Susan Stewart: “Memory and Imagination”
Editor’s note: Every few months, we’ll take a tour of the archives, highlighting poems and writers from Poetry Northwest’s fifty-plus year history. The first in the series featured poet and essayist Albert Goldbarth. This, the second, spotlights early work by the poet and critic Susan Stewart. David Wagoner, editor of Poetry Northwest for some 35 years, was well-known for publishing new and younger writers beside those more established—a tradition editor Kevin Craft has carried forward. For Mr. Wagoner, one of those young writers was Susan Stewart, whose work when it appeared in the magazine had an immediate impact, winning several prizes awarded by the magazine at the time. Here are three of those poems as they originally appeared in Poetry Northwest, with the poet’s own reflection on what these pieces mean to her now.
My first response to these lyrics is a feeling of deep retrospective gratitude to David Wagoner for publishing them and sending encouragement. Although I had admired his poems and had been reading Poetry Northwest since my college years, David Wagoner was a complete stranger to me in the late 1970s; five years or so later, when he visited the East coast, I had a chance to hear him read and to say a brief hello. By then he had published my first book, Yellow Stars and Ice, in the series he edited for Princeton University Press. With his rare patience and generosity, he continues to represent, for me and many others, an ideal reader/editor.
When these poems first appeared, I had finished my undergraduate degree and taken a year of poetry workshops and literary theory classes at Johns Hopkins, writing a thoroughly unsupervised and, to my ear, plodding collection of poems for my thesis. At the same time I had plunged into my doctoral studies in folklore, poetry, anthropology, and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. There I was lucky to find a lively interlocutor in my fellow poet and classmate Edward Hirsch.
The Northwest, where I had never been, was the land of not only David Wagoner, but also Roethke, Stafford, Kizer, Snyder, Rutsala, and the distinguished classicist Mary Barnard—a group of modern North American poets who offered just about every available model for a young writer. So Ed and I decided to send our poems to its premier journal, for it hadn’t escaped our attention that David Wagoner published young and unknown poets next to distinguished ones. The region had a further resonance, for I was studying Native American myth with Dell Hymes. The Tlingit, Bella Coola, and other Northwest cultures, with their bold forms and complex, spectacularly expending, economies also had inspired many of the French writers and thinkers I admired, from Eluard and Breton to Levi-Strauss and Bataille. David Wagoner himself would make concerted, moving, use of Pacific Northwest myth in his 1978 book Who Shall Be the Sun?
Synergy, coincidences, correspondences—these concepts borrowed from European modernism have had an influence on my later work more than any individual poem I finished in those years. And I can’t help but notice how these three pieces demonstrate vices both period and personal: impatience with thinking; heavy-handed rhetorical structures; a facile reflexivity. I was reading too many translations and too few poems from English literary history, a mistake that dulled my ear and led me to sprinkle prepositional phrases around like salt—a familiar tic of translators from Romance languages.
Yet if I’m more generous with the woman in her early and mid-twenties who wrote these poems, I can hear something genuine in them. The great change of my early adulthood–my move from the Pennsylvania countryside of my childhood and youth to the inner cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia and then travel for the first time to Paris, Dublin, Edinburgh, London, and, a little later, Florence, Naples and Rome–is recorded in just about every poem. Simultaneity here is not only a surrealist and New York School commonplace, but also something new to my everyday experience.
“Neighbors” and “My City Knows How to Carry the Sky” express some of the exhilarating, naïve, “worldliness” I felt. The coinciding, yet incommensurable, lives within multi-story buildings, the cries of street vendors [who are called, in Baltimore, "a-rabs," one of their favorite summer fruit-truck cries: "Can't elope, can't elope"], impromptu drum and bugle parades pouring out of the local VFW posts, storefront churches and charities, petty crime and occasional eruptions of violence—all these sights and sounds and experiences carried over onto the page.
The folklorists, film-makers, musicians, artists, and writers I knew in Philadelphia then were preoccupied at once with documentation and, as the Russian formalists wrote, “making it strange.” My neighborhood had been home to Bronson Alcott and Marcus Garvey and a center for the manufacture of exquisitely carved and painted carousels. The walls of the decrepit 18th century buildings that lined Germantown Avenue were palimpsests of more than a hundred years of signs, advertisements, and political slogans. I had very little to say, but I was taking it all in and trying to write it down.
Though marred by facile imagery often borrowed from genre painting rather than life and leaning, as usual, on too many prepositions, “Yellow Stars and Ice” may be the only “keeper” from this period of my work. There I finally had arrived at a real, and inexhaustible, idea—the tension between memory and imagination.
The ones who live on the first story are torn
by little hungers. Their door stands open
to the voices of the avenue, to the voices
that bark and march. There are chestnuts
and pretzels and a pig’s head on a stick; a thin
rain of blood turns the corner to their
doorstep, where it scribbles the names
of those within. Remorse haunts their garbage
like a sullen raccoon whose luminous eyes
make them draw their curtains. Even in
the daylight, he stalks their alley. No one
can give them sleep; they hear letters falling
through the mail slot all night and brakes
squealing out like slaughtered animals.
