Susan Stewart and Jennifer Chang seem like an obvious pairing; the two certainly share some scholarly and poetic DNA. Both are intrepid, lucid literary critics and poets of visceral intellection. Stewart, currently Avalon Foundation University Professor in the Humanities and professor of English at Princeton University, is such a dazzling academic (a MacArthur Fellow who has also served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she will deliver the prestigious Clarendon Lectures at Oxford University in 2020) that it might be understandable if her critical work overshadowed her poems.
Fortunately, earlier this year Graywolf Press released her Cinder: New and Selected Poems to wide acclaim. New and selected volumes allow readers to encounter recent work in the context of a career, ensuring that early work is not lost to time even as we indulge our infatuation with the new. But the focus of such collections is usually, and perhaps rightly, the new. I feel it is important to focus more intently on early work, if only to appreciate how and in what ways a poet has evolved, something perhaps especially appropriate for Stewart, who has written discerningly about the primacy of praxis and process in the poetic endeavor.
Second books make an especially provocative place to delve into a poet’s work because they can either stall or extend the promise of the inaugural book. Will the poet become self-parodic, a one-trick pony, or a formal shapeshifter? Ideally, the second book confirms what will become lifelong obsessions, evinces a spirit of experimentation, and is rife with the suggestion of forays and fulfillments to come.
“Field in Winter,” the poem that opens Stewart’s Cinder, begins this way:
The world, a museum of itself.
The cold colonnade of dying elms.
You cannot will a dream, though you, too,
can fall, and fall asleep, and wake
in wonder […]
It is this stereoscopic perspective on the world as its own Wunderkammer — a place to fall and dream and wake and fall and dream and wake again “in wonder” — that has kept me reading Stewart since the appearance of her first book, Yellow Stars and Ice, in 1981. The poems in the first book are a young woman’s work, yet they are charged with an awareness of unbreachable distances, especially the longings of language of love, as in these last lines from the collection’s title poem:
As far as the space between word and word,
as the heavy sleep of the perfectly loved
and the sirens of wars no one living can remember,
as far as this room, where no words have been spoken,
you are as far as invention, and I am as far as memory.
In landscapes as various as rural Pennsylvania and Italy, the interconnected themes of Stewart’s first book — precariousness and endurance, loss and tenderness — swell and progress in her sophomore collection, The Hive, and find particularly deep expression in the notion of sacrament, ceremony, and what Pasolini calls, in the book’s epigraph, “the ancient rite […] // which only by dreaming inside a dream / could [be pronounced] by its true name.” Unsettling forces — birth, death, war, love, violence, separation — create the central tensions in each of these poems, tensions which Stewart then moves to address and sometimes even resolve through acts of private, sometimes secret, ceremony.
In the opening poem, “Man Dancing with a Baby,” for example, a new father finds sure, if mobile, footing when faced with the terror and vulnerability of his parental responsibility by putting on a record and dancing around the house with his newborn, an act of ritual importance:
The slippery floor shimmers and spins like a record while
The light is swinging footloose on its rope
Out of time. The shadows
Slip, shimmering black, and spin across the floor,
Then turn back and pick up again. Oh seedpod stuck for just
One moment on the cattail, out of time, out of shadows,
Downy cheek against a beard: oh scratches
On the record, oh baby, oh measure
Oh strange balance that grips us
On this side of the world.
Likewise, the speaker in “Consecration” redeems the loss of a building that has been demolished by finding in the empty lot,
like the gestures of the dead
in her children’s faces,
[…] the flowered paper
of her parents’ bedroom,
the pink stripes leading
up the stairs to the attic,
and the outline of the claw-
footed bathtub, font
of the lost cathedral of childhood.
In “The Summer Before the Moon,” Stewart uses the inchoate feelings of a girl on the cusp of adolescence to articulate how each of us, whatever our ages, must find fresh words for the new worlds we enter in the wake of every one of our changes. The girl in the poem waits,
as if a cloud had stepped back
like a startled deer, as if a door
had been closed so softly no one
noticed, although the other side would now
be understood as a different world.
This is how the child learns to wait for hours,
listening for something like a ceremony
to begin, something that as yet
has no name.
In “Secret Ceremony: The Sailboat,” parting lovers share private trigger-images of loss: “how they flare up suddenly // from the stillness of the heart / like an oil spill — secret faces / in the surface of the river.” And in “Gaville,” the poem from which the book takes its title, the speaker imagines how a now-sleepy Italian town might be threatened again by an array of historical and natural forces — the Cavalcantis, the Nazis, a power plant disaster, a devastating rain, a fire — and concludes that
What this fascination with consecration and ceremony implies, of course, is a reckoning with the sacrament that is the lyric poem itself, which can express, to paraphrase Sharon Cameron, what it can’t redeem or restore by any other means. In their forays into iconography — a raven’s wing leaving its “print, a deep / and liquid stain,” or a child-prince’s opulent ornamental gown (“the surface of things being / a kind of armor”) or that lone, lost, gem-like bee — the poems in The Hive foretell the marvelous experiments with orthography, symbol, and field poetics that Stewart would explore in later books, both of poetry and criticism. The Hive suggests that current innovative poetries are not necessarily anti-lyrics, but rather attempts to embody what a lyric poem — hybrid, othered, outed, plural, polyphonic, “unmastered” — can be, mean, and accomplish.
