Dale GOingDenise Newman's
Human Forest

by Dale Going




Human Forest, Denise Newman
Apogee Press, February 2000. 72 pages, ISBN 0-9669937-2-1, $12.95

Available from Small Press Distribution, 800-869-7553/email: orders@spdbooks.org/www.spdbooks.org


"Fish, fowl, human, mushroom/all gilled and seeking --” is the first, 5 a.m. moment of "Of Later Things Yet to Happen," a serial poem in Human Forest, Denise Newman’s new collection from Apogee Press. It could serve as an epigraph for the book. Koanically odd, the lines at first seem untrue, like the statements in logic exams where one must circle the word which doesn’t fit, this is to that as that is to this: humans and fowl have no gills, are any but human seeking? But I’d flunk -- a fowl’s wattle is its gill, a human’s, the loose skin under the chin. And yes, I’ll concede, having read Human Forest–all seeking.

Newman’s first book, The Blood Flower (Em Press), was a catechism of erotic origins. "Of Later Things Yet to Happen" is a Book of Hours, each of its twenty-four poems titled for an hour of the day -- and the whole of Human Forest is a Book of Questions. A confluence of spiritual seeking and erotic desire --"All potential has its erotic push/bound to it -- blood yolk/with an ocean source"–Newman’s poems are full of inquiry, a momentum of dialogue and discourse and quest hastening towards "its future nature," while at the same time flaying layers to return to that source. "You see lines are not horizontal but lead the eye down on a switch-back/descent of unraveling…."

Her erotic ancestors include the nereid. "Beneath apparent life sought fish oblivion muck bottom/sinking in it/girl who swims well swims down/inhales." The sought spiritual/erotic source and destination are the same, "imprecisely that which the two would be…rolling sea water without rupture such as inquiry." To be human is to be "One part want/one part memory/all of it a loan." And a koan. As Newman states it in the short poem, "Now" (one possible response to the koanic longing, "If only we had moments between moments to choose them" in "Of Later Things Yet to Happen"), "the mind turns backward/recalls a sea/the body rests in its cave/and the sea goes nowhere."

To seek–to desire–is to ask. Newman’s first query is "Animal, vegetable, or mineral?" and her answer is "Yes." As in a dream where the dreamer is represented in each of its elements, Newman’s identifications of the human float among the animal, vegetable, mineral and the four or five elements. The human is forest, is fish, is fowl, is vegetable decay and matter, is water, is mud, is stone, is star.

When she writes,"You could be a star/You could be someone --," "Already in the big sky travelers/are floating lights/each with a window asking/is this it?" ("Why Pear?"), the reference to fame is only secondary or tertiary to a more literal, elemental, aerial reference. "Give us that perfectly/eluding all and earth bird/talent" ("Why Pear?"). An earth bird is Icarus or a pigeon, not a gift of the gods ("a star")——despite the prayer——but something more plodding or ominous. "Filling in sky with meaning/‘There’ll be hell to pay’ " ("Human Forest").

Newman’s lyricism can be operatic or Gothic, with the dark Grimmness of a northern fairytale, all "damp fur rocks and iron scent…Drawn there over fatal waters…Off falls his armor" ("Of Later Things Yet to Happen") or slangy and plastic (another kind of fluidity), "the little epiphanies popping/through like holes in the all-weather/plastic sky covering//‘really, we just want to be ourselves’//pancakes and elastic waistbands/we’re not ashamed of our humanness/said collectively from TV: ‘It’s your world,/you can do what you want’ " ("Any Way the Cows"). Yet the clarity of her hermetic verse, a kind of delicacy and plainness of space and breath and speech, often seems most like fragments of Sappho, in a third-generation xerox, blown up and nearly empty. Here are some poem-shards from "Why Pear?": "a Greek god tourist in photocopied love time… "but they look so real"…He is fake…Camouflaged as a person/anyone… Twice-born god…in a boat/on a plate/chipped and cracked…No warranty…As is, I’d been saying/as is, is as, as is."

