Meg Schoerke

Absence, Memory, and Repetition in “The Forest”

“The Forest,” by Susan Stewart, from The Forest, University of Chicago Press 1995) is reprinted in full here.

’ve been fascinated by this Susan Stewart poem since I first read it (in a somewhat different version) in TriQuarterly over ten years ago. Stewart is much better known as an experimentalist than as a “formalist”; in the hierarchy of contemporary poetry, I would classify her as a species of “post Language poet,” one who is experimentalist yet “literary” enough (especially in having recognizable themes in her work even as she bases much of it on post-structuralist principles) to achieve publication in journals like TriQuarterly, to be nominated for a major prize (the National Book Award for her most recent poetry collection, Columbarium), and to win a MacArthur award. Although I admire other poems by Stewart, “The Forest” has sunk its roots deep into my consciousness. This poem haunts me, due to the uncanny effects Stewart creates through repeating (yet often slightly changing) the first and third lines of one stanza as the second and fourth lines of the next stanza. As the poem develops, Stewart deploys this technique to evoke the forest’s gradual disappearance and the mind’s efforts to come to terms with its absence. The repetitions enact the speaker’s struggle to reconstruct the forest (and, on another level, “the truth”), detail by detail, through memory; to recognize, at the same time, that memory and language cannot ever replace or even approximate the original; and, finally, to accept the loss (of both the forest itself and the idea that memory, or any linguistic construct, could ever perfectly preserve it).

     The stanza form of “The Forest” stems from the models of obsessive repetition found in the sestina, the villanelle, and the pantoum. (In fact, Stewart initially tempts us to think that the poem will be a sestina by her repetition of “life” in lines 5 and 6). The poem most resembles a pantoum, even though it lacks rhyme: Stewart lengthens her stanza to five lines (as opposed to the pantoum’s four) and inverts the pantoum’s pattern of using the second and fourth lines of each stanza as the first and third lines of the next stanza.
The forest’s layers (and the poem’s fine-tuned layers of repetition and revision) suggest the processes of the mind as it grieves, remembers, and reconstructs.
As in a pantoum, in her last stanza she repeats (with a crucial change) a line from the first stanza, but she does not round out the circle by closing with the heretofore unrepeated lines of stanza one (lines 2 and 4). The poem hovers around a “five beat” norm (i.e., a pentameter line with lots of substitutions), but Stewart also includes shorter lines in the mix. I recall that the version of the poem I originally read in TriQuarterly was more metrically regular than this revision, especially in its line lengths, and that I was initially unsettled when I read this final version, which appears in her eponymous book, The Forest. Yet I have come to believe that she sought to evoke just such a feeling; the short and long lines, and all of the lines that dance on the edge of iambic pentameter, give the poem a precarious balance that mirrors the precariousness she describes (of the forest itself and also the memory of it).

     For me, the overall effect of these technical elements is that the poem consistently thwarts my efforts to read it as a linear progression. No matter how hard I try to read it “straight through,” I always find myself looking back to see how the repeated lines fit into the previous stanza, and how Stewart may have changed the lines. I think that this is one reason why she uses a five line stanza, with the last line never repeated. The beauty (and, sometimes, the annoyance—or even tedium) of a pantoum is that the reader can immediately expect to encounter exact repetitions of relatively proximate lines. But Stewart, through line five of each stanza, makes her repetitions less proximate. Moreover, even as she includes incremental revisions in the repeated lines (whether through slight changes in diction, punctuation, or in how the line fits into a sentence), she also repeats words between lines, or slips into the fifth (unrepeated) line of a stanza words that she has deployed elsewhere. The most obvious example of this additional layer of repetition can be seen in her constant return to the title phrase, “the forest” (which appears in all but two stanzas of the poem). For another example, look at lines 40 and 50, where the end word “blades” switches, sestina-fashion, from “shoulder blades” to “sharp brown blades” (the last phrase suggesting the blades of grass or pine needles, but also knife or saw blades). As a result of all of these different echoes in the poem, the repeated lines seem to stick in my memory, but I’m never certain enough of them to know (without checking) when she has made changes.

     The slight revisions of the lines therefore enact the processes Stewart contemplates in the poem: she forces me to think about what’s there and not there, not only in terms of the forest details that sometimes do literally disappear as she revises them out (or are insisted on through exact repetition, as if to will them back into existence), but also in terms of how the poem’s language (like human memory) is always shifting and unstable and therefore never able to know “the truth.”