Jennifer Chang’s newly published second collection, Some Say the Lark, which follows her award-winning The History of Anonymity (University of Georgia, 2008), is, like Stewart’s work, preoccupied in part with provoking and questioning the lyric poem. Her book’s title comes, of course, from a well-known passage in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in which, after exclaiming to Romeo that what he hears is not the lark — harbinger of the daylight that must separate them — but rather the nightingale, Juliet revises her wishful denial to admit that what she hears is the lark. But rather than allowing the lark its typical pastoral, dulcet association of “sweet division,” marking the distinction between the darkness and the light, she reveals a decidedly unromantic association, linking the lark’s music with the inevitable wrenching of lovers from one another’s arms.
Chang, who is assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at George Washington University, holds a PhD in English literature and an MFA in poetry writing. In her second book, she sustains the obsessions of her first book — identity (personal and cultural), history, effacement, and the realms of flora and fauna — and extends them into a questioning of the limits of lyric poetry itself in a world fraught with contingency and anomie.
In “The Winter’s Wife,” for instance, Chang’s speaker acknowledges that despite her wish to believe in the pathetic fallacy by which literature displaces into nature the “want” of human experience (“I want wild roots to prosper / an invention of blooms”), she, “unlike twilight, [does] not / conclude with darkness. I conclude.” Chang is fearless in taking on traditional notions of what poetry can do to the self and to the natural world. In the section “Phenomenology,” from a series called “Small Philosophies,” she talks back to Keats’s famous nightingale ode, refusing the traditional poet-bird conflation, reminding us of the rape of Philomela, and stressing the dangers of romanticizing either song or silence:
Permit the forest armature,
nor garden-lust. You are a twilight
and a twilight bird. Isn’t that
forlorn in the greenest branches?
Why forlorn? Because
the clouds have gone brute.
You are a quality
and a thing silenced
by pine-shrug. Stern willow.
Now run and hide in the fern.
Conversing with poets and cultural figures as diverse as Sir Thomas Wyatt and Patsy Cline, Mary Wollstonecraft and Frank O’Hara, Wallace Stevens and Thomas Jefferson, Oedipus and William Butler Yeats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the speaker’s own children and childhood friends, this philosopher-poet asks again and again: “Brittle page, history, what am I to you?” (“Whoso List to Hunt”) These inquiries and assays are both personal to Chang, a first-generation child of Chinese immigrants, as well as relevant to all of us.
Stalking Chang’s poems is an awareness of never, of no, of nada — “Never is / a strange design, to name what can’t be / or won’t begin,” she writes in “Mount Pleasant” — and this sense of absence, this hole of aught, is the secret center of all lyric poetry. Chang confronts the poet’s essential quandary — how, and whether, to word the unwordable — again and again, perhaps most strikingly in “Dorothy Wordsworth,” which begins: “The daffodils can go fuck themselves. / I’m tired of their crowds, yellow rantings / about the spastic sun that shines and shines / and shines.” After rehearsing the “old joy” of “spring again,” Chang concludes her stunning poem with an unflinching expression of what it means to be a poet in the first place:
If I died falling from a helicopter, then
this would be an important poem. Then
the ex-boyfriends would swim to shore
declaiming their knowledge of my bulbous
youth. O, Flower, one said, why aren’t you
meat? But I won’t be another bashful shank.
The tulips have their nervous joie-de-vivre,
the lilacs their taunt. Fractious petals, stop
interrupting me with your boring beauty.
All the boys are in the field gnawing raw
bones of ambition and calling it ardor. Who
the hell are they? This is a poem about war.
Both Chang and Stewart, then, foreground the machinations and motions of the lyric poem — site of sleight of hand, site of ritual, in which there is an economy of sacrifice — in verse of daring beauty, honesty, and depth. In “Ceremony,” Chang writes, “I am quiet / and won’t / squander words / to make what’s / false true.” In both The Hive and Some Say the Lark no word is wasted. Each serves a world in which “all waste […] shall bequeath to our heir. Our air,” as Chang writes in “About Trees.” She closes “Again a Solstice” this way:
What does it even mean to write a poem?
It means today
I’m correcting my mistakes.
It means I don’t want to be lonely.
Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest collection, Orexia, was published in 2017.