by Susan Stewart
University of Chicago Press, $22.50 (cloth)
Susan Stewart’s fourth book of poetry, Columbarium, is her most fiercely intelligent and ambitious to date: over a hundred pages long, its 35 “Shadow Georgics” are framed by lengthy tributes to the four elements of antiquity—air, fire, earth, and water—which set the boundaries of Stewart’s almost limitless concerns. Modeled on Virgil’s Georgics, the poems at the heart of Columbiarium investigate not only the interactions of the human and the natural worlds, but also address literary tradition itself. “If I could come back from the dead,” Stewart writes, “I would come back / for an apple,” and throughout the book she celebrates physical being and pleasure (the apple) while never losing sight of the intellect’s mediating force. Thus in a later poem, “Two Brief Views of Hell,” Stewart writes,“The mind wants an object and then recoils at what it has done.”Many of the poems touch upon the Fall and the notion of falling—what is the human’s relationship to the material world, and can we remain in it happily or must we fall from it? In “Pear,” for example, the speaker, “stalled” on a bridge, observes a girl almost magically “flying and falling, flying and falling.” Lines later, we learn that the girl is merely jumping on a trampoline, but having witnessed this event urges in the speaker the realization that “Everyone must leave . . . to burn, and burn / And burn back to the ground,” the trampolinist’s freedom having come to suggest a darker, but perhaps still liberating, image of death. Stewart is at her most urgent and evocative when, as in “Pear,” she assumes the first person; otherwise the work’s essayistic quality obtrudes upon the immediacy and music of the poetry. Alternately, when she aims to be more aggressively musical, as in “Night Songs,” the poems can sound awkwardly singsong and forced. That said, readers of Columbiarium will be rewarded throughout by the poet’s remarkable acumen and edifying sense of purpose.