Someone is always at the door,
no one is ever there.
The ones who live on the second story live
without memory and hope. There is a nest
of newborn sparrows outside their window;
their small heads are slick and raw, and
they cry with no knowledge of the world.
Beneath the floor, voices scurry
like worried mice, and from the ceiling fall
the footsteps of the living and the dead;
in the morning and the evening they walk
between the walls, like gossip that
goes so far before it steps out
of its voices. To the ones who live
on the second story, the windows are
stained and infinite mirrors where they
see themselves nested inside their rooms,
nested without wings, without wind.
As bottles are corked and thrown into the sea
or glad chimneys puff a final anger into
the welcoming air, the ones who live
on the third story send their clothes
up into the sky. Up from the television
antennas and the whirring fans, up
from the abandoned bricks and cement, and
the glass that bleeds with the sun on its
edges, they climb, their sheets knotted
around their waists, their clotheslines scarring
the waiting arms of clouds. The suicides and
the maniacs, the painters and the bats, perch
on the third story windows and slowly let go
of the earth. A jet comes ripping across
the ceiling, and the sky writing says,
“jump, yes, jump.”
My City Knows How to Carry the Sky
Not the way the sky itself
holds a cloud, the sky
with its child’s hands,
the cloud like a small
fish, slipping in and out,
not like the athlete
lifting a rock, showing
off his rocky muscles,
not like the dancer
who keeps his partner
from flying. No one
calls my city “champ,”
no one takes notice.
Not the workmen
with their pulleys
swinging a piano
and their hands
cupped over their eyes,
not the arab
with his arms full
and peaches, or
the shoeshine boy
with his shop on
There are the tired ones
who must carry everything
with them, the ones
who let everything fall.
There are mothers whose
arms grow long and sad,
carpenters whose tools
turn crooked and rusty.
There are the old ones
whose hearts split
open like almonds
with the weight
of each hard winter,
the houses that finally
drop their windows,
and the girls who
put down their books
and run, while
my city holds up
the sky, not with arms
or a head or a heart,
not even with patience
or a little courage, but
as if the sky were as
simple as breathing
and a city
could walk on its feet
like an ordinary man.
Yellow Stars and Ice
I am as far as the deepest sky between clouds
and you are as far as the deepest root and wound,
and I am as far as a train at evening,
as far as a whistle you can’t hear or remember.
You are as far as an unimagined animal
who, frightened by everything, never appears.
I am as far as cicadas and locusts
and you are as far as the cleanest arrow
that has sewn the wind to the light on the birch
trees. I am as far as the sleep of rivers
that stains the deepest sky between clouds,
you are as far as invention and I am as far as memory.
You are as far as a red-marbled stream
where children cut their feet on the stones
and cry out. I am as far as their happy
mothers, bleaching new linen on the grass
and singing, “You are as far as another life,
as far as another life are you.”
And I am as far as an infinite alphabet,
made from yellow stars and ice,
and you are as far as the nails of the dead man
as far as a sailor can see at midnight
when he’s drunk and the moon is an empty cup,
I am as far as invention and you are as far as memory.
I am as far as the corners of rooms where no one
has ever spoken, as far as the four lost corners
of the earth. And you are as far as the voices
of the dumb, as the broken limbs of saints
and soldiers, as the scarlet wing of the suicidal
blackbird, I am farther and farther away from you.
And you are as far as a horse without a rider
can run in six years, two months and five days.
I am as far as that rider, who rubs his eyes with
his blistered hands, who watches a ghost don his
jacket and boots and now stands naked in the road.
As far as the space between word and word,
as the heavy sleep of the perfectly loved
and the sirens of wars no one living can remember,
as far as this room, where no words have been spoken,
you are as far as invention and I am as far as memory.
Susan Stewart is a poet, critic, and translator. Her most recent book of poetry is Red Rover. Last winter her prose study, The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making, appeared and next year her co-translations of the poems of Milo De Angelis and Laudomia Bonanni’s novel The Reprisal will be published by the University of Chicago Press. She has new poems forthcoming in Raritan and The Baffler.
“Neighbors” first appeared in Poetry Northwest Volume XX Number 1 (Autumn 1979).
“My City Knows How to Carry the Sky” and “Yellow Stars and Ice” first appeared in Poetry Northwest Volume XX Number 4 (Winter 1979-80).
“Neighbors,” “My City Knows How to Carry the Sky” and “Yellow Stars and Ice” are published in Yellow Stars and Ice (Princeton University Press) © 1981 by Princeton University Press.
These poems, with two others by Stewart, were awarded the Poetry Northwest Hellen Bullis Prize in 1980 (a prize given at the time for “the finest long poem or group of poems in each volume”). Previous recipients included Hayden Carruth, Mona Van Duyn and Richard Hugo.