"Is as" is metaphor, not origin. As is, with no warranty -- its meaning worn, chipped and cracked -- in a boat on a plate not at all the same sea-ride. Is the original available in language, or is all language worn metaphor? Is questioning -- idea -- by its nature derivative? "and they complain:/can nothing handed down save us" ("Of Later Things Yet To Happen"). "but they look so real" is the only conversation in "Why Pear?" that rates quotation marks, emphasizing the fake, second-hand quality of talk. Is language itself "Some Extra Thing"? "What if every wisp of nature, each rock, dandelion, oak/were dressed? as though it were–/our saying: igneous, weed, live oak…" ("Some Extra Thing"). Or -- "Can life itself be lacking?" ("Missed").

The metaphors Newman chooses for her dire, earnest quest can resemble the Persephonic haiku by Issa, "In this world/we walk on the roof of hell,/gazing at flowers." In Newman’s version: "Not the ‘dead floor of Hell’ catching corpses as they fall/nor dirt at the end of shovel squirming wormy things/but tamped earth rubbed red by soles and shiny as chestnut/To return to after idea lets go" ("Of Later Things Yet to Happen").

If Newman’s poetic persona is Persephone; her hell is the pre-adolescent verge/virge, that crisp moment of desire and horror at the blood cusp of girlhood and womanhood. Just as one really starts to think, to become oneself, sex and death comingle in a blood bath at the tree of the knowledge of loss of self. "All flesh is edible/smiling like a bite/in an apple going brown…Fall little apple fall/far far from the tree…Go ahead, ravish my youth if you must" ("Disaster Services"). The pupa, flies, serpents and worms associated with cycles of transformation lurk among her botanica --"(no use in charming the little bugger once it’s bitten)" ("Disaster Services").

Her animal world is littered with the familiars of childhood, distortions of nursery-rhyme’s domestic and pastoral cast: "Girls wipe themselves/arched over holes/wiping/front to back/as if petting mice" ("Human Forest"), "looking upward as if at birds/carrying off chunks/of him"("Disaster Services"), "Any way is a way/honey -- /just jump" ("Any Way the Cows"). Once upon a time, nursery rhyme encoded the violence of an adult underworld -- the "Ring Around the Rosey"/"London Bridges Falling Down" death knell of the Black Plague, the political machinations satirized in "Humpty Dumpty," "Sing a Song of Sixpence," etc. There is an impossible nostalgia for the songs of innocence acknowledged in Newman’s songs of experience. "Couldn’t we go climbing into infinity like lambs/quaintly passing time?//Unlambly one…"("Of Later Things Yet to Happen").

In that first questing game of childhood, "Animal, vegetable, mineral?" is just the first of twenty questions. To continue the game with more of Newman’s questions in Human Forest:

2. Did Mother say you should seek to know yourself?

3. Well how do I look?

4. Who is grabbing for the box of individually wrapped butter bricks?

5. What can be said/with a devouring emptiness/about the head?

6. But is there help for one/in someone else’s longing?

7. We know how to give up our entire life day after day/and the opposite?

8. A thought is not thinking/What’s going on in there?

9. Is it allowed to/be sexual in the street?

10. What human way is there of lake wound open and not sick?

11. What’s a window -- /which side?

12. See then how we resemble each other?

13. Are we almost there?

14. Do you know what you’re saying…I mean really know?

15. Who is awake to feel alarm…Are you on time yet?

16. As if to evaporate rubies into chaos?

17. Who am I then he asks/as though he’d recognize himself.

18. Tell us please…what is personal?

19. I said, would you like some less?

20. I mean if only I were this whole lake myself staring -- then what?


Note: Of Later Things Yet to Happen is also available as a chapbook from Meow Press and Why Pear? as a letterpress chapbook from Em Press. "Disaster Services" appeared in How2 (Vol. 1, No. 2).

BIO: Dale Going prints letterpress editions of innovative poetry by women at Em Press in Mill Valley, California and teaches a workshop, "Chapbooks for Poets," at the San Francisco Center for the Book. A chapbook, &O, was published this fall in the Em Press Poetry Pamphlet Series. Her collection, The View They Arrange, Kelsey St. Press, was a finalist for the Poets' Prize.


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