Suddenly I’m smitten with Susan Stewart’s work and want to run out and buy all I can before night falls and the werewolves vomit on their paws. (I’m pretty sure that will happen tonight and I don’t want to be around for it when it does.) I’ve been feasting on all that I could find online the past few days and listened to an engaging and intelligent conversation between her and some University of Pennsylvania students (hosted by Charles Bernstein) and I’m still hungry. More, more!
A professor at Princeton after stints at Temple and Penn, Stewart has picked up some big honors–she won the NBCC prize in 2003 for Columbarium and the hefty paycheck that accompanies a MacArthur fellowship. Her criticism and essays on art are highly regarded as well and have been nominated for national prizes. Stewart has said that her poems have philosophical groundings in the writings of Kant, but she is concerned about being accessible to many audiences while remaining allusive (her books, apparently, are heavily footnoted).
“First Idyll,” the poem that appears in the January 26, 2009, issue of the New Yorker is allusive as well. Well, at least the first three lines; the remainder of the poem might be allusive too, but is more likely didactic in its mission.
So the poem is two sentences and there’s a change in register or disjunction between the two. The first sentence/first three lines is a reinterpretation of the cup that appears in the Theocritus’s first idyll, The Death of Daphnis. Theocritus was a Greek bucolic poet who flourished in the thrid century B.C., and his surviving work, the “Idylls of Theocritus,” are 30 p0ems, usually conversations between shepherds about their flock and their sweet pipings and their angry gods and what not and is pretty much the founding father of the idyll, which, of course, is poem depicting a pastoral or rural scene. The idyll is usually short in length. Tennyson’s famous Idylls of the King are neither pastoral or short and idylls have since opened up to scenes beyond the bucolic hillside dotted with sheep.
Theocritus’s first idyll is a conversation between Thyrsis (a shepherd) and a goatherd. They discuss a few things, particularly when not to sing and pipe so as not to disturb Pan’s nap and this cup:
Next, a deep drinking-cup, with sweet wax scoured,
Two-handled, newly-carven, smacking yet
0′ the chisel. Ivy reaches up and climbs
About its lip, gilt here and there with sprays
Of woodbine, that enwreathed about it flaunts
Her saffron fruitage.
So Stewart is taking Theocritus’s cup and making it her own. She’s writing an idyll (perhaps the first of a series) and she’s giving some literary props to Theocritus. Her language, of course, is very different and I like the assonance and repetition in those first three lines. I also like how the word “carved” cuts line from the repetition of the “rounds” and “cups” and allows the poem moves it along–like we’re witnessing the snipping of the frayed rope.
While there’s not a stanza break between the two sentences, there’s definitely a change in register and subject matter. We’ve moved from the cup and are now looking at the cousin’s little black and white goat, fulfilling the pastoral tradition of the idyll. And aside from an excellent description of the goat’s hoof, Stewart may be hinting at something else.
There’s a biblical story about Moses when he was a toddler and he reached out and grabbed his grandfather’s crown, which the Pharaoh’s people took as a symbol that the boy was going to steal the Pharaoh’s power and should be killed at once. Instead they tested Moses’s intent by placing a piece of onyx and a red hot coal in front of him and if Moses reached for the glittery gem, then his guilt would be proved. He did, but Gabriel, his guardian angel guided the wee boy’s hand toward the coal, which Moses then put in his mouth, burning his lips and tongue and proving his innocence.
I’m not sure if that’s the allusion Stewart is driving at. It could be something of an ars poetica, maybe about the writing process (after all the goat is black and white) and how many times do we have this beautiful idea–a gem!–only to find it turns into a lump of coal once we set it down.