Susan Stewart

University of Chicago Press

Saturday, October 4th, 2003


Dear Bill Bailey, Dear Jimmy Dean:

I think we need to talk about our relationship.

I think it’s time we all admit the truth: whether ya’ll are coming or going, you’re still there.

“Yesterday upon the stair
I saw a man who wasn’t there
I saw him once again today
I wish to God he’d go away.”


It shows up in the way people discuss film actors, both those adored and those abhorred—we fuss and bother over actors who only seem to play versions of themselves. Clint Eastwood’s performances refer exclusively to his prior performances, often resulting in a subtle minuet between ur-Clint and irony-Clint; sometimes tertiary versions are invoked, and with an expansive enough cinematic back-catalogue, we can savor Eastwood inflections to infinitely divisible degrees.

But then there are those actors who are, perversely, well-known (and well-appreciated) for their invisibility. Take Jim Broadbent. Who? You know, the one who doesn’t resemble himself from film to film. I mean, that’s how you recognize him: he’s the one who isn’t. And that, of course, is his most distinguishing feature, no less a trademark than Eastwood’s.

“Character actors”: if true, redundant; if false, impossible.


Of what greater encumbrance to the poet is a self? If a point-of-view is inevitable, is not the most intelligent and democratic response to this inevitability neither the embrace nor the avoidance but rather the disregarding?

I ask because I think Susan Stewart, a poet who compels on many levels, is concerned with the erasure of anything resembling “Susan Stewart.” And her efforts are enlightening. I would rather not use the author photo as a means of entry to a critique of the author’s work, but when the photo occupying the space wherein the headshot oft goes is of a green apple, huge, out-of-focus, Magritte-class . . . well, Susan Stewart is trying to tell us something. Between the standard photo-bio (Behold! C’est moi!) and Anne Carson’s famous, photo-less “Anne Carson is from Canada,” (read: “Anne Carson is from White Space. Fuck you.”) we now have the apple; Parisian, and as such a distraction that proves to be the point.


Why is Stewart’s light eclipsed by lesser satellites? There is no answer that does not reveal my own prejudice, and so I commit to that prejudice: I think she’s a bit of a Brainiac, the very best kind, and we don’t much like those, or at least not more than one or two at a time. Particularly if their intelligence is the obsidian point of their language, and yet the mind from which that language is propelled lacks, or at the very least obscures, a sense of intimate self. And as long as I’m declaring prejudice and preference, let me state plainly that I distrust and often dislike the very idea of the intimate self. When I pick up a book of poems, I am not hoping to get to know anyone, and if there is to be any sharing of feelings, I pray it is done with due regard for my general disinterest in Feelings About What Happened. This isn’t language-specific; poets of every stripe indulge.

Is there anything about Sharon Olds’s (or “Sharon Olds'”) relationship to her (‘her’) father that we do not know? What’s left of Louise Gluck? Is Mark Doty’s inner life your housemate?

The question isn’t one of ability. Each of the above has abilities and absences. But what they cannot but have, and can no longer abandon, are poetic selves, apparent identities from which even an act of detachment would prove affirmative.

Thus, the question doesn’t return to the poets (about whom, regardless of these intimacies, I truly know nothing) but to the readers: why do we desire such things, these selves, and do we in fact summon them from nothing via the force of our desire?


Where the hell in this essay is Susan Stewart? Well, there you go, eh.


shadow / Lintel

I stood before the lintel;
the door swung open then.
Your name was there, and mine,
and the date of every birth—

All was clear as day,
but they could not bring me in.

Beyond another door
and then another, endless more
though the distance had
been measured in the dust—

one print stepping
after another
and none of them
turning back
to us.


It could be intimate, couldn’t it? What prohibits this from describing a self, as the term is conventionally understood?


Instruments of interval
calibrated space
physician’s glove inside the chest
a cave of mineral cold.

Raisins, almonds, little lambs,
fox has gone ahunting
butterflies pecking eyes—
sleep before the haunting.

St.George took his shuteye
that bound up every wound,
brittle brakes and membrane webs
around his sickness wound.

Cereus and spiderwort
alight the blearest wind
that ever blew across the sill
come drink now, drink it in.

from “Night Songs”


And how do you like those apples.

