Northwestern University Press, $16.95 (paper)
Some of 2017’s most compelling poetry has emerged against a backdrop of ecopolitical crisis—a national landscape marked by an unending water emergency in Flint, Michigan, the forcible removal of pipeline protesters at Standing Rock, and ever-looming threats of the EPA’s demise. It has become blisteringly clear to many writers that environmental injustice is more often than not a symptom of other forms of oppression, and this awareness has produced books such as Tommy Pico’s irreverent Nature Poem (2017) and Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS (2017). The latter’s semi-viral first lines—“Now / make room in the mouth / for grassesgrassesgrasses”—uncannily echo the opening of Vievee Francis’s Forest Primeval (2015), another recent record of ecological hauntings: “I want to put down what the mountain has awakened. / My mouthful of grass.” Francis’s newest collection opens with a wink of modesty, declaring itself “Another Antipastoral” in a nod to its abundant contemporaries and predecessors. But just another it is not. An ambitious excavation of the rhetorics of race, gender, and nature underlying the West’s most pervasive myths, the sensuously lyrical poetry of Forest Primeval is far-reaching and wild for survival.
Some of 2017’s most compelling poetry has emerged against a backdrop of ecopolitical crisis.
In Race and Nature from Transcendentalism to the Harlem Renaissance (2008), ecopoetics scholar Paul Outka distinguishes between the sublime and the traumatic in naturalist literature. “If sublimity names a pure empowering natural space outside of human history,” he writes, “trauma references environmental damage, a violent link between past, present, and future, the intersection between a degraded world and a degraded subject.” These modes largely cleave along racial lines: whereas sublimity is available to the oblivious white man Columbus-ing his way through an ahistorical wilderness he thinks he can master, trauma is the experience of African American writers who cannot encounter the pastoral without the memory of slavery or the forest without the threat of lynching. It seems to me more accurate to say that accounts of natural wonder and historical trauma are often intertwined, rather than distinct, in African American literature—much as they are in Native American literature, which has a traumatic ecopoetic legacy of its own. But the traumatic does often prevail; think of the pastoral but deadly Everglades of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), or the beautiful but nightmarish Sweet Home of Beloved (1987). This is a tradition against which Forest Primeval positions itself and indeed pays homage; its circuitous movement from the rural South to the streets of Detroit and back again recalls the migratory structure of Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), as do its simultaneously romantic and fearful impulses toward the nonhuman world.
Francis’s poems also push for something else, a new kind of antipastoral for the twenty-first century. What would it mean for the sublime not to lose out to the traumatic? Is that loss one of the great injustices of American racism? Is it yet—will it ever be—possible to embrace natural beauty without disavowing the beast of history? These poems do not prescribe how to do so, but they do offer some alternative approaches to writing a walk in the woods. Demanding trees that bear possibilities other than strange fruit, Francis writes: “Give me the fruit I may leave my mark upon / or flesh (willing enough), but something, something / besides lip and the language of loss.”
This refusal of loss is one of the few constants in a collection whose range of themes, forms, and affective orientations can be dizzying—its sympathies shift like the origins of faraway sounds. The book opens on a white mountain, its speaker trudging through snow to trace one such distant noise with concern and curiosity: “A howl from pain and cold, a particular anguish— / not a foot in a trap, but a foot in a trap and the snow / getting deeper.” Forest Primeval never stops looking for that suffering animal at the heart of a pained landscape, sometimes hunting it, sometimes wanting to comfort it. Francis’s speaker is not afraid to get on her knees with it, either: “and these licks / well / I’d / say we are kindred / you and I on all fours.” The scenery of these poems is varied, but whether the poem at hand is concerned with transference of sorrow from a Kara Walker cutout to its viewer, the pained moment of affiliation when a fisher recognizes the hooked fish as an animal, or the dampened electricity of former lovers meeting for coffee after many years, the book cultivates and maintains connections with surrounding environs—immediate and ancestral, human and nonhuman.
Yet the immediate and the ancestral do not always harmonize, and affiliations with non- or post-human ecologies sometimes give way to insistence on the speaker’s own humanity. For instance when a white man laughs at her sister for squealing with excitement over a watermelon, connection with fruits of the earth suddenly appears as an ugly stereotype. “The landscape under my breasts, / topography of pines, clay bottomland, roofs / of tin . . . and the lie of it,” Francis writes, making visible how the history of the South has naturalized the equation of black bodies with the nonhuman. This disavowal of connection to “the natural” does not read as a contradiction to the book’s abundant explorations of that very relationship, but rather illuminates the problem inherent in attempting to claim an anti-racist position in an always-already racialized ecology. Survival necessarily entails looking to some roots, while pulling up others.
What would it mean for the sublime not to lose out to the traumatic?
Case in point: when the speaker laments a neglectful father, she turns to the natural world—birds and the protective shells of turtles—for kinship. In moments of grief over a fractured family, the wild provides an alternate ancestry grounded in deep time, stretching back past the crows landing on the crucified Christ—“Like Him, I / have called upon those so unlike myself / when my father failed to answer”—to the truly primeval life of the ocean floor. In its careful negotiation of the potentials and dangers of the natural world as kin, Forest Primeval responds in the affirmative to Hortense Spillers’s paradigm-shifting question in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”: “Could we say, then, that the feeling of kinship is not inevitable? That it describes a relationship that appears ‘natural,’ but must be ‘cultivated’ under actual material conditions?” Francis’s connection with evolutionary ancestors is cultivated on a paradoxical foundation: imagining a nonhuman ancestry might be a reparative alternative to damaged models of kinship, which the slave trade fractured precisely by categorizing the enslaved as nonhuman. In other words Francis does not just repudiate the dehumanization of black bodies, but also refuses to grant it totalizing power, seeking out connections with the fish and birds that preexisted racist violence rather than propped it up.
