“Tell me, ravaged singer, / how the cinder bears the seed”: the title poem of Susan Stewart’s collection of new and selected poems questions the power and potential of her own art within an explicitly retrospective frame. The poem, which first appeared in The Forest (1995) as a prefatory poem to a whole section called “Cinder,” casts the poet, Stewart’s “singer,” as a figure the community asks to bring something back from a span of experience, some understanding of our strivings and our torments, and the comfort that understanding could provide:
We needed fire to make
the tongs and tongs to hold
us from the flame; we needed
ash to clean the cloth
and cloth to clean the ash’s
stain; we needed stars
to find our way, to make
the light that blurred the stars. . . .
The community, scarred by the paradoxes and challenges of the human condition, petitions the “ravaged singer” to reveal “how the cinder bears the seed.” Solace emerges as the firm perception that the past carries the source of some future, even as it endures (bears as in bearing pain) the suffering of its own extinction and the inevitable separation from that prospect. The audible urgency here is rare in Stewart’s poetry. Her poems are characteristically more chamber music than opera: the silences they break and then change are interior silences, privacies. But the shapes given to perception and understanding matter, and by lifting the poem “Cinder” from its original context and choosing its title for the new volume, Stewart marks it as a fair sample of what she has made of her experience.
Stewart’s distinguished body of academic writing—a long inquiry, both systematic and subtle, into the nature, history, and fruits of poesis—explores this reliance on making, this fascination with the process, fact, and meaning of creation itself. Cinder reminds us that this long inquiry also occupies her books of poems—six now, spread more or less evenly over more than thirty-five years. Making something where before there was nothing is serious and often strenuous work, and involves risk. Stewart’s most recent volume of criticism, The Poet’s Freedom (2011), is subtitled “A Notebook on Making,” and in its opening chapter she writes: “we constantly feel the pressure of the need to make new art. . . . Indeed, every generation seems to have an obligation to the future not only to represent its thinking in created forms but also to use created forms as a means of thought itself. The necessity of starting out, of new beginnings, is as central to our existence as life itself—the very nature of our vitality.”
Her poems are characteristically more chamber music than opera: the silences they break and then change are interior silences, privacies.
One of Stewart’s recurring metaphors for making is leaning—“leaning into nothing”—and it first appears in “Man Dancing with a Baby” (1987) to describe the dancer’s intention prior to the first step (“before balance, before counting”) and the action of a woman’s singing, rising from a record on a turntable. Leaning describes acts of the will, leaning into action, of the body, leaning into space, and of human expression, leaning into silence. The metaphor implies effort against resistance, as someone walks against a wind. Here only the song would be traditionally seen as art, but Stewart is after larger connections. Two books later, in “Sung from the generation of AIR” (2003), another opening poem, Stewart uses leaning into nothing as the figure for embracing something like incarnation and mortality itself:
leaned into nothing
fell into the world
and was the first
of all things
Making—the apprehension, imagination, and creation of sensible forms in and as art—connects with the means by which we give form to our lives: articulation as a virtually physical grasp, epistemology’s foundation. In On Longing (1993), she posits that the root of all narrative is a desire to invent a world that is coherent and intelligible, and argues that memory is a primary model of narrative and prototype of artistic creation. Individual memories, like poems, are miniatures—Stewart’s word—small made things that bring vast existence into human scale. Collections—of souvenirs, of poems, of human makings—are the mode and record of individual selves negotiating with, and acting on, the immensities of space and time. Every recorded life, in the end, is like Wallace Stevens’s planet on a table, or, to use comparisons Stewart herself invokes, the full set of pigeonholes in Plato’s Theaetetus, or a Cornell box.
In the particular collection of miniatures that is Cinder, we find ample demonstration of the qualities that are the source of Stewart’s poetic authority and the ground of the pleasure readers take in her poems. Her poetry belongs naturally to the world of form and measure even though meter, maintained for any length at all, is rare, and traditional forms appear as approximations—the semi-sonnets of “In the Western World” (2008), for example, or the non-metrical sestina “Holzweg” (1995)—that seem more allusions to the forms than versions of them. But her sensibility allies with those who see commitments to language, even to language expressing our doubts and confusions, as firm ones, unfolding in a clarity that may be provisional but is still clarity. We trust her. She varies tempos skillfully as well: the poems’ most characteristic pace is deliberate but by no means rigid; they swerve, they lift, they double back against themselves.
Like Ezra Pound’s apocryphal wise historians, Stewart’s poems leave spaces in the books for things they do not know.
