Lullaby: Susan Stewart’s Red Rover

Lullaby: Susan Stewart’s Red Rover

In language stark and plain as hymns, Susan Stewart explores our insatiable desire to find meaning in remembrance.


In October 2006, ten Amish schoolgirls were shot–five killed–when a local milk truck driver, armed with guns and gear for bondage and torture, invaded their schoolhouse near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The victims ranged in age from 6 to 13. In a nation where sensational outbursts of violence are accepted as one of the costs of living in our sweet land of liberty, these children might as well have died in an interstate pileup. There is no expectation that their names will stand for anything, or be memorialized, outside their community.

You will read their names, however, in Susan Stewart’s new collection of poems, Red Rover. In a dirge situated midway through the book, she turns them into an incantation:

Lena, Mary Liz, and Anna Mae
Marian, Naomi Rose
when time has stopped
where time has slowed
the horses wear the rain

Mary Liz, Anna Mae, Marian
Naomi Rose and Lena
the lanterns lit
at midday dark
pain’s processional

“Elegy Against the Massacre at the Amish School in West Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, Autumn 2006” uses language as stark and plain as hymns. This tragedy might hold a particular poignancy for Stewart. Now an English professor at Princeton and an important theorist of poetry and aesthetics (in books such as The Open Studio and Poetry and the Fate of the Senses), she was once a child of the southern Pennsylvania countryside. She grew up observing the Amish; her love of the soft landscape they cohabited has become fused, in her poetry, with the tradition of the English pastoral lyric. One of her earliest poems, “Letter Full of Blue Dresses,” from her first book, Yellow Stars and Ice (1981), points to this influence–and feels eerily premonitory:

Now the long evenings begin.
Two Amish girls are running
on the far side of the meadow.
A milk bucket joins their arms,
splashes frost on the thistle weeds.
Their dresses wrap around
their legs like ancient bruises, once
blue, now purple and black. Each
braid slaps the wind’s face,
each thin leg stabs the frost.

Having grown up in one world and residing, now, in another, Stewart takes this autobiographical fact as a starting point for her meditations. Keeping in mind that the etymology of “poet” is simply “maker,” and that the mother of the Muses is Mnemosyne, goddess of memory, Stewart explores our insatiable desire to remember and make meaning out of this remembering. The Amish girls of her early poem are living embodiments of a cultural past that refuses to vanish as well as emblems of her childhood, which is irretrievably gone. Stewart’s elegiac bent has broadened, over time, from the personal lyric of “Letter Full of Blue Dresses” to what might be called the cultural lyric. Fewer and fewer of her poems reference what she alone remembers; they are about what you and I remember. Her great poem “The Forest,” from 1995, seemed to mark the turning point:

You should lie down now and remember the forest,
for it is disappearing–
no, the truth is it is gone now
and so what details you can bring back
might have a kind of life.

This valediction comes, of course, at a time of vast deforestation. And in “Apple,” from Columbarium (2003), she wrote:

If I could come back from the dead, I would come back
for an apple, and just for the first bite, the first
break, and the cold sweet grain
against the roof of the mouth, as plain
and clear as water.

Some apple names are almost forgotten
and the apples themselves are gone. The smokehouse,
winesap and York imperial, the striped
summer rambo and the winter banana, the little
Rome with its squat rotunda and the pound apple

that pulled the boughs to the ground.

The first stanza could be a translation from the Greek, so austere and ancient it seems; the second stanza, offering a catalog of apple varieties, some of them lost, could only have been written in recent times, when “doomsday” seed vaults are hidden in the Arctic to safeguard crop diversity and DNA banks are urged to store the genetic information of a mounting number of endangered species.

Stewart has called herself “one of the slowest poets” and deems our culture’s emphasis on speed “the enemy of difficulty.” Her previous book, the majestic Columbarium, was eight years in the making. Happily, we didn’t have to wait so long for its follow-up. Columbarium took as its epigraph the passage in Plato’s Theaetetus where the soul is compared to an aviary full of birds: “Now let us make in each soul a sort of aviary of all kinds of birds…. Then we must say that when we are children this receptacle is empty; and by the birds we must understand pieces of knowledge.” Red Rover, too, opens with a poem about birds and thinking, “The Owl”:

I thought somehow a piece of cloth was tossed
into the night, a piece of cloth that flew

up, then across, beyond the window.
A tablecloth or handkerchief, a knot

somehow unfolding, folded, pushing through
the thickness of the dark. I thought somehow

a piece of cloth was lost beyond the line–
released, although it seemed as if a knot
still hung, unfolding.

This is a description of the mind grappling with a problem–a knot–and a literal description of peripheral vision. The visual artist Spencer Finch (another bird!) did something analogous when he painted images from a butterfly guide out of the corner of his eye, resulting in slashes of color that came closer to the spirit of a butterfly than a detailed rendering could have. That is just one example of the sort of perceptual exploration for which Stewart has sought analogues in poetry. Poetry and the Fate of the Senses took a long look at how poets through history have discovered and depicted new perceptual knowledge, and it is immediately apparent to a reader of that book that “The Owl,” with its squinting through the winter dark, belongs to the nocturne tradition begun with “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day” by John Donne and “A Nocturnal Reverie” by Anne Finch (a relation in spirit, at least, to Spencer). The purpose of the nocturnal form is to accent, like chiaroscuro, what we can and can’t see. In the end, Stewart hazards, the piece of cloth she glimpses from the corner of her eye may be a snowy owl–incidentally, the owl is Minerva’s mascot and Hegel’s symbol of wisdom revealed only in hindsight.

