Book Made of Forest by Jared Stanley
There are a lot of different things to say about Jared Stanley's Book Made of Forest: things about his poetics (cumulative lyricism, lacy disjunction), things about the press from which it comes (Salt, British, though Stanley and others are American), things about poems as gifts and poems as records, things about humanity's failure to negotiate an existence that is in keeping with the "body" of the world as it is, things about sadness and the quotidian, about shapes and colors, about fennel and camping and touch and taste. But the thing I am most interested in, for its delightful tone of terror and oddness, is this:
[T]he sheriff found the skunk with his head stuck in a jar of mayonnaise. The sheriff shot the jar with a pellet gun and it burst. The skunk retained a jagged glass necklace, but could proceed in "doing whatever skunks do."
The jagged glass necklace just kills me. And that it's in a section of poems gifted to and responding to various artists and art, and that this one is for Kara Walker, and that she works with silhouettes, and that silhouettes are about space and shape and absences and presences, and that Stanley says "Sheriff or gland, the contorted history of people shapes, penis people when one is a big hole, the shores of one is torn . . . a hole scares me beast" -- well, all of that is very pleasurable: a present for the brain.
There is, though, an unexpected and confusing density to Stanley's writing, a sensation at odds with some of his lines and some of his forms. It seems useful to think of the poems as bricks, as hard little masses of information, lovingly processed -- and patterned after time itself. But that's not quite right. It might be the wonderful effect of translating inner speech to the page (and not in a merely Joyce-ian or Woolf-ian way). It might be a disorder of thought. It might be a sense that words themselves are machines, self-aware objects breathing out meaning: "the word 'skeleton' turns a crank / and the moon comes up." The poems can be quite touching, simply because they are packed with loveliness. They can also be dry and dull, simply because they are too packed. Take, for example, "Poem":
gone not into the war --
himself a burr on himself
a years-long personage
who danced summarily,
cold as he was in his hiding.
Who has ever learned
from his own peace,
unplugging the phone
Full of their ugly lord
as if a transparence
in what the phone said.
I love lots in this poem. And I like the tone. And I like the diction. But something about the cumulative effect, though elegant, is dense and impenetrable. This is not to say that the poetics here is a failure; it's just that it provides less immediate pleasure than the bejeweled skunk mentioned above. And this is not, in my mind, an issue of abstraction or narrative or any other small, trashy criticism like that. Readers of the best contemporary poetry are quite flexible, quite interested in post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, post-Elliptical work. It would be wasteful and vulgar to charge Stanley with willful obfuscation, but we do need to think about where we are headed in our understanding of poetics. And we need to think about poets as sometime trendsetters of reality. Good poets reconfigure reality, make us have psychedelic experiences, make us time-travel and lose language. Perhaps the pleasure is the impenetrability? Perhaps this is an ideological position? Why must we always be, intellectually, "penis people," pushing into the things we consume?
Personally, I like Stanley best when he takes his poems into state parks and works them over, recreating the unique and mind-altering experience one can have on a good walk in the woods. One of Stanley's arguments here is that this kind of pastime offers up a psychologically healthy form of metamorphosis. When we see the world "off the grid," we see how silly our bodies are. We see the joke that is human perception.
Bird-blind, I'll wear any canopy, exchanging heads with anything laying around, oaken, hair entrapment, the leaf as just-escaped, fallen and then brought up again, half as green as any green man. Some rhymes are great. What is anything worth if loam courses through it and turns decorative, my head holding up a chandelier of birds, among whom, in my love, I discourse. They're porcelain, made and occupied, hollow to the timing of their tinny ghosted ringing. Remember a cardinal or a nighthawk. What have I crawled into, suspended about the canopy, not dexterous to its comforts.
The "natural" world, in terms as expansive and gasping as possible, allows everything to morph.
Like a stomach full
of bad songs, a noise came up
clear and very loud
tonguing the brush into green shapes.
It was peopled by apparitions
that had hid, gold-leaf'd
in old books and returned
to the whites,
thick with bugs,
of our eyes.
The noise kept us flat
in the field-mud
and torqued the poor grass.
I stuffed some in my mouth
imitating the talking-while-chewing
mood of the storm clouds
which were intent on
"explaining the barbarians to themselves,"
and we hid, close and exultant
like two Eves
crowded by ghosts.
That is some excellent consciousness alteration. This is metamorphosis in the vein of Tom Waits (ala "Green Grass:" "Can't tell the birds from the blossoms / . . . You'll never be free of me / He'll make a tree from me") or the new-to-me Bill Viola, whose video art gestures at the same inexplicable awe induced by mere observation -- the chosen bewilderment, to wish oneself out of comprehension, to change bodies, as it were.
If Jared Stanley sometimes over-packs his poems, it seems to be in the service of something exciting and good and wholesome: metamorphosis, poems as lived experiences, experimentation with perception. The production of poetry in general is something to praise, and drawing lines is juvenile, but Stanley does represent a good marker for serious thinking about poetics. The disgusting tyranny of literalism oppresses the human brain, and we should embrace the revolt against it.
Book Made of Forest by Jared Stanley