a poem in her first book, Stewart writes, “Sleepwalkers, pay attention […] By the time of The Forest, her third book, her poems have already begun to seem different. And then in “Now in the minute,” a poem (not collected here) from her next book, Columbarium, she writes, “I awakened to the world as it was given.” Is that progress? Stewart herself seems to acknowledge that something has changed. She’s experienced a sort of secular conversion experience, a gradual one, more like St. Augustine’s than St. Paul’s. That’s progress, many people would say. But that isn’t the whole story of her progress. As Robert Duncan said in an interview: “So when they talk about awake and asleep, its awake versus asleep. It’s a conversion they’re talking about and it’s got to be a conversion in depth. And the question of conversion gives me anxiety: I don’t want to be converted.”
In order to tell the rest of the story, we need to ask to ask how awakening manifests itself in terms of language. What does one do with one’s words after one has awakened? Subtraction might be a temptation. Poets sometimes consciously drop words. (Louise Gluck in a note to The First Four Volumes, writes, “After The House on Marshland [her second book] I tried to wean myself from conspicuous syntactical quirks and a recurring vocabulary—what begins as vision degenerates into mannerism.” Subtraction, though, might seem trivial to some poets. They might agree with Rilke, who wrote in a letter, “renunciation in superficial things is not progress.” Something else could be required. A poet could rid herself of some of her words or she could change the meaning of some of them. Stewart does do that. Words do alter their meaning over the course of the poems in the New and Selected Poems. The word “manifesting“ in an early poem might have summoning-relating implications in an early poem but in “The dead inscribed, alphabetical, within,” one of her most recent poems, “manifesting” is what is required in order to summon a cab. “flagging /a taxi called for /manifestation /on tiptoe/legs akimbo, and a two-/fingered whistle, stark /and shrill as a swallow’s.” In “Cinder” a sort of extract from the infinite incantation, she says, “We needed fire to make / the tongs and tongs to hold / us from the flame.” By the time of her poem, “Atavistic Sonnet” a recent poem, the word “flame” conjures up other associations. She tells us that she “googled” “an old flame.” Again, in an early poem, she writes that the stars bear witness. In a later poem, she writes that “the stars are perfect; /we do not live among them. / We do not know them and /cannot know them.” Almost all of her early words, though, have accompanied her, stubbornly unrevalued.
Awakening to the world as it’s given might, as I said, plausibly be called progress by many poets and readers. But a further proof that progress has been achieved is often thought necessary. The poet has to be seen to embrace certain clichés. She is now supposed to find the mortal world enough and, after a decent interval, to celebrate quotidian limits. Shakespeare’s Prospero abjured his rough magic. Wordsworth listened to the still, sad music of humanity. This world is enough, they learned, and so, apparently, must we.
It’s not enough, for course. For me, the most distinctive and provocative element of Susan Stewart’s career is her refusal to disown, retract or recant a single one of her varieties of strangeness. Her refusal to surrender any of them is her tenth variety of strangeness, which is to say her tenth kind of freedom. If her refusal to relinquish her strangeness seems itself strange, it’s because many poets, great poets among them, have embraced the clichés mentioned above. In their defense one might say that they invented the clichés, long before poetry critics and therapists got hold of them and made them into rites of passages, signs of progress. But Stewart is stubborn and will not surrender. Her strangeness was the basis of her early freedom and will be indispensable to her freedom now. No progress without it.
Stewart’s creative instincts have, from the beginning, been additive, I think, rather than subtractive. Refusing to forsake the strange, then, Stewart balances it with something additional to it. The preliminary, inaugurating strangenesses might have seemed, all by themselves, limiting. She might have felt stranded in them. But that’s no reason to abandon them. Robert Duncan, in his poem, “The Beginning of Writing,” says, “I imagine not overcoming but including.” To say all that she has to say Stewart simply needs to add new words to the old ones. There are, beginning with The Forest, a brand new set of favorite words. My list, however, (again, unscientifically compiled) is a list of all the words, since she continues to use them all, old and new: wind, stars, ashes, wood, river, distance, silence, moss, grass, frost, lightning, lightning-scarred, dead, sleep, forest, rain, darkening, gods, dust, dusk, moon, night, fire, limit, edge, stranger, dream, brambles, field, meadow, day, daylight, light, angel, true, bird, weight, ear, eye, tongue, body, given, cloth, fringe, burden, consequence, closure, surface, snow, bees, apple, starling, dove, arbor, patience, care, roots, apple, future, motion, language, morning, motion, earth, heart, world, wings. The new words suggest a waking up, definitely, and a turning toward the world. But the presence of the older words suggests that she is not preparing to turn herself into a mature, grounded, responsible, sober-minded moralist. She is, again, like Robert Duncan who once said of himself, “I don’t develop by growing up.”
