A Field Guide to Vievee Francis’s Forest Primeval
by Stacey Balkun
Welcome to the Forest Primeval, a world rendered dark and deep by Vievee Francis. Drawn from the American south, Francis populates this landscape with fairy tale, mythology, and even contemporary art, then scores its soundtrack using the blues. Listen closely to the bird song and wolf howl; watch for a girl who knows her way. Forest Primeval is an anti-pastoral, a song on the ridge; a chimera and a paradise. This field guide identifies the flora and fauna that populate the many pages of this place and lights the edges of its strange and wonderful nature.
In this forest, Francis explores the stitch between violence and intimacy, humanity and animality. Deft with language, daring with rhythm and form, Forest Primeval stutters and caws like the neck of a bourbon bottle slid against guitar strings: a wolf tongue licking your doorknob. These poems will leave a metallic taste in your mouth, and still you’ll want more.
Of course, all the guidebooks in the world couldn’t offer a complete description of the complicated and nuanced magic and beauty Francis has gathered in this place, but perhaps this guide will bring you comfort as you traverse through this forest, past the wolves and beasts and grandmothers, along with our speaker and her heart that endlessly beats survival.
Birds :: They have wings to fly and they use them. They’re everywhere you look, but mean no harm. They’re not danger, “not of prey but of pity” (13). Wild, but tamed, too, these birds are hunted. See also: song, as in, “He sang a song that sounded like birds singing in the sycamore” (89). But don’t wait too long, or you’ll find “all of them, like birds brined and preserved on drying hooks” (75). Back on the ridge, our speaker was hunter and hunted: “a seer and a swiller, a quail and a hound back on the Ridge.” Think like a bird, but also think of birds.
Cows :: This is the forest but it’s also a pastoral, or anti-pastoral. There are meadows, and you can watch the cows “flick their tails” in their amply beauty (43-44). Never let down your guard: “Sometimes the bull gets through” (44). See also: beast.
Fish :: These will appear as family lineage: a matriarch’s “practiced fingers” that have “secured the hook” or a fisheye, a kingfisher that “sees the depths (whose hints he’d ignored) shadowing his / own the ways trees shadow a watercolor lake” (61). A sister is allergic to fish, creating an uneasy moment in a southern restaurant (28). A person, like a fish, can be “Gutted,” as a “fucking fish. / Into the frying pan. Into a gullet,” but you already know this because “We’ve spoken of that fish before. The one that sought / the hook and then the eye of the fisherman” (81).
Beast :: What may wander through the woods, or through the story, or just your imagination. What may be found to be “so shameless” (70). Perhaps dangerous, or perhaps just a “badger or the bear at the trash cans” (71) Is a beast always a monster? A gorilla? Maybe a “Chimera”: from many, one (91). If left to her own devices in the dark, she becomes one and yet “[s]he too sees fit to create beauty” (92). Here, in her own words: “I would swallow if I gave in / To my hungers” (92).
Butterfly :: There is nothing else like it. A hairy worm that spins its own nest just to melt away, then somehow grow from goop to insect. See also: metamorphosis. See also: wings. Can our speaker grow them herself? Or are we left with only “the memory of a monarch landing / in the palm of the hand the summer’s end,” so delicate and fleeting (41).
Turkey :: As in “wild,” a glass of whiskey cold enough to burn.
Nests :: Even if she’s a bird, our speaker warns us, “nice women don’t get this far” (18).
Pines :: Tall trunks reaching up, everywhere in this forest. They obscure the path, stink of pitch. Which way is grandmother’s house? Be careful, or you’ll lose track in the pines. Remember, “The men that marked those pines / in red were slim as the pines themselves” (65).
Daffodils :: They make the break, reflect the last shards of sunset, illuminating the path that takes us home (43).
Dandelions :: The biggest part of “A Small Poem,” these small flowers spread so far. The word is like the girl, growing “from a note a hello a salutation / and plants itself like a spring dandelion seed that by / afternoon is full grown and blowing more seeds” (91).
Rose :: You already know the tale as old as time, how a simple rose can capture a girl, still as a casket under glass. Nobody ever meant any harm, but the thorns are never any less sharp (53).
Raccoon :: Grandmother could skin one in minutes (26).
Horse :: Failing, “knowing it must now race, must / tear out of its rusted gate” (22).
Swans :: Oh she’ll say “You’ll find no swans here. No wet feather bed” but they fly overhead (68). Swans swagger at the edge of a lake, braying and waiting for you to lose your footing in the rocks. They’re beauty rendered dangerous, a weakness or reclamation. As the youngest daughter writes to her husband Bluebeard, “When you left, I went to your swan’s coop, / snapped every slender neck” (74). Our speaker, she almost becomes one, “stumbling in a thin coat that flaps at [her] sides” (5).
Nightjar :: The bird that’s left after the swans go. Did you see? Against the sky, “its flight was soundless, the wings full of air. / The feathers. The feathers. I didn’t imagine this” (76). And who could have?
Wolf :: When you’re walking through the forest, watch out. Like the men, the wolves lurk, mouths open, “that hard loll of tongue again like a bent straight razor roving up / then down the neck” of something sweet” (73). It could be her. It could be you. Listen to the wind, and you’ll hear “All Kinds of Howlin’” (88). Is this a fairy tale, or is it the blues? Our speaker knows there’s not much difference. Who to fear more, the wolf or the hunter? Remember, the “wolf is just one / way to get there” closer to “that pain that rocks / your bones” (88). Choose the path. Choose the wolf.
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak, and Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2018, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, Muzzle, Bayou, and elsewhere. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn and The Loft.