     Complicating these repetitions and erasures is the structure of Stewart’s sentences—or perhaps I should say, their lack of conventional structure. Absent from many of them (and a few of them are quite long) is a main clause, or central subject or verb around which to organize the proliferating clauses that accumulate line-by-line. Most notable among such sentences is the one that runs from lines 6 to 16, which I have difficulty following (and sometimes even imagine as a dialogue). The sentence beginning with line 22 (“And blank in life, too”) leaves out a subject, which is likely to be “they,” referring back to the birds in line 20. Note that when Stewart repeats line 22 as line 29, she adds the pronoun. Or sometimes (as in the sentence that runs from lines 31-38) she will delay a main clause, so that the reader keeps groping until the last possible moment for some unifying structure. These missing centers of her sentences embody the absent forest that the speaker keeps trying to recall (and to reconstruct in memory, on the page) as the poem develops.

     As I suggested earlier, Stewart’s concern with absence and her skepticism toward language mark her as a poet invested in post-structuralist theories of language. And yet, her poem is not interested only in the play of language as language, or the gap between “the sign and the signifier,” or in the relativity of truth. Like the forest she elegizes, the poem has many layers (inaccessible canopy, mid-level of tree trunks, forest floor, underground of roots and nurturing humus). Too many “Language” style poems strike me as gestures of empty rationalism. In contrast, Stewart’s poem (for me) evokes complex emotions that I find hard to articulate—and is therefore unsentimental and true to life, even though the poem insists that “no, the truth is [, it is], gone [lost to us] now” (lines 3, 8, 60).

     The poem can also be seen as both political and psychological in its attitude toward nature. Certainly, on one level, the poem is political, because it confronts the on-going crisis of mass extinctions. We could, for example, read “The Forest” as developing an environmentalist “what if” scenario, along the lines of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring: what if the forest (whether a particular forest known and beloved by the speaker, or “the forest” generally) were, like the songbirds envisioned in Carson’s book, to disappear? Is there anything that we can do now to stop the process, so that we may never experience the loss the poem mourns?

     Yet, even while striving to make readers aware of the environmental Armageddon encroaching upon us (and our general indifference to it), Stewart explores the psychological effects of global mass extinctions on human beings. If we, throughout the course of our collective existence on earth, have always defined ourselves in relation to Nature, then what does “the death of Nature” mean for us, especially if we are responsible for that death? The poem presents us with Nature—the forest—as wild and unknowable, forever different from us. But Stewart argues that this version of Nature (Nature as “other”) is gone, replaced by human constructs: the forest in memory, the forest as depicted in the poem, the forest as represented ineffectively by language all could be seen as analogies for how Nature has been civilized and dominated by human beings (to the point where we now “manage” it, whether in parks or for profit). The poem mourns the death of Nature, and elegizes its unknown and unknowable features, its mystery (which becomes a kind of “double absence”: the inevitable gaps in our knowledge of Nature, and the loss of those gaps along with the parts of Nature that we do know, or think we know).

     But I also believe that, despite the poem’s emphasis on absence and the inadequacies of language, it nonetheless reminds us that language, and the art of patterning, are all we have to make sense of the world, especially through memory. The forest’s layers (and the poem’s fine-tuned layers of repetition and revision) suggest the processes of the mind as it grieves, remembers, and reconstructs. Thus the first stanzas of the poem are relatively abstract and generalized, but each stanza weaves new details into the tapestry, creating an increasingly concrete fabric as the argument develops. In part because of its complex system of echoes, Stewart encompasses the effects of experience assimilated over time, for human beings tend to come to terms with experience by returning to it, and reframing it, in our minds again and again over hours, days, years, even a lifetime (and, of course, this tendency is one reason why forms such as the sestina, villanelle, and pantoum are so durable).

     Stewart is, paradoxically, post-structuralist and humanist, experimentalist and formalist—convergences all too rare in today’s bitterly segregated (and therefore constricted) world of poetry. As she notes, in Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, presence and absence constitute the primal territory of poetry (and, in the case of “The Forest,” we can read “the forest” or even Nature itself as the Orphic figure, the thing that is lost or effaced, that she alludes to in her definition):
. . . the cultural, or form-giving work of poetry is to counter the oblivion of darkness. To make such a statement may be more fancifully “poetic” than true. But it is precisely in material ways that poetry is a force against effacement—not merely for individuals, but for communities through time as well. . . . As metered language, language that retains and projects the force of individual sense experience and yet reaches toward intersubjective meaning, poetry sustains and transforms the threshold between individual and social existence. Poetic making is an anthropomorphic project; the poet undertakes the task of recognition in time—the unending tragic Orphic task of drawing the figure of the other—the figure of the beloved who can reciprocally recognize one’s own figure—out of the darkness. To make something where and when before there was nothing. The poet’s tragedy lies in the fading of the referent over time, in the impermanence of whatever is grasped. The poet’s recompense is the production of a form that enters into the transforming life of language.(2)
Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2002.


Meg Schoerke is the author of Anatomical Venus (Word Press 2004). With Dana Gioia and David Mason, she co-edited Twentieth Century American Poetry and Twentieth Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry (McGraw-Hill 2003). An Associate Professor of English at San Francisco State University, she teaches courses on 19th and 20th century poetry.


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