Book Made of Forest by Jared Stanley
(Salt, Cambridge, U.K., 2009)
Dirt, Weeds and Heavy Metal
Jared Stanley’s first full-length volume of poetry, Book Made of Forest, won Salt Publishing’s Crashaw Prize, and while prizes are not always the best judge of a book’s worth, in this case, Salt has brought to light a unique investigation into the relationship between people, language and nature. Stanley’s poems are alert to the gulf between the abstraction of language and the physicality of nature—as his title ironically suggests, books may come from trees, but there is an immense distance between the human-made and the natural. Accordingly, the strange pairings and juxtapositions of Book Made of Forest are a world away from the safe conceits of more familiar nature poetry: “The tree’s blossoms smell like crotch/the whole town says ‘why not’” (“Garage Sale”).
Many of the poems in Book Made of Forest focus on the environment and people of the American Southwest. Yet while the poems are rooted there, they are far from celebratory—Stanley is all too aware that a Whitmanesque salute to the place of humans in the natural world can now only be registered in ironic terms:
oh my people
you fennel, rocks and vandalism
you fees, you gates, you group of kids
Likewise, in the contemporary world, a poet’s desire to “become as one” with nature is merely pretension:
I had ground-up flowers
from road weeds rubbed
into my eyes and cheeks,
an animistic pretension
that worked for a while
as a bluff or veer.
(“June 7th, For Awhile”)
Through both avoiding and parodying the clichés of traditional nature writing, Stanley seeks to open a new imaginative space. In this pastoral vision, it is not flowers that are central but weeds:
I want all the weeds and old people
I can eat!
(“What is Outside”)
A kind of announcement
in the weeds that replaced the grass
volutes spreading from a cluster
of overspread beige.
(“Town Called Mercy”)
in the weeds another picture will come around
(“Weed Patch Floral”)
The only difference between weeds and flowers is a linguistic one, and by placing weeds at the core of his poetry, Stanley highlights the arbitrariness of our aesthetic judgments.
Stanley’s approach to nature reminds me of Joshua Corey’s definition of the “avant pastoral” poet as “the brocoleur, reassembling the linguistic and natural givens of a world damaged by institutional logic and industrial exploitation into new configurations.”* Stanley fulfils this role by consistently puncturing our expectations about the form and content of poems about nature:
Dissolute striped forms
where is the conviction
you were not made
to pierce, as if conviction
the sky? Who.
(“Fact Without Its Heart”)
At first, the description of the pines might seem like typical nature poetry, yet the pines were “not made” to supply us with an easy metaphor. The final “Who” with a period rather than a question mark, “reassembles” the “linguistic given,” refusing to conform to “institutional logic” just as the pines refuse to be encompassed by an overly simple metaphor.
While most of the “reassemblages” in Book Made of Forest focus on place and nature, in the section, “Admirations: Covers, Portraits and Articulations,” Stanley turns to biography with a series of prose poem portraits of an eclectic group of poets and artists including Robert Duncan, Nick Cave, Lisa Jarnot, and, bizarrely, Ronnie James Dio. There can’t be many published poems about the heavy metal singer, who is famous for screeching vocals and fantasy novel lyrics, yet it is precisely this implausibility that Stanley celebrates:
Master, malocchio jeans malocchio torbus, evil’s pants sag at the knees, tiring of the gentleman of evils, this one is short, this one is brandishing swords, a terrible show, light from a candle in the footlights.
There is considerable humor here, of course, but the choice of a mocked heavy metal singer as subject also resonates with the book’s focus on the rejected objects of nature.
In the last two poems of Book Made of Forest, Stanley returns to nature, and in the final poem of the volume “Decoration of Cloud and Pine” he offers an elegy for dirt:
Where the city coils
around cities at the antipodes
and pine wreaths form a chain
at the outskirts, dirt is mostly decoupage
or limned to death
In a synthetic world, dirt is merely ornamental—its mystery and life-giving properties are lost—and in the final four lines of the poem, the death of dirt is equated with the death of the imagination:
It leaves us here
with no dirt left
to dig ourselves
to the opposite of the world.
Both language and nature form the necessary ground for the imagination, and while there may be an inseparable gulf between words and the natural objects they are describing, Stanley’s poems revel in the messiness and possibilities of both.
*Note: The quote from Joshua Corey comes from page 3 of his PhD
Dissertation and can be found online here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/19474694/The-American-AvantPastoral-Ezra-Pound-Louis-Zukofsky-Ronald-Johnson-Joshua-M-Corey
Harry Thorne's poems, essays and reviews have appeared in Chain, How2, Octopus Magazine, and Textual Practice. His essay on Ted Berrigan's C Magazine can be found in Don't Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York Writing after the New York School edited by Daniel Kane and published by Dalkey Archive Press. He lives in Beacon, NY.