Meanwhile, other changes start to occur There is, for example, a turning toward the smaller world of poetic forms. Stewart starts writing different kinds of poems, elegies, group elegies, georgics or “shadow georgics” as she calls them, dialogue poems, lullabies, sestinas, carols, prose poems, a shaped (wing-shaped) poem. Although her poems get longer and their pace slower, she also writes short quick mysterious poems with short lines. (Are they riddle poems? They’re too secretive to say.) And she explores new topics. She writes searchingly about history, the past tense a relief from the manic present tense of some of the early parade poems. There are political poems and poems of political anger. Political poems turn out (as Robert Lowell showed in oblique, stern poems like “For the Union Dead”) to be congenial to a poet in a trance she will not shake off who is, at the same time, preternaturally aware. She writes poems that are meditations on (and examples of) environmental consciousness. She writes a poem about a miscarriage. There is a recent poem about refugees.
And her poems get wittier. One of her most recent poems, “Pine,” consists of an accumulation of versions and instances of the word “pine.” In another new poem, “Piano Music for a Silent Movie” she writes, “I promised her nothing but trouble, / my etre had no raison.” In her poem about apples, she offers advice: “If an apple’s called Delicious, it’s not.” She writes about “hoping that some feeble maxim was the truth.”
What about her voice? Some readers might be disappointed by what happens or doesn’t happen to it. Stewart, versatile within her wide range, seems distrustful of what such readers tend to think of as the sound of “the human” on the page, which is the sound always, purportedly, of authenticity. She still finds–to adopt and adapt Louis Zukovsky’s distinction– “upper limit music” more congenial than “lower limit speech.” In other words, she keeps her tone maintained at carefully calibrated degrees of elevation.
Wallace Stevens, in his poem, “Chocurua to Its Neighbor,” wrote, “To say more than human things with human voice, /That cannot be; to say human things with more /Than human voice, that, also, cannot be.” Sometimes it sounds, in the poems in The Forest and after, as if Stewart is trying to do exactly that impossible or forbidden thing, to say human things with more than human voice. She might reply that it is part of the human to try to rise upward toward the more-than human. In her poem, “Ellipse” she writes of an astronomer and his orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system, illustrating the relative positions and motions of the planets and moons. She tells us that “he was making a kind of singing /that came from far beyond /himself, beyond the sounds / that human mouths will bring / into a form of being.” That kind of “upper limit singing” is something devoutly to be wished for if one could achieve and sustain it. It must represent a temptation in any case. A. R. Ammons has a different way of looking at this question. In his book-length poem, Tape for the Turn of the Year, he tells the reader, “I’ve been / looking for a level /of language/that could take in all /kinds of matter /& move easily with light or heavy burden:/ a level /that could /without fracturing, rise / & fall / with conception & /intensity: / not be completely / outfaced / by the prosaic / & not be inadequate /to the surges // I’ve hated at times the / self-conscious POEM: / I’ve wanted to bend / more, burrowing /with flexible path /into the common life / & commonplace / / the denominator / here may be / too low: the lines / may be too light, the song / too hard to hear: / still, it’s not been / easy: it’s / cost me plenty.”
Robert Duncan breathlessly announces, “I see it, I see it all the way through to the next phrase.” The “next phrase” is not, for Stewart, likely to be “it’s cost me plenty.” Stewart is disinclined to charm or divert the inattentive reader by talking to him in the “human” voice he craves. What she writes next is, I think, always more likely to be a fire ceremony than an all-voice-and-nothing-else bonding exercise with her readers. She will most likely remain “a refugee of a vanished rite,” writing poems that are hard to classify or describe completely.
