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Red Rover is both the name of a children’s game and a formless spirit, a god of release and permission, called upon in the course of that game. The “red rover” is also a thread of desire, and a clue to the forces of love and antipathy that shape our fate. In her most innovative work to date, award-winning poet and critic Susan Stewart remembers the antithetical forces—falling and rising, coming and going, circling and centering—revealed in such games and traces them out to many other cycles. Ranging among traditional, open, and newly-invented forms, and including a series of free translations of medieval dream visions and love poems, Red Rover begins as a historical meditation on our fall and grows into a song of praise for the green and turning world.
About the Author
Susan Stewart is the Annan Professor of English at Princeton University. Her previous books of poems, The Forest and Columbarium (which won the National Book Critics Circle Award), and her works of criticism, The Open Studio and Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (which won the Phi Beta Kappa’s Christian Gauss Award) are all published by the University of Chicago Press.
Read an Excerpt
By Susan Stewart
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2008 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
I thought somehow a piece of cloth was tossed
into the night, a piece of cloth that flew
up, then across, beyond the window.
A tablecloth or handkerchief, a knot
somehow unfolding, folded, pushing through
the thickness of the dark. I thought somehow
a piece of cloth was lost beyond the line—
released, although it seemed as if a knot
still hung, unfolding. Some human hand could not
have thrown that high, or lent such force to cloth,
and yet I knew no god would mind a square
of air so small. And still it moved and still
it swooped and disappeared beyond the pane.
The after-image went, a blot beyond
the icy glass. And, closer, there stood winter
grass so black it had no substance
until I looked again and saw it tipped
with brittle frost. An acre there (a common-
place), a line of trees, a line of stars.
So look it up: you'll find that you could lose
your sense of depth,
a leaf, a sheaf
of paper, pillow-
a shrieking hiss,
like winds, like
death, all tangled
there in branches.
I called this poem "the owl,"
the name that, like a key, locked out the dark
and later let me close my book and sleep
a winter dream. And yet the truth remains
that I can't know just what I saw, and if
it comes each night, each dream, each star, or not
at all. It's not, it's never, evident
that waiting has no reason. The circuit of the world
belies the chaos of its forms—(the kind
of thing astronomers
look down to write
And still I thought a piece of cloth
had flown outside my window, or human hands
had freed a wing, or churning gods revealed
themselves, or, greater news, a northern owl,
a snowy owl descended.
I met the girl who held the flower and mirror
and the boy who sent his hoop up to the god.
Put away childish things they said, and stepped
into the future. They were made of baked earth,
their tenderness intact.
Robbers had come and gone, come
and gone for years
In locked cabinets,
washed up: a bone brooch, the sea's
furl, an iron fire-dog.
The hoop rolled down again,
The girl awoke and put her flower
inside the mirror.
The boy cart-wheeled
behind his wheel, end over
endless sand. We think of them.
They never think of us.
We think of them.
And the hard-hearted doll
repeated the lesson:
love's asymmetry is true,
they never think of you,
love's asymmetry is true
love's asymmetry is true
Games from Children
my mother's garden
I lost my copper key
in my mother's garden
I lost my silver knife
staring at a cloud
I found my wooden boat
hiding in the rushes
I found my wishing stone
hiding in my shoe
I lost my copper key
hiding in the rushes
I found my wooden boat
staring at a cloud
I lost my memory
when I learned to whistle
If you find my silver knife
hide it in a stone
I made a fist
and it grew two ears,
long ears with
I opened my hand—
and another hand
rose to meet it,
white: one four-
blackbirds of my
than the arc
from the road
the room of all its light.
king of the hill
What looked like a statue held a shove.
even so, it was hard not to want
to run full throttle straight
into the arms, the very harm
of it. Some thought the figure at the top
was of another kin or kind, that only blind
force would send him over. Others swore
he would give or bend, that something like love
was standing there and could be swayed by reason
or kindness—just a push
might do him in. The view from below
was blocked by distance, and the relentless glare of the sun.
So human to feel the dominion of the sun
as a yoke, to learn that radiance can shove
a gaze back to the ground. The reason
for submission disappears: it's just part of the here below,
like thinking there's a harmless form of harm.
Time and time again, the figure up there swore
he would never relent, that it was his want
or whim to stay there, impervious to love
and hate. Our path was made straight
by that stubbornness—just a final push
we thought. But we were blind
to the outcome waiting at the top.
once we began the game, it seemed impossible to stop
caring and turn to something else. The sun
was so hot, the voices drew us on, the crowd's blind
will bore down. Our sisters saw the harm
and called us back; our brothers swore
we couldn't go. They had felt the shove
and pull of it themselves, but forgot the way a want
grows to desire. The path was straight,
as clear as day—with a push,
they tried to lead us on to reason.
But we were planning our attack from below
and couldn't be bothered to listen to their love.
