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
“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: