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
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
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.
LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head