A Starling’s Song: Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis
“Something has snapped in two. Something has been lost / that won’t return in this life. I want to find the source.” It is not just the source of the pain, of the howl, of the bitterness of a white winter that Vievee Francis is searching for in her luminous collection Forest Primeval, but rather the source of the original life— the wild wholeness, the unbreakable spirit that society attempts to break. Francis opens her award winning collection with an antipastoral poem in which she dismantles the idea of progress dressed up with its “clear-cut glass, the potted and balconied tree, the lemon-waxed wood over marble pillar,” a false idea that is far from clear-cut, and instead presents a wilder self, hesitant to say the words, to trust their definitions and distinctions. The white-washed words have given no reason to trust them, and so the poet must shed these constraints to become a truer, however indescribable self, “I am shedding my skins. I am a paper hive, / a wolf spider / the creeping ivy, the ache of birch, a heifer, a doe.”
In Forest Primeval Francis invites the flora and fauna of the forest into her own body, and the bodies of others, from starlings to wolves, swiftlets to beasts, her poems take root in the natural world:
The starlings exploded from your chest.
How many had you swallowed? How many?
A volary of the body, one then
another, every sorrow winged and seeking
an invitation, took its place in your breast, crowded
along the lung’s limbs. There was no room, but
they kept coming…
These are enviable poems that writhe, move, dream and relive, poems that eddy and circle, that pool within themselves but never stagnant, poems that speak low from the base of the stomach, from the belly of the heart, poems that vibrate with experience. Expertly crafted, each poem in Forest Primeval is ripe with meaning, with memory, with song, and with a soulful grace that springs from the deepest of rivers.
Francis writes, “tell me / you haven’t wanted to stifle what hovers / dumb before your heart?” Lucky for us, Vievee Francis does not stifle between these covers anything inside or outside of her heart. Instead, poem by poem Francis empties herself out, starling by starling, so we can see the steady beating of her generous heart.
The second half of the book largely revolves around Francis’ subversions of Grimm’s fairytales, which she uses as a vehicle to describe the animal instincts within the body. From Beauty and the Beast, to Little Red Riding Hood, to Sleeping Beauty, Francis discovers her own kind of beauty within these frames. To enter the world of fairy tales is always to be grappling with constructed ideas of love and lust, Francis considers these tales from the perspective of a modern woman, but also responds to the primal nature of desire, “I’ve got my own / instrument meant to draw down the moan and these licks well I’d / say we are kindred you and I on all fours or two.” Francis’ fairy tale poems are are both a ferocious song and a thing of beauty.
There is a fierce generosity of spirit in all Francis' poems which are alternately sap-thick with carefully considered love, and bruised with old wounds. Poems that recognize alongside the pain, neglect and abuse the world would rain down comes the salve of affection. Within them we hear “a sorrow of banjoes” as well as a “throat stretched to signify its pleasure and release.”
In “Epicurean” Francis writes she wants a mouth “that knows itself. Generous.” that knows “not excess / but experience” and here she’s created just the sort of mouth she speaks of, one that that ultimately satiates, and that we long to surrender to. I felt myself surrendering whole-heartedly to this book, wanting to make sure no poem slipped by me unread, no words were lost, that instead they were all savored, slowly, again and again. Vievee Francis’ Forest Primeval is a feat of intelligence, of lyric beauty and narrative complexity, an instant and rare classic.
Triquarterly Books / Northwestern Press
Brunch: Reading a book so steeped in the forest made me want a good hearty salad, with kale and arugula, red onions, apples, roasted beets and blue cheese. I always make my own dressing, this one is with grapefruit, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, fresh-cracked pepper and ginger kombucha.