‘If you could have wings would you want them? / I don’t know.’ Susan Stewart’s poem ‘Wings’, from her 2003 collection Columbarium, is a deadpan dialogue in which the laconic second speaker insists that yes, as long as he or she could fly, the fantastic appendages would be worth all inconvenience or embarrassment. The wings would be large and heavy and obvious: ‘They might brush against your knees as you walked.’ People would stare, and the wings would be with you for life. But who would refuse them, in light of the flying? After 30 or so lines – in which the classical myth of Daedalus and Icarus meets the absurdist tone of a Donald Barthelme story, and all potential drawbacks are canvassed – the poem ends with this halting declaration: ‘that I might fly away / that I might fly away where the ships / that I might fly away where the ships of pine wood pass between the dark cliffs’.
The wings, of course, denote the poetic faculty itself, and the prospect alone of acquiring them seems to start in the speaker a rush to composition. An access of erudition, too: the poem, especially in those final lines, recalls John Keats’s ‘viewless wings of Poesy’, in his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819), and the bathetic plunge of Breughel’s Icarus in W.H. Auden’s ‘Musée de Beaux Arts’ (1938): ‘how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.’ But ‘Wings’, which is preprinted in Stewart’s latest book, Cinder: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2017), is as much about what it means to be an artist or writer today, as it is an echo of those poetic antecedents. Stewart’s work is a sustained reflection on what it is like to be eccentrically feathered with poetic ambition, and to be brought down to earth time and again, face to face with the demands of word and thing.
Stewart is interested in the lyric, in its potential to point to an ethics of being together and being towards the planet.
As well as six earlier volumes of poetry, from which Cinder is compiled, Stewart, who is professor of English at Princeton University, is the author of half a dozen books of criticism. Of these, On Longing (1993), her bravura study of the cultural significance of miniature and massive things, is likely the best known. Her academic writing is in no way a polemic for what she does in her own poetry. In her essay ‘On the Art of the Future’ (2005), Stewart notes: ‘As any working artist knows, art practice that proceeds under the shadow of theory is doomed to be mere allegory; and as any working aesthetician knows, theories of art bound to particular historical practices are doomed to apologetics.’ Pushed, however, to say what links Stewart’s poems – including the most recent in Cinder – to her writing about poetry, you would have to conclude it’s an abiding concern with lyric: that is, first-person poetry with an emphasis on sound and figural language. Stewart is interested in the long history of lyric, for sure, but, more pressingly, also in its potential to point to an ethics, a way of being together and being towards the planet.
These are large aspirations – but here is what Stewart has to say regarding the mode in her essay ‘The Lyric Eidos’ (2002): it is ‘a repository of synaesthesia, an archive of the history of how the form has served as a means of working through the body’s ongoing mutuality of relations between nature and exterior objects and the ego’s necessary articulation of itself as both separate from the world and transformed by the world.’ At its most ambitious, lyric poetry proffers a model for how we ought to look at fellow humans – Stewart invokes the role of the face of the other in the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas – and at the natural world, which is fast receding.
Take, for example, the first of Stewart’s new poems in Cinder. This is the entirety of ‘Field in Winter’:
The world, a museum of itself.
The cold colonnade of dying elms.
You cannot will a dream, though you,
can fall, and fall asleep, and wake in wonder. There is nowhere
the whiteness has not
touched – take
a look and
see. The corners, the edge, of each
you walked into a new transparency,
Among other things – the almost facile elegance of that opening metaphor, the judicious line breaks, an expanse of white before ‘a look and’ – what really works to bring ear, mind and eye to bear here is Stewart’s exact and exacting punctuation. The clipped periods of the two opening lines, the dash between ‘touched’ and ‘take’, the exposing colon after ‘exposed’ – all of this suggests a closed and cold scene opening before the poet’s eye. But it’s the comma at the end that renders the poem definitively unfinished, conjuring the next step across this frozen field, the next effort to engage it. There’s a similar sense of a constrained world yielding to the lyric gaze in ‘Forms of Forts’ (2013): sunlight streams into a hay barn, revealing the dried ghosts of ‘the stray clover bud, / or jewelweed, or fireweed, / or evening primrose, / or robin’s plantain.’
Elsewhere, Stewart’s particular take on particularity, her precise but formally vagrant attention to the natural world, strings celebratory streamers of emblematic punctuation among her words, so that certain poems verge on the concrete. In ‘If you were one of the travelers, the guests’ (2016), we glimpse:
stars and winter***^^^^^^^^
()()() ()))) clouds, clouds
crossing moon ((()%
crossing rain ^^^
Stewart’s poems can be affairs largely of the page: sparse wide skeins of words that recall Stéphane Mallarmé, such as the opening pages of ‘Sung from the generation of AIR’ (2003), or the same poem’s later wing-patterned section titled ‘the memory of happiness in a time of misery’. But lyric is also a matter of music: the sound of a voice finding itself and declaring itself as such, and in its song discovering what is not its own: the world. Incantation, according to Stewart, is among the oldest and most powerful of poetic procedures. In the title poem from her 2008 collection Red Rover, trancing repetition does its age-old job of luring speaker and listener out of the world, the better to deposit them in it again:
red rover, red rover,
let them come over,
red planet, red star,
come over war against
love overcome, and come
over, red rover, let them
come over, please permitter,
decider, old teaser,
formless through the startled leaves.
Stewart is also a fine and perceptive writer about art; some of the best of her essays on art and aesthetics are published in The Open Studio (2005). In her piece on the artist Tacita Dean, she writes: ‘No art could be more personal, and yet no art could be less narcissistic.’It’s tempting to say the same of Stewart’s own work, with its infrequent ‘I’ and its myriad forms of address to word and thing and idea alike. At her best, she’s the best sort of scholarly poet, ever willing to suspend her knowledge of past poetic forms in the face of fresh worldly evidence – ‘there is no technique in the grass. / There is no technique in the rose.’ – but ready to insist upon it all again, all her deep historical affinity, when word and thing arrive lyrically admixed. ‘The future came wearing/the look of the past’, she writes in ‘Games for Children’, ‘and a spirit roved restless through the shaken leaves.’
Main image: Tacita Dean, From yon cloud do speak, 2016. Courtesy: the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and Frith Street Gallery, London.
First published in Issue 185