Reviewed by Leslie Contreras Schwartz
Vievee Francis, Forest Primeval and a “Pine-filled Hunger”
Some artists encounter a forest, a country landscape of overgrown grass and wild flowers, a stream teaming with fish, and don't simply see sunlight casting a holy gaze on a peaceful scene. Rather they are sensitive to the dark underbrush curling in the forest, the choked grass and flowers vying for space, the ravenous fish devouring a carcass. In Forest Primeval, Vievee Francis cannot look away from this more onerous view—from a landscape formed by the legacy of slavery, oppression, and violence against Black people and, especially, Black women. Fraught with images of confinement and degradation, the book creates a speaker who struggles for survival in a terrain pitted against her freedom. Yet the speaker is neither passive nor simply objectified and subjugated by these experiences; Forest Primeval captures her relentless drive to push through the forest, however deformed or changed it may make her after it transforms her.
Francis begins the collection with a challenge to the idealized version of nature in “Another Antipastoral.” The speaker is wild and animal-like as nature imposes itself upon her, saying she tastes “a mouthful of grass” with a “bleat in my throat.” Here nature is oppressive and heavy, so much so that “words fail me here,” and she yearns “to put down what the mountain has awakened.” The images Francis employs in this poem suggest a circumstance of debasement and a futility in the naming of things, both as the speaker looks at the world and internally. There is a mourning and sense of longing as the speaker states she knows that this landscape simply cannot be tamed.
I sink to
my knees tired or not. I now know the ragweed from the goldenrod, and the
beauty of green . . .
I have fallen from my dream
of progress: the clear-cut grass, the potted and balconied tree, the lemon-waxed
wood over a marbled pillar, into my own nocturne.
Francis finds words to shape this sorrow of descent into the physical violence of the world. By doing so, the speaker regains agency through resilience and by forcefully seeking self-preservation. She is prepared to fight for herself and she does. In “Taking It,” she is “the kind who wants to live” who says “girls pushed but I punched. Pulled one / down by the hair and kneed her as my head bled.” Francis describes in “Taking It” the violence that is experienced by girls and women and its recapitulation of the violence slaves experienced at the hands of their owners. “The falls, myself falling / to the floor or sidewalk, or against the brick,” Francis describes of the speaker's fights in school. Then, there is the speaker's father, who “owned me like a good, country father,” and “waited for a husband to tame what he couldn't corral, / to throw a rope like fingers 'round my neck.” This violence is repeated by the lover who punches the speaker in the snow as he tries to correct her speech and control her body. The speakers says:
I felt the juvenile weight of him above me like snow after dark
falling steady and hard. I'm gone teach you to talk reg'lar,
and I stopped speaking at all.
This struggle—between the speaker’s experiences of subjugation and her fierce, visceral desire to survive—runs throughout Forest Primeval. In “Happy?,” though “nature / will have its way,” Francis writes,
I am becoming as roots reclaim
this soil, as what is felled takes on
a form it could not have imagined
whose seeds had always rested below
like a sorrow of banjoes.
This is no ordinary sorrow, and Francis knows it. It is the kind that is held in the body and in the land, a physical sorrow, which passes through generations, creating dis-ease and morphing the psyche, passing on trauma through disease, for generations. This is a central theme in the book that should not be overlooked. In “Emancipation,” a poem after the work of the visual artist Kara Walker, whose silhouettes depict graphic images of slaves in the antebellum South, Francis describes this sorrow as a group of “starlings exploded from your chest.” Here the body is literally a cage where “every sorrow winged and seeking … took its place in your breast.” This poem studies such sorrow like a science, an exercise Francis undertakes throughout the book: to name and finger the speaker's experience, hold it up to light, if only to understand it. In this poem, the woman takes ownership of the flock of starlings inside, until they burst from her body. And like a blow, Francis delivers the final lines—that these “burst, yellow billed” birds fly “from your dark coop / to mine.” It is this legacy of violence and oppression that finds itself carried in Black bodies and spirits, and cannot be ignored.