I called this poem “the owl,”
the name that, like a key, locked out the dark

and later let me close my book and sleep
a winter dream. And yet the truth remains

that I can’t know just what I saw, and if
it comes each night, each dream, each star, or not

at all. It’s not, it’s never, evident
that waiting has no reason. The circuit of the world
belies the chaos of its forms–(the kind

of thing astronomers

look down to write
in books).

Night is a great boon to poetry. Both science and religion seek to shed light and shore up certainties; perhaps poetry alone reserves a positive value for darkness, as when John Keats famously wrote that great achievement can be reached only when a poet “is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Much of Red Rover, like Stewart’s other books, is suffused with darkness. From “The Erl King”:

The father carries his child
before him, through darkness, chest to

chest, like a shield.
And the child hears a voice within the wind,
a voice the father cannot hear.

This endemic darkness may be a symptom of the time in which it was written, a time of mass extinctions and wars for dwindling resources, but as we see in “The Owl,” it also allows for meditation on what we can and can’t see; what we can and can’t know; perhaps, too, it is the darkness of a primordial chaos in which new forms are born. If a poet’s achievement–a making born of memory–is the positive outcome of doubt and uncertainty, then by situating the lyric in darkness, Stewart puts her audience in the role of the poet on the threshold of making. She challenges us to imagine ourselves as remakers of a damaged world.

Keats was thinking about Shakespeare when he wrote his letter on “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts,” but these qualities are associated with the earliest poems in English–Anglo-Saxon gnomic poems, dream poems (Stewart translates one, “The Dream of the Rood,” for Red Rover) and riddles. Today a riddle is simply an entertainment for children. But isn’t all child’s play meaning-making? Stewart devotes a sequence to children’s games–shadow play, king of the hill, tag and, of course, red rover–to recover this knowledge, which is often sensory knowledge deeply bound to natural rhythms. “Games From Children” falls under the section titled “Spring Forward, Fall Back.” From the “I lost… I found” structure in “my mother’s garden,” to “I made a fist/and it grew two ears” (“Shadowplay”), to the symbology of “home” in tag, to the mimicry of war in red rover, she shows how our play encodes the eternal recurrence of the seasons; the roundness of earth and its orbit; the codependence of birth and death; and the pattern of dialogue and relay. Our senses, our bodies, are conscious of things our conscious minds are not. Not only are there things we will never know; there are things we don’t know we know. In “the names,” Stewart weaves these conundrums into song:

What name shall I give to thee?
What name shall I compare to thee?

anise bee and cherry
dark and egg and free
ghost hand and icicle
jinx and kiss and lea
many none and other
pain question row
sadness tree unusual
verity and woe
x I signed,
a yawn and zed,
and then I went to bed.

This list poem is a cosmos in shorthand. Its alphabetical ordering of a range of concrete and abstract nouns suggests Adam and Prospero, magic and games. The power inhering in a cosmos gives rigor even to the grief in “Elegy Against the Massacre at the Amish School in West Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, Autumn 2006.” You’ll notice that the repetition of the girls’ names forms a refrain, but the order of the names keeps changing. Even mourning must partake of the circle game. The circle is a boundary against chaos.

Stewart’s investigation of our shared experience of nature, childhood, our bodies and our senses is one way to call attention to our humanity without nostalgia and without taking oppositional stances against modernity. Her translation of Chaucer’s ironically timeless “The Former Age” and her chilling allegory of Roanoke, “The Lost Colony,” suggest that the past was always-already much like the present. What we have in common with one another right now, right here, including the disputed territory of memory, is the crucial work of the imagination. When Stewart helps us remember the victims of West Nickel Mines, she is helping us remember those wasted girlhoods through the imagery–horses, lanterns, calves, hay–of English pastoral lyric, and the community whence they came, the Amish farmers who abided by their Christianity so seriously that they publicly forgave the murderer’s family. This act made headlines; for weeks, pundits debated the pros and cons of forgiveness. Writing in New Literary History in 2005, Stewart declared, “When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established, its stance against revenge was, I believe, as world-shaking as the previous transformation of the Furies into the Eumenides that is recorded in the Oresteia.” The quaint Amish took this stance centuries ahead of progressive South Africans. What do we see and not see? What do we know and not know?–here these prove to be the burning questions. The darkness that the Amish choose by rejecting electricity is merely the darkness of nightfall, an ordinary limit. But by rejecting the darkness inside us, they have demonstrated how another light can be a boundless good.

It’s no accident that Stewart places the lyric “Wrens” immediately after her dirge:

their tumbling joy
decanted descanting
over cobble
stones in and out
of firethorn back
and forth to gingko
who knows
who will
ever know
what net
binds them
I would not
lose them
could not lose
them know
if there’s
place another
world another life
there must be wrens.

This poem, more poignant for being paired with an elegy for slain children, expresses love for a world where the open-ended play of a wren (its jagged, coruscating swoops enacted in the poem’s line breaks) is an absolute value. In fact, Stewart refuses any paradise that does not contain this wren. And yet she does so with the fierce gentleness of a George Herbert, a Henry Vaughan or a Thomas Traherne, who said, “Love is the true means by which the world is enjoyed: our love to others, and others’ love to us.” Is there room in the future for wrens, much less Traherne? At the close of Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, Stewart acknowledged that we may be on the threshold of the posthuman: a species having more in common with machines than wrens. “Perhaps I am writing at the end of a world.” Perhaps the new world will have less pain, less death in it. It’s hard to imagine that this will be so, when the cause of so much of our carelessness is our inability to recognize ourselves. What we most fail to see, again and again, is our own faces. But what we cannot fail to hear, in Red Rover, is a wise and troubled lullaby for what may yet prove to be the infancy of our species.

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