Poetry News

Vievee Francis's Antipastoral Poetics, in the Foreground

By Harriet Staff
Vievee Francis

At Boston Review, Liz Bowen reviews Vievee Francis's new poetry collection Forest Primeval—an antipastoral that carries transcendentalism to the terrain of late capitalism. "An ambitious excavation of the rhetorics of race, gender, and nature underlying the West’s most pervasive myths, the sensuously lyrical poetry of Forest Primeval is far-reaching and wild for survival," Bowen writes. From there: 

In Race and Nature from Transcendentalism to the Harlem Renaissance (2008), ecopoetics scholar Paul Outka distinguishes between the sublime and the traumatic in naturalist literature. “If sublimity names a pure empowering natural space outside of human history,” he writes, “trauma references environmental damage, a violent link between past, present, and future, the intersection between a degraded world and a degraded subject.” These modes largely cleave along racial lines: whereas sublimity is available to the oblivious white man Columbus-ing his way through an ahistorical wilderness he thinks he can master, trauma is the experience of African American writers who cannot encounter the pastoral without the memory of slavery or the forest without the threat of lynching. It seems to me more accurate to say that accounts of natural wonder and historical trauma are often intertwined, rather than distinct, in African American literature—much as they are in Native American literature, which has a traumatic ecopoetic legacy of its own. But the traumatic does often prevail; think of the pastoral but deadly Everglades of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), or the beautiful but nightmarish Sweet Home of Beloved (1987). This is a tradition against which Forest Primeval positions itself and indeed pays homage; its circuitous movement from the rural South to the streets of Detroit and back again recalls the migratory structure of Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), as do its simultaneously romantic and fearful impulses toward the nonhuman world.

Francis’s poems also push for something else, a new kind of antipastoral for the twenty-first century. What would it mean for the sublime not to lose out to the traumatic? Is that loss one of the great injustices of American racism? Is it yet—will it ever be—possible to embrace natural beauty without disavowing the beast of history? These poems do not prescribe how to do so, but they do offer some alternative approaches to writing a walk in the woods. Demanding trees that bear possibilities other than strange fruit, Francis writes: “Give me the fruit I may leave my mark upon / or flesh (willing enough), but something, something / besides lip and the language of loss.”

Read more at Boston Review.

Originally Published: October 16th, 2017