Although there are contemporary references aplenty in Columbarium, and enough colloquial speech to save the lines from ever adopting the wide-eyed Gloria Swanson stare of Importance!, Stewart does make recourse to just enough antiquity to get out from under the burden of psychology.

I mean, georgics, for Christ’s sake.

Not that they aren’t gorgeous, mind you.

The temptation Stewart indulges is the invocation of the past as pristine in its freedom from diagnosis and catharsis as touchstones of experience, and thus the flint and tinder of literature. The past: not the past of the self, but the past as a place of the elemental, of essence unburdened by the atomisation of individual meaning. After immersion in experiences of intimacy that find in language only summary, who wouldn’t want a little alchemical error, a little ritual by which the incanting agent is unmade?


Columbarium is invoked and ended with the elemental: “Sung from the generation of AIR” and “Drawn from the generation of FIRE” and concluding with “Wrought from the generation of EARTH” and “Flown from the generation of WATER”. I love the bellicose formality of this frame, Stewart’s inadmission of shame, her deliberate faith in shaping as opposed to revealing. Her decisions remind me of Bidart’s “Music Like Dirt,” in which he puts to rest ghosts of confessional associations by noting, again and again, that what is most human is not in human feeling but human action: the urge to play in the dirt.

And what between these elements? The alphabet, of course, childlike sequence, set of tasks and ladders—


Can anyone really do what Stewart is attempting here, especially in a climate so dominated with a different activity reminiscent of childhood, the battle to win at Show and Tell? Or, as it should have been better named, Show Only to Tell?


Found in “Ellipse”:

building, making, singing, being, meaning, spinning, beginning, weaving, producing, lingering, reading, displacing, plying, setting, packing, leaving, closing, resting, sewing, forgetting, rising, turning, returning, moving, leaning—
(and from there ‘to stop and fall’)

Ah but one can try.


When Hermes steals Apollo’s flock, he disguises his action by affixing to the tails of the herd makeshift brooms: their departure erases its own evidence. So too does Stewart leave the mark of a self and then obscure not only the mark but all indices of ever having made it. This is not contradiction, but simultaneity. Ultimate metaphor: language that isn’t as much as it is.

I don’t know if this collection will get the attention it deserves. A page of Stewart is worth a pound of the pages of many of her contemporaries. And I hope the implications of the apple do not hurt this book’s chances, but if so, then so. Columbarium will survive in-between, appearing and disappearing, shifting between absence and presence, which is a better way for poetry to live than in portraits that decay or statues that crumble or other efforts to make static the self that should more mightily resist such embalming.


from “Apple”:

You can watch out for the snake and the lie.
But the grass, the green wave
of it, there below the shadows of the black
and twisted boughs, will not be
what you thought it would be.


Such a pleasure, not getting to know you.

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2 Responses to “Columbarium”

  1. Susan Denning Says:

    I enjoyed Ray McDaniel’s review of Columbarium – I am a Susan Stewart fan from way back.

    However, I think ERASURE is not the imporant thing. I think what the erasure is being replaced by is what makes poetry like this compelling – and why contemporary poetry often falls short of the mark.

    Also I would disagree that the climate is DOMINATED by poets who want to win at show and tell. I think the current culture is yes dominated by that – but the poetic culture seems to be involved in a kind of tug or war between witness to personal experience on the one hand and witness to personal erasure on the other (I know,I know, news flash!)..

    So I don’t think you would praise someone just because they take themselves out of the equation.

    Which is not, even, what I think Ray was doing.

    so at this point… I’m just rambling.

    anyway – I enjoyed the review! Don’t make fun of me, I wrote this on my lunch hour.

    Susan Denning

  2. Louise Mathias Says:

    An arresting, intelligent review–
    You touch lightly on issues of the sort of enigmatic sensuality in her work that I think also parallel Carson, so they are alike in more ways than lack of cover jacket photo. I think this is part of what makes the work intimate enough to be compelling while very definately not being narcissistic or self involved. Yeah, she’s brainy, and like Carson, I feel like I’m looking at her grey matter and thinking, oh, those ridges and tunnels– I mean, you want to run your fingers through them– her intellect is of this sort of quality that feels very much grounded in the body, somehow.

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