Book Made of Forest Jared Stanley. Salt Publishing. 85 pp., $14.95.
“Seeing is merciful,” writes Jared Stanley in the second poem in Book Made of Forest. But Stanley often seems at the mercy of his own vision; his eyes are restless, and it is this constant re-shifting of focus, bordering on ecstatic anxiety, that gives the book the inertia that keeps it in motion .”I only run,” Stanley writes, “to look back over my shoulder.”
As the title suggests, Book Made of Forest, like much of Stanley’s previous work, which has been published in two chapbooks, often centers on nature. The opening poem, “What Is Outside,” begins with the lines, “Oleander, / Venusian shapes“; both the title and lines suggest the book’s often familiar, though powerful lyricism, populated with images that are “Good and coyote clear / cymbal clear.” Throughout the book we encounter “flurries of cottonwood seeds and flies,” a crow, “alarming us with wing-speech / and prohibitions,” and a breeze, described as “a careless vigor / in the unnamed loam awhile.”
Ironically, the eloquent lyricism of these descriptions of nature are also the moments in which language seems insufficient. An ode to a bat describes the “inconstant lunette” as an “avoidance of an old abstraction”; in an ode to a mosquito, “Its fine wind fingers my brain / from a time before language . . .”. Nature is still an encounter with the sublime, causing us “to unsee and then to become voluminous overhearing.”
However, while Stanley’s poems often return to the “persistent meadow,” he often ruptures his pastoral focus and ornate lyricism through a reification of the potentially troubling intersection of nature and “civilization.” In an interview with poet Bhanu Kapil, he focuses on that problem, saying, “I haven’t been able to describe to myself how unsettling the town is, especially in July.”¹ He goes on to explain how the imposition of modern life upon nature (“the grid,” he calls it), “can create arbitrary distinctions between two sides, say, of a bush.” [Since all the notes are to the same interview, only one is really necessary.] Indeed, the poem, “Town Called Mercy” features an “old antenna capped by a crow,” and a “mockingbird perched on / on a plastic owl’s head”. In both images, we get the impression that it’s the animals that are imposing themselves upon the manmade objects—that they are outsiders, rather than refugees. Similarly, in “State Park,” we not only encounter “the magnificent wooden brutalism” of the forest, but also “vandalism,” “fees,” “gates,” and “public private disappearance.” In other words, Stanley “can’t describe to [him]self how unsettling the town is”: neither his poetics or politics are a stance—they are an exploration.
And while Stanley seems suspicious of manmade objects as artificial—”anything is unbelievable if we build it”—he also acknowledges that the convergence of nature and “the grid” produces an amalgamation that is very real. In the interview with Kapil, he notes, “But all is human, at least for the time being, so now the birds mimic car alarms in their songs.” If anything is artificial, it is the categories that humans create:
What does not change
is a will to presume
that as we walk we know
Reality draws no distinction between the lyric and the profane, the city and the forest, and Stanley’s poems always celebrate the complexity of this reality; indeed, Stanley even writes an epithalamium (a poem celebrating a marriage) that revels in the wedding of nature and machinery:
A freight ship’s hull
was scuttled and buried
to help make the Gold Coast
Stanley also deflates his own lyricism to upset the reader’s expectations of what nature-oriented poetry may entail. The stakes, for Stanley, seem to be high; in one poem he writes, “Moon, / you can’t win. You’re wallpaper,” implying that clichéd pastoralism not only ruins a poem, but pollutes our experience of reality. Yet at the same time, he often disrupts our expectations in a breezy and humorous way, as in “Understory,” where he allows another speaker in the poem to critique his own pastoral inclinations: ” . . . You would talk like that, / valorizing a twig . . .” Similarly, in a poem entitled “Pastoral,” he talks of the “boring grass,” recalling O’Hara’s claim that “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy.”
In fact, for all the theoretical concerns he raises, Stanley’s tone is often reminiscent of O’Hara’s playful ecstasy. When describing a “folk-bird” with a “scrap of sail” in its mouth, Stanley writes,
This little scrap a flag
with a flag on it,
lake-colored, orangey, hello.
At times, Stanley uses what he calls “chattiness” to lend an intimacy and specificity that refuses generalization and abstraction, and the humor Stanley employs often complicates the politics and bucolics of his other poems. “The tree’s blossoms smell like crotch,” he writes in “Garage Sale”. And in “I Favor Being Encouraged” he implores, ” . . . [D]ie and come back / as fuel, as good fuel,” only to follow it up with, ” . . . I take five more pills and / more again . . . ”
The book’s refusal to settle comfortably into any single theme or aesthetic could be invigorating or frustrating, depending on the reader, and it is difficult to give a succinct answer to what holds it all together. For the most part, the book consists of individual, unlinked poems; however, there is also a section of eight poems entitled “Measuring Daylight With a Stick,” that is a sort of poetic journal, with each section titled by a particular day during the month of June. For the most part, both the individual poems and the “journals” center on life in California, from the sylvan forests to “unglamorous poverty”
let vultures grip thy
lived on top ramen?
But the final quarter of the book, titled “Admirations: Covers, Portraits, and Articulations,” consists of a sort of chapbook unto itself.
The poems in this section, all but the last two untitled, are dedicated to a particular artist—and at first, they not only seem estranged from the rest of the book, but from each other. The artists Stanley dedicates the pieces to range wildly, from Kara Walker, whose silhouette art explores issues of gender and racial identity (“the figures are holes, their traumas, cutouts”), to heavy metal god Ronnie James Dio (“evil’s pants sag at the knees”). Interestingly, only a handful of the dedications are to other poets (and even these have a wide range, from Robert Duncan to Lisa Jarnot). Instead, most are dedicated to painters, sculptors, and filmmakers. Unlike the rest of the book, almost every poem in “Admirations” lacks lineation, and the tone is more casual—”chattily fear fear chattily . . . authentic being, right on down to the boxer shorts.”
Yet this wild diversity is precisely what holds the book together. In a poem dedicated to film director Guy Maddin, Stanley writes, “Oh a movie that might feed a colorblind hummingbird”—these are the artists that Stanley feeds off of, that define his reality, as much as people and places that surround him in California. In this sense, the book is a sort of meta-autobiography, an indirect manifesto, all the more compelling for its lack of prescriptive rules. In the interview with Bhanu Kapil, Stanley explains that,
the poet doesn’t appear in the poem; objects explain themselves, not to the speaker, but to each other. The speaker in the poem is watching from a position of proximity, not involvement.
In the end, however, the central focus of the book becomes the speaker’s proximity to the various objects he observes, and the proximity of those objects to one another. How does samba musician Jorge Ben relate to Shakespeare? How does an “unvexed god wear[ing] jean shorts” relate to a Jeffrey Pine? Within this book the most pertinent answer is Jared Stanley.
Book Made of Forest is a tangle—simultaneously ornate and chatty, bucolic and urban, ponderous and funny. It is Jared Stanley’s reality. In the book’s shortest poem, “Poem,” he simply writes,
I love it
it’s so dead
To be alive then, to be lively, is to be evasive and equivocal. Not deliberately cryptic, but joyously unkempt. What makes this book so refreshing is that it never belabors, or even mentions this idea—it reifies it.
Jordan Soyka is an MFA student at Louisiana State University and the poetry editor of New Delta Review His poetry has appeared in Cave Wall and is forthcoming in GlitterPony.
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