Forest fantasy

Image: Leonhard Lenz. Wikimedia Commons

Seren of the Wildwood  

Marly Youmans, Wiseblood books, illustrated, hb., 72pps., US$16

LIAM GUILAR is beguiled by a dream of tangled trees

The Wildwood holds the remnants of the past, / Strange ceremonies that the fays still love / To watch – the rituals of demon tribes / Who once played havoc with the universe, / And everything that says the world is not / Exactly what it seems is hidden here, / But also there are paths to blessedness.

So begins Seren of the Wildwood, Marly Youmans’ narrative poem that drifts the reader through a tale that seems both familiar and strange.

Traditional fairy and folk tales have been a resource for many modern writers and film makers. The old story is usually rewritten to correct a perceived ideological bias, or to rationalise the magic, or to make it acceptable to modern audiences, whose ideas of story have been shrunk by mass market films. With notable exceptions, rewriting fails to produce anything that comes close to the originals in their ability to unsettle and entertain. Writers can study archetypes, read the psychoanalytical literature, immerse themselves in Joseph Campbell et al, naturalise Propp’s Morphology, and still produce a story that fails to hold an audience.[i]

The stories Walt Disneyfied are closer to inappropriate dreams that don’t care about your daylight ideology, or your preferred version of the world. They exist in the liminal space between waking and sleeping, recalling a time when the wolves were real and the forest was a dangerous place. Marly Youmans’ story moves bodily into that space, where nothing is quite what it seems, and never quite what it should be, where hope and disappointment are as commonplace as leaves and what we might label cruelty is just the way the world is.

Her poem is not a retelling of a previous story – but is rather a new story, inhabiting old spaces to make them new again. Seren grows up on the edges of the Wildwood, her childhood overshadowed by the death of her brothers, which the story ascribes to her father’s ill-chosen words. Constrained at home by her mother’s care, she is lured into the trees by the promise of friendship and adventure. She meets characters who harm and help her, moving through a dream-like landscape, made real by Youmans’ descriptions, until she finds her way home.

The poem is written in sixty-two stanzas, each consisting of twenty-one lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter ending with a ‘Bob and Wheel’. The Bob is an abrupt two syllable line, the Wheel four short lines rhyming internally. They break the visual and aural monotony even the best blank verse can produce over a long narrative; they can summarise the stanza, comment on it, or provide an opportunity for epigrammatic statement:

[…]Next, a King

Not young but middle-aged his curling beard

Gone steel,

His mind turned lunatic,

His body no ideal

Of grace and charm to prick

Desire: man as ordeal.

The Bob and Wheel, famously used in Gawain and the Green Knight, inevitably evoke medieval precedent, as does the walled garden Seren finds but can’t enter. Although the Wildwood is not the harsh landscape Gawain rides into before returning home, the Knight of Romance rode into the forest to seek adventures because the forest was the place where the normal social rules and expectations did not apply. There is often a didactic element to such stories, but fortunately Youmans avoids the temptation to turn hers into a sermon.

Her poem is full of good lines:

Like some grandfather’s pocket watch wound tight

But then forgotten, Seren moved slower

And slower.

The descriptions of the landscape anchor the fantastic story. In the following quotation Seren is heading towards a river she must cross and discovers a waterfall:

And so she travelled toward the roar of rain

With thunder, apprehensive as she neared

The lip where torrents catapulted free

From stone and merged into a muscular

And sovereign streaming force – the energy

That shocks the trembling pebbles into flight

And grinds the massive boulders into bowls.

Occasionally it is not easy to decide if a line is padded or what might be padding is deliberate stye: ‘It seemed satanic, manic, half insane’, but this is so rare that the fact it’s noticeable is a tribute to all the other lines where it isn’t.  

The poem is rich in images and incidents and packed with a diverse cast of characters, but what does it mean? This is the wrong question. In school we are taught ‘how to read a poem’. For ‘read’, understand ‘analyse’ and the purpose of the analysis is to explain ‘what the poem means’ or, in its most depressing formulation ‘what was the poet was trying to say’. These questions and the approaches they require have little to do with the experience of reading poetry outside the academy.

Stories, poems, and narrative poems especially, can be a way of thinking in and through language, in a non-linear, perhaps non-rational, associative way. The story works for the reader when it activates memory, prior reading, knowledge and experience. The question therefore should be, what does the story do for you while you’re reading it, and afterwards, when a phrase, an incident, or an image remains in your memory.[ii]

Youmans’ poem encourages such a line of thinking; there are numerous allusions to other stories, tying Seren into a network of intertextuality, (at one point she is helped in the story by remembering the stories she has been told), there are images, which evoke a host of medieval precedents, but Youmans avoids the simplification of neat equivalence or the temptation of a tidy conclusion.