This clarity and motion combine in the exuberant precision of her catalogues, a technique that goes back thirty-five years to “How the River Climbed into This Poem” and “The Summons,” with its Whitmanian gestures: “I call you friend from the tree houses and caves, / from the soft moss by the animal graveyard, / from dove’s wing and dog’s belly beneath.” The exuberance and exactness endures in the new poems, “Pine,” for example: “Pine cones at the Villa Borghese: Fibonacci increments, / heart-shaped veins, shadowing the inner / edges of the petals.” Stewart’s descriptive particulars also conjure the patience of meditation and reflection, as in “Yellow Stars and Ice,” title poem of her first book, or the exquisitely poised “Ellipse” (2003), a nuanced devotional exploration to set beside “Sunday Morning.” “A Clown,” one of the strongest of Cinder’s new poems, revisits this devotional mode not in a quiet, private setting, but in the noisy streets of Rome. Telling a pair of friends the story of an incident that delayed her as she rushed, preoccupied, to meet them, the speaker feels her consciousness arrested: “But as I spoke it came to me . . . // The slow revelation / of a revelation made slower / by surprise.”
“A Clown” is rare among Stewart’s poems in building from what appears to be a specific autobiographical event. The miniatures she typically makes of her experience are replete with knowledge derived and absorbed from life in the physical world and in human communities, but they are usually empty of proprietary circumstances, a tendency that increases the poems’ oracular power. Our lives, our world, and our selves must be seen from somewhere; specific vantage points matter, but one of the things that matters about them is that they change. “To see what is / in motion you must move,” Stewart writes in “Field in Spring,” and she lets those two lines be the last in Cinder’s section of new poems, the directive recalling a similar enunciation of principle more than twenty years before in “The Arbor 1937” (1995): “what is known must be in movement to be true.” Stewart seems artfully aware of the irony of applying the rhetorical confidence and stability of aphorism to these claims about flux. She observes that people bring immensities into human scale as best they can—“cradl[ing] / one ear against the sky and . . . the other / against the ground” (“Ellipse”)—and also observes that aspirational rhetoric often becomes an expression of that scale. For Stewart, the ceremonies of art, of making—the investiture of our perceptions and thoughts in forms, however aspirational—serve, as Richard Wilbur suggests in “Ceremony,” not to conceal but to illuminate “how much we are the woods we wander in.” Stewart’s new collection reflects an unwavering commitment to that exploration. Even when we overreach, she suggests, something valuable may survive our failures. In “The Survival of Icarus” (2003), Stewart’s speaker notes, thinking perhaps of Auden and Breughel and the matter of vantage points, that a father “hadn’t heard the voice” of the falling boy, but the speaker had, and had remembered hearing it before: “and I think of it now as a living net, / though I do not know how it spans our world / or if it sings from its strings or its spaces.”
Stewart’s poetry, too, plays with strings and spaces. Her metaphor of a net reminds us simultaneously of the fragility of our materials—string, human reason and perception, language—and of the means we use to give them strength—knots, sentences, form, collections. It reminds us of the invisible depths into which we cast, and, still, of the spaces through which things escape. Like Ezra Pound’s apocryphal wise historians, Stewart’s poems leave spaces in the books for things they do not know. The image on the back flap of Cinder’s book jacket, of a work by artist Ann Hamilton, presents Stewart’s metaphor of the net visually: a length of twine appears against a black background, its twisted plies suggesting its home- and handmade provenance. Interlaced in patterns too geometric for twine to fall into naturally—a rectangle, an ellipse, something like a directional arrow pointing to the right, and another, more dimly visible, pointing the opposite direction—the twine frames open shapes, like a knot prepared but not drawn tight.
Individual memories, like poems, are miniatures—small made things that bring vast existence into human scale.
Reading Stewart, we are likely to feel the impulse to pull these ends, tighten the knot. We know what we long for, what we have asked of the singer, the wisdom and solace sought in “Cinder,” reconciliation to our path, a threshold for a next step. But Stewart’s poetry remembers that the spaces as well as the string have their meanings, and what lies in the spaces may not be captured when the strings contract. She recalls this risk in “The Owl” (2008):
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. . . .
The recognition this poem narrates, and the making of the blank verse that shapes most of it, help us to sleep by bringing the world into human scale, even as it reminds us we are trying to see clearly something that moves, and that will go on moving, along with the seasons, the planets, and ourselves. Stewart’s poetry stresses to us that we will always have to try again to find the words that will fix and hold our experience, as she herself will surely be trying again. In the meantime Cinder offers a rich sample of the bounty collected in her nets so far.