A Fortnightly Review.
This Momentary World
by Jody Stewart
By ANTHONY HOWELL.
JODY STEWART’S POEMS are not to be trusted. This becomes clear when reading This Momentary World, her selected poems, just published in a generously sized volume by Nine Mile Books in the US. Living on a farm in Western Massachusetts, where she looks after pets abandoned by divorce and ancient emus and retired camels, this seems at first glance a bouquet of perfectly harmless verses: lyrical examples of East Coast pastoral. We might expect her words to provide us with a refuge, comfortable comfort – just what poetry is meant to provide surely?
Certainly the language is honed, musical, refined in its precision. Take ‘Cascades’:
The blue rocking chair recedes at dusk, becomes
nearly colorless, but the child
still says blue and sky, climbs up, and pointing
at the tacks along the edge, says stars
to fall asleep. The chair’s small motion
pulls her closer to the center of the room. She thinks
she’s sleeping in the sky, cradled
in a dark nebula…
So far so good, we feel we can relax, but then the poem seems to twist away from comfort, for it goes on:
….and when she shifts around—
the occultation of a thousand stars inside me.
We’re hand in hand
as children are in all of us, binaries
swinging from curious to absolute
and back again beyond
our mutual distrust, a pure point
that’s ephemeral and radiant
in whatever we imagine
has invented us….’
It’s the ‘mutual distrust’ that shifts this poem from a comfortable context into an uneasy one with an abrupt, modernist shift from third to first person. Later, a red leaf ‘smacks into the drainpipe’. The verb is harsh. The poem is emerging from its dark nebula. The reader can no longer be reassured that this is poetry in an unquestioning pastoral setting that will never disturb. All too often the lyrical veneer fades away and a far more savage reality takes us by surprise. Here is ‘They Are Breaking up the House’:
Shredding the barn, lining up
tiny red blue green toy soldiers for sale.
The grasses have dried to flame;
the stairs are dust and customers roam
all the rooms picking up, putting down
books and cups, silks and soft
eider pillows. Even the mountain
beyond the wide back porch
is up for sale next to the undressed dolls
and bottles of lemon polish.
I walk the hallways calling It’s me—
Me who was here first! I was the first child!
Why are you selling up?
The brown clapboards still smell
of creosote. Out front, thick maples
swell to green above the jonquil patch.
I turn, dazed—my hands cupped out
as though to catch everything falling away.’
So the lyrical is offset by the tragic or the meagre or the violent. As with much seriously good writing, there is a conflict within the poem – which may be resolved or which may remain unresolved, simply there; there in the grain of the poetry whose resonance may take us where its meaning cannot reach.
The shadow lilts across infants
and the very old who doze
in worn chairs, on pallets, in fluffed
and tidy beds, or curled
beneath an underpass…’
These are poems of today’s USA, where the dream has led to vagrancy. Stewart’s writing has been compared to that of Elizabeth Bishop, with justification. I am also reminded of the poems of Jean Garrigue, where a similar reality impinges on the lyrical, and Stewart’s writing merits these comparisons because of the authenticity of her craft, her poetic magic and her ability to switch direction. There is a European aspect as well. In several poems I am reminded of the visionary poetry of Georg Trakl. For Stewart is an imagist who enables us to see her dreams with our own eyes.
ANTHONY HOWELL, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. In 2019, his exploration of psychic chaos, Multilation (with Consciouness), was published by the Fortnightly’s imprint, Odd Volumes. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).