In terms of traditional narrative arcs, if you believe in the importance of such things, the story ends abruptly and very little is explained. There are questions left unanswered and threads that were run out but not neatly tied together at the end. The reader is being treated with respect and left alone with the story. It is a book that invites and rewards multiple rereading.

Reading is made easier because the book itself is a beautiful object. Wiseblood books are to be commended on producing such a fine hardback at such a low price. Printed on good quality paper, one stanza to a page, Seren of the Wildwood is illustrated by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. His black and white images complement the tone and mood of the story.

[i] There are obvious exceptions to this generalisation and to be precise everyone who has told these stories has altered them; the Grimms were notorious revisers.

[ii] The undeniable consequence of this line of thinking is that the book that haunts one reader is the same book another reader can’t be bothered to finish, regardless of the reviewer’s praise or condemnation. This seems especially true of narrative poetry. 

Five poems by Marly Youmans

The most recent books by MARLY YOUMANS are the book-length poem Seren of the Wildwood (Wiseblood Books, 2023); a novel set in Puritan New England, Charis in the World of Wonders (Ignatius Press, 2020); and her most recent collection of poems, The Book of the Red King (Phoenicia Press, 2019.) She divides her time between Cooperstown, New York and Cullowhee, North Carolina.

The White Ibis 

Shell islands bleached to white, left by natives

In salty tidal rivers, and the ibis 

Dazzling against the sky…and there I saw

The wedding-froth of mating plume and leaned 

And caught a feather in my hand, the whole 

Bounty of landscape trembling with the heat 

And with the strange and flaring energies 

Of something not yet known, one tremendous

Something manifesting presence… that’s how 

It was for me, so strange it was to stare 

From the prow of the sailboat and to let 

A sunlit feather slip into my hand. 

At dead of night the ibis came to me, 

As beautiful as Eros to the soul, 

And bent to press its breathing dream-shape close 

Until I shivered, feeling spirit pour

Out of the river with its oyster isles,

Out of starred sky, out of the heart of the bird, 

Proclaiming more and more and ever more, 

Hidden behind the arras of the world. 

The Summoning

Long ago, I rode a horse

   As pretty as a ballad and strong,

And I called his name Lord Randal,

        With a neck like a tower, withers

As glossy as the Chinese silk,

             And all of him a song.

One day we found a curling path

   That led into the forest’s edge,

And on that path there lay a thing,

        Magic of a flaming feather.

The horse Lord Randal said to me,

             Here’s trouble, ruin’s pledge.

And did I bend to grasp the gold

   That bore the mark of fairyland,

And was I careless of the wrong?

        Come danger and come woe together!

I cried, and marveled at the fire

In rachis, calamus, and vane

           That quivered in my hand. 

To the Flowers

Flowers, you give yourself effortlessly, 

Without a stint, now strewing fragrances

But soon your petals in a dream of rain. 

I think you are a lesson meant for me, 

You giving soul and beauty all away 

And never counting out a single cost. 

I lean into the breeze, feeling myself 

Like grasses, rippling with the summer’s sun, 

Seeking like you to give myself away, 

Artlessly with art, a paradox 

That will lose luster, die, and be a seed.

Three hundred yards away from Lake Otsego,

The river makes small thunders at the dam,

Not yet the potent Susquehanna, no,

And the great blue heron like a long-legged god

Who rules the leaves and lapidary rocks

Skewers a fish and stalks out of the stream

Picking his everlasting way on stones…

I would not be the bluegill with his small

And flapping motions, helpless to change a fate,

Nor the heron, kingly in his element:

I side with flowers, incense, radiance,

The streaming of a blossom into air.

The Angel in the Tree

Who can understand the sins of angels?

Angular figure bent to thieve

A single egg, the bangle

Of halo dangling from a branch as leaves

Wholly surrendered to the wind

Go still: some presence grieves

The bird, the nest, the plucking from the tree,

The way the angel’s featherings

Seem leaves, the tragedy

In falls of feathered and unfeathered things…

A pebble that disturbs a pool

Begets a world of rings.

“Pray You, Love, Remember”

   This painting is the first using my daughter Cecelia’s motifs, 

    in my own style; her peonies, her sky, a glass structure 

    representing her soul house. —Laura Murphy Frankstone

A simple, delicate glass house to float

In skies like lakes, with peonies that float 

Like clouds and pitch their shadows on the sky

Like lilies on a pond, though clearly sky

Lades the canvas field with its forever,

Mystical, transparent blue forever…

The soul-house, left adrift in peonies,

Sets free one note of song, and peonies

Begin to stream perfume and streaks of song

Until the sky and blooms and glass and song

Are blent as one, and soul as fair as glass

Is painted, snared in flower-cloud and glass…

   O soul-house sing the songs of kingdom come,

   Of was and is and timelessness to come.