There were flowers in the meadow: buttercups and loveliesbleeding;
milkweed pods with down bursting from their tops;
daisies by whose petals lovers swore
to love forever; and thorns left behind the leafy blind
of the thistles. Beauty was a mask for harm
and everything under the sun
had the power to draw us on or, just the same, push
us away. Does the weed also feel the deep want
of replacement, the need to go straight
for the root, then draw it out from below
there in the dark earth's hush—over
and over? Why look for a human reason
When nature has a reason
of its own? The saint said the love of a neighbor is really love
for love itself. The soul reaches out to the good. In the blind
acceptance of those about her, she makes a final push
toward the divine. Souls hover
about and above one another, in the want
of connection, promises foresworn,
and, for a time, they set all forms of harm
aside. It's vital, this straightforward
link between them, as necessary as sunlight
or water. In such a world, the top
has no added value. The place to be is here below.
The thinker, too, looked below
the surface—to the master's power and the servant's reason.
It was the master who was blind
to history. Once he resisted the push
toward death, nothing else could harm
him. By then no more want
could arise. The servant swore
he couldn't care less, giving reality a shove.
But the truth of his work stood there in the sunlight,
steady as need and the love
of craft. The master won, though it turned out the top
was a dead end, leading straight
To oblivion. No one can escape the straightforward
claims of the makers, the rule of the here below.
The king stands at the pleasure of those who swore
to go on and on with the game. He tells himself it's love
that keeps them swarming there in the sun
and rain, elbowing and shoving
for a closer look. But he knows what they want
is the tooth and nail of him, that the push
and prop of his image can occupy the top
for just a while. There behind the blind,
the assassin waits and has his reason—
though it's never just his own. And the worst harm
Comes from the innocents who never see the harm
at all. The crooked made straight,
the mad the font of reason,
the prophets at last gone blind.
The bloated fish rose to the top
of the stream and the rowers pushed
them down again with a shove.
The rowers were
hungry, and the sun
was in their eyes. Below
the dam, they waved their low-bells:
what you want
Is what you get, they said. And what we wanted
was to find the meadow, and everyone unharmed.
The farmers came running for the top,
frantic, clanging with shovel
and ax, cockamamie, heedless, straight
through the gardens, scattering the love-nests
of the larks and plovers. They swore
they would push
away the past. Their reason
was impatience swirling there below
intention. Father or son,
son and father; either way, they were blind
To the particulars and, all in all, blind
to consequence. To stop too soon is to want
to stop wanting. The hunters have their cunning reason
and go about their work by stealth. Straight
as their arrows, they aim for death, though love
is what closes the distance. Show
the trophy high on the wall, swear
to the courage of soldiers and sailors—the top
of the mast, pushed
deep into the dirt, flies a flag that declares the end of harm.
But the orphans lie sleeping in the doorways below
and will rise up, furious, with the sun.
In the end, love, there are only one or two left beneath the sun,
surrounded by silence. The blind
light blanketing the hill retreats and returns, oblivious. Love
turns the world and brings it ill or harm.
We guessed there'd be plenty and then empty straits
and both would set the whirligigging top
a-spin. We didn't need a better reason
than that to join the push
of generations. An aching want
for the future drove us on, then shoved
us back to the past. All the while, the meadow waited below.
Within the locket, it's the image our hearts wore.
We had promised, we swore
and crossed our hearts. In that sun-flecked
wood, all faith was blind.
The little boat rolled through the straits
and inlets, bent, unswerving, toward home. No other reason,
none at all. Now here below
in the something-ever-after, I've had at the top
of my thoughts a thought of love,
the shape it had before it turned to harm.
And what I've wanted
to do is to return to the source, the first push
before the fulcrum's shove.
The trail to the top
of the hill meandered. A lark hovered, shadowing the clover below,
and the hunter's blind was, in the end, abandoned. Everything that seemed
could slowly flower, like a weed, into harm. Still, the mind can straighten
its own path; reason has a nature sworn
to truth. A final push is waiting; its patience is a synonym for love.
The king was an idol. There's only the daylight glinting there beneath the sun.
Excerpted from RED ROVER by Susan Stewart. Copyright © 2008 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of Contents
I. SPRING FORWARD, FALL BACK....................
The Owl.................... 3
Games from Children....................
Oil and Water.................... 25
Songs for Adam....................
The Green.................... 36
Thoughts made of cloth.................... 38
II. THOUGHTS MADE OF METAL....................
The Erl King.................... 41
The Former Age.................... 45
When I'm crying, I'm not speaking.................... 48
When I'm speaking, I'm not crying.................... 49
Gold and Soil.................... 50
Elegy Against the Massacre at the Amish School in West Nickel Mines,
Pennsylvania, Autumn 2006.................... 51
The Lost Colony.................... 56
The Complaint of Mars....................
III. THOUGHTS MADE OF WOOD....................
The Complaint of Venus.................... 67
Thoughts made of wood.................... 69
Variations on "The Dream of the Rood".................... 70
Dialogue in San Clemente.................... 73
A Cone Flower.................... 76
In the Western World....................
The Field of Mars as a Meadow.................... 89
A Constant State of Gravitation.................... 95
The Vision of Er.................... 97
The Fall.................... 101
Three Geese.................... 103