Many thanks to Karen Weyant, who sent me The Forest of Sure Things, poems by Megan Snyder-Camp, because I was a winner in her Big Poetry Giveaway in April. (Once again, Nandini, Where are You? You are the winner in my Big Poetry Giveaway, the fine event initiated by Kelli Russell Agodon to celebrate National Poetry Month!) Anyhoo…
I read the book in my back yard yesterday, in the new summery sunshine, and enjoyed it so much! This account will be more personal reaction/connection than formal review, and probably more interpretive than evaluative, because that’s the way I am. I do encourage you to read the book and discover your own connections & interpretations!
Right away, in the pre-poem “Sea Creatures of the Deep,” I was socked in the eye (“O sockeye O rock sole O starry flounder”) by recognition and connection (“Dear threespine stickleback”), having written my own poem with species of mussels in it in just such odd juxtapositions. So there was delight, and the pang of “Oh no! It’s been done!” that a fellow poet sometimes feels. But, fear not, our poems are significantly different! And hers has sea creatures; mine, the mussels of creek and river.
Much later in the book, I thrilled to “Confession,” a poem that begins, “I used to pretend the ceiling was the floor.” So did I! So do I still, sometimes, hanging my head off a bed or couch to recreate that surreal landscape first discovered in childhood. This poem is also fun for the artists’ shared dilemma: “I faked my way through office job / after job, the boss’s approach triggering / my blind clamor on the keyboard,” which is a fine reminder to me not to take a fake office job as I continue the search to make a living!
I like “Parks Inspector,” too, another poem about a job-job, as I like to call it, one the poet has to have in addition to being a poet. In this one, the speaker writes reports on “[w]hat the land did wrong,” and it gets fixed, sometimes immediately, by a “cold-patch truck” that follows her around. Not surprisingly, with the inspector around, park “wardens hid in their huts,” a nice reminder that it’s not necessarily the “land” that’s doing something wrong. (Pause to recall a sitcom, Parks & Recreation.)
But the heart of the book, for me, is found in the poems of marriage, family, pregnancy, pregnancy dreams, birth, or (imagined? feared?) stillbirth in a seacoast locale, sometimes called Oysterville, where interesting things keep washing ashore.
We get our bearings in the poem “Bearings,” which doesn’t really ground us in anything but mystery. Has a little stillborn baby been buried in the back yard or not? It’s OK not to know, to let the grief and uncertainty build, the poem ending without end punctuation.
In “Dream at 39 Weeks,” which sounds like a pregnancy dream to me, we are invited into another surreal landscape, a river with real but mechanical fish in it and a sudden quarry right in the middle of town, “The quarry held, among other things, / other ways we could have gone. Softened boats / and our parents’ clothes, everything we’d been afraid to want.”
I love the poignancy of that and the weird image of “softened boats.” How could they float? In a poem later in the book, too, there is the image of a tree parting “a soft slab of rock.” I love this softening of hard things. And, as you must have imagined by now, there are hard things tucked in among the mysteries in this book.
One mystery unfolds as a sort of fabled ekphrasis in “Still Life as Landscape.” The ocean stops, the tide “quit[s] its ebb and flow,” making the fish easy prey for the seabirds and confusing the townspeople: “We hoped it was a glitch, / a toe in the drain or a typo in the almanac.” Nobody knows why it stopped or what to do to fix it. Together with the other poems, this, too, might be about a stillbirth. Or not. “Outside our sea held its breath.”
I will simply mention a title, “41 Weeks,” to suggest a bit of relief here, and to sustain the mystery as well, as this is not a spoiler. After all, the titles are all there, laid out for you in the table of contents. There is also a poem called “Wake,” and it has chairs and casseroles in it.
And the title poem is one that grips from the first line: “In this land the children tear their hearts in half.” It makes me scared of “the forest of sure things” and pretty sure I should not live my life expecting any sure things, which might not, however, halt the desire.
Now, having mentioned a central mystery in the book, I’ll mention that a blurb on the back cover offers a narrative summary I couldn’t quite gather—or didn’t want or need to—from the poems. Either I’m dense, or it truly doesn’t matter that there be a prose explanation for how the poems fit (or don’t fit) together. I’d prefer to get my bearings (or not) from the poems themselves.
For instance, and the title makes this pertinent, in “Narrative Distance,” we get a brief unlikely story of scientists experimenting with rats on empty islands with vacation potential. We don’t know what these scientists hope or intend to find! We have no hypothesis. And yet I have a strong sense that random experimentation is 1) senseless and 2) these poems hope and intend to have meaning. So I continue to trust that poems will have their meaning in ways unaided by prose explanations, including my own!
Now I want to point to a favorite poem from the book, called “As Light as Dark,” that exactly captures this inability to capture things…! (See what I mean about poetry?) The speaker of the poem is leaving a museum at a certain time of day, and there are no lights—“just pale roses”—to light the way.
There is a word for this
but I can’t remember it, a word
for the sky in balance, just as light
as dark. For years I have tried to call it up.
(Here’s where I urge Seana, word definer in Confessions of Ignorance, to find that word for Megan. Unless this is a mystery to be sustained, to go unsolved!) The speaker continues to long for it—the word or the sky in balance or the kind of light—as the poem goes on, until the constancy of not being able “to hold a single thing” must be accepted as part of movement and change—“even the good days seem rolled / in some other carpet”—and perhaps transformed:
May this slipping away protect us,
may the loss of days ease the ones I love
from their anger, that sturdy chair
circled all day by its shadow, without which
a dim sea would come to level our yard, level
as in make right.