Thus in “A Flight of Swiftlets Made Their Way In,” Francis’s speaker continues this narrative of the starlings that have been passed on to her. Initially beholding them, their bodies “so expectantly beautiful,” fills her with a violent impulse: “I wanted to touch / them to take their tiny frames / and snap their necks.” Yet it is not so much this desire to deliver violence but the legacy of inherited damage—“I have never been whole, / so there was room”—that allows the birds to enter her and make a home of her body: “I hollowed myself into a cave / for others.” In the final lines, Francis uses the double entendre of “beating”—the struggle to fly in a flurry of wings, and the blows of fists—to inform the poem and connect it with the other poems in the book:
I am less inclined to hurt them but
consider taking flight myself . . .
. . . With so many
wings within beating beating
Again and again in Forest Primeval, Francis latches onto the two sides of violence—the perpetrator and the recipient—making almost seamless oscillations between them. In some poems, the speaker identifies with Satan and the Big Bad Wolf, the boogeyman seeking a joy, however small, which eludes him. In other poems, the speaker is the girl devoured by the wolf. Here the speaker seems to find an unsettling satisfaction in being a woman devoured, something that speaks of a desperate effort to find a sense of autonomy in any way she can, even at her own expense. In “Bluster,” for example, the speaker says of her wolf-like lover that “though he couldn't unsnap / my lamb's wool, he cut through it with a claw . . . so clean a slice you couldn't tell / my cape from the blood beneath it . . . I smiled a heartless smile. / I arched my back and only cried a little really.”
Even in extreme humiliation, the speaker uses sheer force and will to try to find one small piece of joy. In “Fallen,” a title that uses a word repeated in other poems, Francis names this longing. In pursuit of the fleeting feeling of love or approval, “for the rub of a hand over my back” from a father or lover, the speaker compares herself to a “failing horse knowing it must now race … its brown coat salted with sweat as it lunges / forward and lunges again … knowing its ankles could fold / under such weight…” The sweetness that comes from this desire to be fallen is one tied up in being untethered, released from purpose. This nuance in Francis' poems allows the subject to balance the rage with a sense of letting go. In “Black River,” for example, a woman “means to surrender / to the rippling” in the river, telling herself to “let the river carry me like a shell / to unknown waters, let me be filled with another / spirit…” In this desire, there is a hint of longing for a new self that will emerge from the woman's relinquishment, a spirit that “will seek and abide.”
There is something delicious and honeyed in this vehement hastening of one's own consumption, in embracing that which “might kill [the horse], / that assuredly will kill it.” But anger drives the speaker, who, like the Big Bad Wolf, uses humiliation as a tool for her own survival: “I used to hide my pine-filled hunger / my breath of sawdust,” Francis writes in “Wolf.”
Enough shame to splinter a belly
Enough needles to gag on
to be fucked forever
(what the fuck are you looking at?)
The speaker, therefore, becomes a power to reckon with—one woven of contradictions but knit, also, with the physical force and sinews of history, both blessed and cursed enough to be standing in a “sunstruck field” like her grandmother. Though Forest Primeval rejects a one-sided relationship between the speaker and the land (one in which she is always subjugated by an outside force), the speaker also identifies with the land—its condition of being at the will of nature, confined by its constraints, marked by generations of human history. In “Husband Fair,” for example, the speaker's line of women, which is “not so distant,” was one in which they “never went anywhere beyond a field of bolls…” Here Francis draws a striking parallel between land and body as the speaker’s “grandfather not so many fathers ago” pins her ancestor beneath him, “his face a heavy drift / over hers, her face brown as earth below.”
Throughout Forest Primeval, survival is tied to autonomy and control, especially as the speaker claims or re-claims the body, land, and narrative. In “Paradise,” Francis permits the speaker to re-claim ownership of her own narrative, for instance, to take back stories about the Black woman’s experience and make them truthful, visible, and heard.
And the songs
are mine who slept there . . .
Who wouldn't turn from this darkness? . . .
. . . Unless your own class molders
beneath those mounds, you don't know, and
you can believer me or not.
Later in “Chimera,” the final poem of the book, Francis writes candidly that no one will define the speaker, especially by something that comes from her own body. It is her song that makes her who she is: “a melody / to open yours, then lick them clean.” Franics re-births the songs that the speaker sings in these poems, transforming them from one about pain to one about survival. Yet she resists the urge to rest in consolation in this song, for Francis makes it clear that nothing is ever that neat. Like the chimera, the psyche, body, and wilderness of the speaker's world are full of paradoxes that resist definition, even from herself.
Leslie Contreras Schwartz is the author of the collection of poems, Fuego, published by Saint Julian Press in March 2016.