• Wilderness in the Mouth: On Vievee Francis

    Phillip B. Williams

    Spring 2022

    When we love the Earth, we are able to love ourselves more fully. I believe this. The ancestors taught me it was so.

    —bell hooks, “Touching the Earth”

    In fall 2009, I had the privilege of spending Thanksgiving with a friend whom I met at CU-Boulder while doing a one-year stint in their MFA program. This was the first time I could remember spending Thanksgiving with someone else’s family. In the years prior, I often spent the holiday alone. Before any festivities were to take place, the uncles wanted to take a short walk around the rented cabin. In the distance, deer, startled by our presence, froze and shot glances in our direction, where surely safety would betray them had they come any closer. We carried on, avoiding berry-filled bear scat in mounds that marked territory some human certainly at one time called his own. Mountains dauntingly pierced the horizon. Trees stood seemingly espaliered against the shadowed angles of rock. It was obvious how small we were in the world.

    Maybe a quarter mile out, the direction unknown to me, I found a furry rabbit’s foot still attached to its furless leg bone, bent like a hinge to a door through which I would willingly step. With a leaf, I grabbed the thin contraption and held it up to the light, and I showed the others how the rabbit paw resisted leaving the calcareous stem of its leg. “Bobcat,” one of the uncles said. “Coyote,” another chimed in, and I lowered the partial corpse back to the copse ground as autumn air shaved my lungs clean, made a bone of the soft in me.

    I remember taking a photograph of this pawed leg abbreviated at the humerus. I have since lost the evidence, but I remember the image without mnemonic and find myself abruptly haunted by the vision with endearing grace, as though a window shade has been lowered over my mind and projected onto this partial carcass, the hinge still beckoning to be opened further. It is the door that the natural world makes of itself in a mind animated by its own abuse of the sacrosanct, and even now I most willingly wish to have that chance again to peek through the bone door to find something strange and violent—a divine and unrequested mirror.

    Perhaps this is what attracts me to Vievee Francis’s work: that I find in her poems a necessary ritual of opening that door to nature to have my expectations upended. From her very first collection, Blue-Tail Fly, to her second, Horse in the Dark, to her most recent collection, Forest Primeval, Francis makes strange the fixities of the human mind, revealing it to be a poor compass with which to navigate nature especially when not even the human self has first been understood. To call her work honest raises the question, “To whom?” Reading her work, I find myself on the receiving end of votive emissaries, my palms upturned and waiting for Francis’s promise of truth. If I am to speak about her work across three books, I speak about Francis’s motive to unclutter the clumsy ways we consider nature: as privatized, as conquerable, and as wholly exterior. Across the span of Francis’s career, what we find is a desire to first scrutinize mankind’s complex psyche through persona, to understand that human self, only to later turn the mirror upon the reader to find ourselves scrutinized through poems increasingly made personal, revelatory of a self that seems exhausted with hiding behind the stones, behind the obsession to dominate nonhuman realms.

    One can argue that the opening poem of Blue-Tail Fly, “The Scale of Empire,” sets the standard and rubric for so many that follow:

    The wood that engulfs
    an empire of stone
    cares only to maintain itself,

    to green again the decadent
    desperation. Our delusion:

    digging into the earth
    that submits only temporarily.

    The poem enacts the ways nature overtakes the presumptuous “empires” of mankind. But Francis’s work is not merely descriptive—her project of reclamation overtakes the ear and the rhythms found in syntax as well. Francis patiently coaxes us through the first stanza with two stresses in the first two lines and an iambic tetrameter line shaping the third. It is as though the speaker wades through the mulch and dense woods of the poem’s unfolding tale, hyperventilating as bush and brush, towering trees and vengeful root roil around her and threaten to take even her into the depths. Just when things seem to speed up in the second stanza—a tetrameter line that echoes the previous stanza, “to green again the decadent”—we are slowed to a halt after “progressions” with an em-dash that acts simultaneously as the passage of time (I am reminded of the dash between dates on a tombstone) and the very end of progress as interrupted by “discovery, / desperation.” What was once progress has become a discovery of one’s own desperation and, if we continue with the final line in that tercet, of “Our delusions.”

    This is the power of Francis’s control over syntax and enjambment: within this sentence’s logic, her lines’ endings tell of an interior story, a lyric within the lyric. In just the second stanza, we are forced to juggle several readings at once: progressions lead to discovery, yes; however, progression also leads to desperation once nature rejects the imposition of stone and those who shape it. The period between “desperation” and “Our delusions” forces the reader to abruptly pause at the center of the line. It is as if Francis is offering us enough time to conclude that what has jarred the human within the poem has also jarred the human witness of the poem. This performative grammar becomes an indictment that embeds its claw in us, the words activating our own dissection of and relationship to the texts as a means of better understanding our complex and often violent relationship with nature.

    Phillip B. Williams is from Chicago. He is the author of the books Mutiny (Penguin 2021) and Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books 2016). Williams has received a 2017 Whiting Award and the 2017 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He currently teaches at Bennington College and is a member of the founding faculty for the Randolph College low-residency MFA program in creative writing. 

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