When you read the poetry of Susan Stewart, you are going to learn things. Interesting things. Things you never knew you wanted to know. Yes, she is indeed an award-winning critic and Princeton professor, but those occupations are simply another manifestation of the wild fascination with ideas and with the objects of this world that informs Stewart's imagination. For instance, in Columbarium, her recent National Book Critics Circle Award-winning collection, there's a lovely little lyric called "Kingfisher Carol." It begins with an epigraph from the Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend that explains the origin of the meaning of halcyon in the imagined habits of the kingfisher, a bird also known as a halcyon. Now I would be happy enough with this bit of arcana, but Stewart follows it with a lovely little lyric where season, sea, and bird combine with Christian images:
| Star for the shepherds,
star for the kings
and the kingfishers
perched on the waves.
On the halcyon sea,
they nest their nests
and briars and hay.
Although the regular meter and the assonance, so strong it almost sounds like rhyme, are atypical of her poems, the urge to put all these different kinds of things together in musical language is not. It is how Stewart makes her poems.
"Scarecrow," a poem that moves around on the page in a dramatic way that can't be replicated in Observer columns, might be more typical of Stewart's practice. Stewart
begins her portrait of a real scarecrow with a grand statement: "Now, when I picture him, I realize his secret/was that he had no secret." A physical description becomes cause for a philosophical reflection that seems entirely appropriate in this poet's pattern of combinations: "Under the straw hat, instead of a face,/there was only the notion of a look, steady, still/when all the livingworld of presence." And near its end this poem metamorphoses into an exploration of another of Stewart's urgencies, our understanding of the divine: "The gods do not have bodies and souls;/they have only their radiant bodies. sense/of their perfection."
Columbarium, like most of Susan Stewart's poetry, is filled with this kind of jump, both in idea and in sound. But her work shows many other aspects. For instance, this book has an elegant and exact architecture that includes the traditional four natural elements and their interplay with the basic building blocks of language — the alphabet. All that is just another aspect of her capacious imagination and restless poetic intelligence.
Susan Stewart reads her poems at Rackham Amphitheater on Thursday, September 21.
[Review published September 2006]