The achievement of balance between a trance state and a state of alertness may be the source of the atmosphere of lightness, and maybe relief surrounding Stewart’s most recent poems. She avoids philosophizing about this balance, perhaps in fear of generating a “feeble maxim” she would then have to hope was true. But “balance” is a word that starts to recur in the more recent poems. In her poem, “Apple,” she tells us that she needs “a ladder / and the balance to come back down again.” Yeats lost his ladder, or so he said; Stewart will keep hers.
Ladders are useful for apple-picking but really to go upward, to ascend, what we want are wings. We dream of flight. Who besides Jacob ever had a memorable dream about ladders? (Frost was on the verge of one, maybe, in his poem, “After Apple Picking”) We dream of flying. Even “Nearer My God to Thee,” the nineteenth-century Methodist hymn about Jacob’s ladder dream, features the lines, “Or if on joyful wing, cleaving the sky / Sun, moon and stars forgot, upwards I fly / Still, all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.” Wings would allow one to leave the earth and return to it gracefully. They would allow one to return easily to the meadow. (Meadow, one of her words, summons another word, wings, and the wings make their way toward the meadow.)
There has been flight throughout the New and Selected Poems: she is highly alert to the air-borne, though often it is the flight of a piece of paper or a “black frayed trash bag lifted by the wind” or a five-dollar bill or what looks at first like a piece of cloth and turns out (possibly) to be a snowy owl. Her tone, when talking about flight, is often tender and hopeful. Icarus, in Stewart’s version of his story, survives. But she can also sound exhilarated. In one of her recent poems she writes about hawks: “quills and feathers / now snapped / out, awakened, doubled shapes awakened / and change, changing / into the full sweep of wings / into lift and speed, the air already churning […]” And there are more and more birds as the volumes continue, more anecdotes about birds and more evocations of fight. There are “starlings in winter the wind beating against their beating wings.” In an uncollected poem, “The Green,” from Red Rover, she writes, mysteriously, “Something is coming toward us /consoling /and of another order. // It comes from a space the birds know// (Though we are just beginning.)” And she has noticed wings from the beginning but she starts noticing them more and more. In her first book she saw “the scarlet wing of the blackbird” and a “dove’s wing” and in her second book the “frail and pitiful wings” of June bugs. By the time of her fourth book, Columbarium, in which her poem “Wings” appears, there are wings everywhere. In her poem “Bees” (a version of Virgil’s Georgics) her tone seems triumphant in part because she is talking about wings: “And a being will be born, and another, and then a thousand /and a thousand thousand swarming without limbs or form. / And that the wings will grow from atoms. And that the stirring wings / will find their way into the air. And that a thousand stirring wings /will come forth from the day like a storm of arrows made of wind /and light.”
In her poem “Wings,” Stewart says that she wants, or thinks she wants, wings. She isn’t sure at first. But little by little her doubts dissolve and her desire, by the middle of the poem, is wholehearted. Stewart’s voice is unusually colloquial here. It seems somehow absolutely right that she sounds most “human”— grandchildren are evoked– when she says she wants wings. Here is the first part of Stewart’s strange, strangely matter-of-fact, beautiful poem.
If you could have wings would you want them?
I don’t know.
I mean, if you use them to fly, would you want them?
Yes, if I could fly.
But they would be really big.
They might brush against your knees as you walked, or be bigger than
some doorways. And what if you couldn’t ever take them off?
I still would want them.
If you couldn’t take them off, even if you were going somewhere,
or going to bed, or sitting at a table, or you wanted to pick
someone up, you could never take them off?
Yes, I would. I would still want them.
Because you could fly?
Yes, because of the flying.
And if they were heavy, or even if no one else had them, and even if
your children and their children didn’t have them?
Yes, I think so.
But you would still have arms and hands and legs, and you could still
speak, but you had wings, too. You would want the wings, too?
Yes, I would want the wings, too.
Nick Halpern is the author of Everyday and Prophetic: The Poems of Lowell, Ammons, Merrill, and Rich. He is the co-editor of In the Frame: Women’s Ekphrastic Poetry from Marianne Moore to Susan Wheeler and Something Understood: Essays and Poetry for Helen Vendler.