“The nonhuman” in Forest Primeval, then, becomes as malleable and socially inflected as any other category of difference. The collection is deeply interested in how taxonomies structure hierarchies across species bounds—asking with equal earnestness at various points “What kind of girl are you?”; “What kind of boy was that?”; “What kind of fish was that?”—and undertakes an impressive inventory of gendered and racialized representations of animality and nature. Identifying these tropes and playing with them in their most familiar narrative setting—fairy tales—Francis’s poems disturb the power dynamics we have come to expect from the romanticized representations of wilderness and magic. Here the wolf will not just eat you, but will also “have you happy / on your knees / and make you / want more of the same”; here Beauty wonders “How to please the Beast without paying the price? How not to be the cost?”
These disturbances are not simple reversals, where damsels become dominant rather than distressed, and the Big Bad Wolf gets castrated. Francis’s bloody chamber is not the same one envisioned by the fairy tale revisionist Angela Carter, who sends an imperialist femme-fatale mother to rescue her protagonist from martyrdom at Bluebeard’s hands. Instead we get realist heroines who face the power and limitations of gender on its own terms, even at times reveling in its abjection: “dour witch[es]” who “must know the Beast, so shameless.” The Beast is Man, the Devil, desire—all the terms used to keep women subjugated in a gendered economy that they can and do struggle against, if not escape completely. Given this interest in the metaphors of beastliness, it is no surprise that the book as a whole is fixated on wolves, obsessed with the question: What can a wolf be? The associations that underlie and emerge within this text are manifold: predator, mother, sexual animal; a mythical trickster with an appetite for adolescent girls; the first companion species to humans. A wolf can be all of these things, Forest Primeval suggests, but perhaps the meanings we layer upon it threaten to eclipse the animal underneath. What if, these poems ask, we look for that animal everywhere it appears as a symbol, and in the bodies of humans who have been made violently symbolic? What if a wolf is simply that which howls?
Here the howls of the beaten and neglected mingle with howls of consensual pleasure, as well as the triumphal howls of violent domination. The lyric poem, Francis’s primary form, stretches to accommodate these primal power struggles that both exceed and are structured by language, as initially measured free verse increasingly breaks into syncopated fragments, pounding rhythms, and outbursts of prose and parentheticals. Each of these poems is, in its own way, a sounding. Epigraphs cribbed from Iceberg Slim and Howlin Wolf simmer under the icy romanticism of passages from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century fairy tales, but following each quotation is a poem of similarly illicit pleasure and submission. Asking, “What is a fairy tale / but a night terror,” Francis illuminates the through-line of sonic sensuality between Charles Perrault’s 1697 “Red Riding Hood” and the “lil red rilin hood” legend that gave Howlin Wolf his name. However, the truth, as Francis tells us early on, is often “under the details”: a rather vague Howlin Wolf quote that introduces the poem “One to Another”—“It’s like a spirit from some dark valley . . .”—seems to speak to the poem’s dark sexuality, but actually comes from an interview with Open City magazine in which the musician imagined “the poor class of Negroes and the poor class of white people” rising up in revolution to “bring on a disease on this country . . . like a spirit from some dark valley.”
Accounts of natural wonder and historical trauma are often intertwined, rather than distinct, in African American literature and Native American literature.
This carnal undercurrent, where brutality bleeds into a reinvigoration of violated bodies, defines the collection’s varied landscape, which shifts between stark naturalism, confessional realism, and erotic fantasy with grace, if not always with ease. For instance the poem “Taking It” might raise some feminist eyebrows: in it an abused woman “studie[s] The Art of War and watche[s] boxing” to channel her rage, but later fantasizes about being beaten. Similarly troubling are fairy tales in which the abducted Belle “wanted to leave [but] stayed where I was” and Bluebeard’s wife views his previous victims as “stupid starlings.” But to desire something in these poems that looks more like empowerment would be to miss the point. They refuse the easy resolution and politicization of trauma, allowing their female subjects the discomfort of their desires. Here, as Kathy Acker once wrote, “every howl of pain is a howl of defiance / every howl of pain is a howl of romance.”
In the end Forest Primeval is more interested in prey than in victims. But just as the wild is not simply wild, violence is not senseless instinct. These poems ask who gets to eat, and who gets eaten in our patriarchal former slave state. This question is never just a metaphor: prey can be an enslaved ancestor just as readily as a hooked fish—“that woman / not so distant” “pinned beneath” “my grandfather not so many fathers ago. / He who owned so very much and her . . . who laughed only when she cried.” These poems diagram the food chain of so-called civilization and simultaneously try to “imagine / civility just giving way.” In a world where social hierarchy and injustice are easily naturalized, Francis suggests, attempting to imagine otherwise is perhaps our only hope, even if our imaginings are built on the very fairy tales and fantasies that teach us those hierarchies.