A Review of Stacy Gnall's Heart First into the Forest
Heart First into the Forest by Stacy Gnall
Alice James Books, 2011 (80 pages)
Alice James Books, 2011 (80 pages)
In her debut collection of poems, Heart First into the Forest, Stacy Gnall creates a world of wonder and mysticism, woven together by rhythm, lyricism, and shocking yet beautiful images. These poems reveal a glimpse into the dark forest of the speaker's heart—and it is not a Pollyanna world of princesses and bows; but rather, this is a sinister forest of danger where even "lunatic trees" must be outsmarted (2). In her poems, Gnall exposes dark truths, the truths one learns when making the leap from adolescence to adulthood—that in order to survive, to emerge from the forest triumphantly, one must play a complex role of victim and villain, of damsel and witch, of innocent and experienced.
The forest Gnall creates through her playful use of rhythm and sound is one of danger, mystery, and allure.
One is never sure where to draw the line between sensuality and violence, two seemingly opposite sensations that the poet masterfully sews together. For example, in "Pantoum Before the Killer Comes," the poet, so fully in control of the complex form, describes in sensual detail an act that balances on this thin line. The poet repeats images that contrast one another, such as the softness of "golden clover" where the act takes place, a boy and girl "planting death" on each other's necks, and "severed" images and reflections (13).
"Halloween, Ohio, and an Appropriately Named Lake," also dances on this fine tightrope of sensuality and danger. The poem describes a twilight encounter between the speaker and a lover in a canoe on Lake Eerie. The poet sets the scene with contrasting yet beautiful images of "the sky...a black sheet/with star-slits for eyes," "the seaweed bending in our direction, extending a dance," and the "undead eyes of infinite fish," creating both a scene of beauty and horror. However, at the end of the poem, the speaker, "bobbing for [his] Adam's apple," describes her own arms as a "haunted house," a thing of danger. Like a predator, she, "a bully child," dares the boy to "Spend one night inside" (23). Here, the poet juggles two contrasting sensations - of sensuality and of dangerous mystery.
Many of the poems in this collection draw from images and characters from common fairy tales we're often told as children. However, instead of simply retelling the tales, the poet reimagines and deconstructs them. Gnall takes the reader on a journey through stories of witches, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Frog Prince. However, the poet's versions are much more macabre and sinister. Through these retellings, the poet instead meditates on transformations, sexuality, violence, and the things that scare us.
The old cliché goes that a damsel in distress needs a savior, a prince charming, a huntsman to come to her rescue. In the world created by these poems, however, nothing is as it seems, nothing fits into the old clichés time and tradition have worked together to create. For example, in the poem "What the Child was Given Next" the speaker retells a deconstructed version of the Little Red Riding Hood tale. The "hunter" who is supposed to rescue the child from the wolf's belly, plays a more complex role. The speaker reflects: "But what thanks/that when the hunger comes, / … the heart will come after the head" and ".slit the snarl from where it wells." The red riding hood character, pulled from the bowels of the wolf becomes "a rouge bowl to be dipped and dipped from" (8). She is both beast and damsel, child and woman, innocent and guilty. The "damsel" figures in Heart First into the Forest are complex female speakers, speakers who rescue themselves from the forest of their own hearts, who, through their own strength and cunning, emerge from the darkness "coughing up berry-worths of blood" but triumphantly declaring "I made it" (2).
In the collection's final poem, "Smothering the Howl," the speaker describes "the worst beast" that has "broken from the totem" and is after her. The beast sounds horribly terrifying, a wolf shape shifter animal that hungers for the speaker's fear. It is only when she overcomes this fear, kneels "at the hewn tree" and beckons his "amulet eyes" and "drool of the dog drugged by honeycake," that she will overcome him and call forth the "death of the wolf." The entire collection ends with the instructions—"softly fan him as he lies" (54). The beast is finally tamed.
Heart First Into the Forest gives readers a fresh and contemporary glimpse into the haunted forest of the heart - a forest that has been described by poets and storytellers throughout history. However, in her debut collection of poems, Gnall turns these stories that once functioned to define the feminine as meek and needing rescue into lines of empowerment and wonder. Gnall's voice emerges above the trees of the forest, and with such sharp wit, haunting images, and masterful use of rhythm and sound, it is a voice in contemporary poetry that must be heard.
Katherine Hoerth is the author of three books of poetry: a collection titled The Garden Uprooted, which is forthcoming from Slough Press in 2012, and two chapbooks titled The Garden of Dresses (Mouthfeel Press, 2012) and Among the Mariposas (Mouthfeel Press, 2010). She teaches writing at South Texas College, and edits poetry for Fifth Wednesday Journal.