The Volta: Friday Feature

Sherwood Forest by Camille Roy. Futurepoem Books, 2011.

cover of Sherwood Forest

Reviewed July 27, 2012 by Lauren Russell.

Sherwood Forest is a book of the body—concerned with gender as a corporeal though mutable state and with poem-making as a bodily function. The experience of reading it reminds me of a winding amusement park ride, as I momentarily suspend judgment and normative modes of sense-making to take in the strange and mercurial scenery, a kind of wild and gritty fantastic realism I must absorb since I have chosen to be physically strapped to my seat, or in the world of this book, handcuffed (with the “furry pair … they’re so soft”).

Handcuffs come with a certain set of expectations. “Restraints seem to promise that someday the body will arrive,” Roy writes in “Diary of 3 Words,” “which means I’m waiting for something real: orgasm confirmation: of belief. I’m still waiting! waiting …” Sex is an act of faith, like religion. And religion, too, is bodily. I recall the blessing the priest made over Communion every Sunday of my childhood, mumbling as he placed a wine-dipped wafer on my tongue: “The Body and Blood of Christ, the bread of Heaven.” Roy’s work is a kind of transubstantiation—not of bread and wine becoming a body but of language, through the body, becoming poetry.

In “Diary of 3 Words,” Roy writes of TeaJay, a “girl” who comes to mind when the speaker thinks of “the body as parts”:

TeaJay had a weird relation to language: words entered her and didn’t come out. When you said something to her, her face closed and she stared at you with a resentment so deep it was erotic. Once in a while a word made it back out, but it would be irradiated.

The adjective “irradiated” suggests that the word returns from TeaJay’s body both illuminated and carcinogenic. Elsewhere the language-through-body transformation is equally fraught. In the opening poem, “My Play,” Roy writes that “the asshole is speaking,” then, echoing Jack Spicer, clarifies, “This isn’t shit, it’s poetry./ Shit enters it only as an image.” In “Keeping a Chewy Grippe,” she complicates that position:

Each poetic clump, when it arrives,

is accompanied by disgust. Is

it personal? Where

is the poem? It dies as a part of me. Expelled.

Sort of … like shitting.

The scatological analogy subverts any ideal of the poem as transcendent or of poem-making as an exceptional act of “inspiration.” Poems, here, are repulsive and routine expulsions, and the act of their construction is as unromantic as defecating. In “Lucky Fortune Is Good,” Roy plays on both the scatological and religious tropes, reimagining the myth of the Fall of Man:

Everyone knows

paradise was soiled by God’s excrement—secretive twins,

who fell to the ground in sullen lumps,

to be wrapped in woolen coats & trampled.

Then language entered them: a black food.

Boy absorbed boy, so the girl wandered

away & became

a bird.

Here humans are the “excrement,” and language is the forbidden apple, the dangerous fruit of knowledge. Roy’s departure from the Biblical with her narrative of the “boy” and “girl” underscores another of her concerns—what it means to be gendered.

In Sherwood Forest, gender is both a received form and a mutable one. In “Cinderfella,” a (seemingly intentionally) misnamed “Rapunzel” spinoff, Roy writes that the boygirl Cinderfella is “bearing a gelatinous halo—/ Hir transparent dime;/ call it gender, or crown.” Gender ambiguity is a mark of holiness. But to embody a gender is a feat of utmost consternation, as is evident in “Marching Band.”

I got offered a sex change operation.

and I got one or two, then I gave up

everything but breathing.

I tried the lacy pants, but they itched.

What is a girl, anyway?

Seen this way, gendering is uncomfortable, inessential, and mystifying—a conundrum that cannot be resolved by a change of genitalia or wardrobe. It is also subject to being misread, as in “Princess & Salt (A Ballad),” when Roy’s speaker mentions, parenthetically, “I found out one of my dream girls was a boy.” In “Snow Instruction,” a nameless girl answers the question of identity, explaining “‘A girl is a small idol nested in the body. Gnarled & coiling her teeth—’” She is not, like language, undergoing a physical transformation for final discharge in a new form. Instead, she must forever hover within as an agonized object of worship, a divine parasite. She is like a caterpillar that will never be a butterfly but must stay trapped in its cocoon, only in this case the cocoon is the body.

That state of permanent immaturity is notable in a text occupied primarily by girls and never by women. Little Red Riding Hood, the essential girl, appears in the poem “Red Hood.” She makes a claim for universal corporality, crying, “My body is every body.” That position is apparently unconvincing to the (male) wolf, who devours her, an event she later regrets finding “beautiful.” Some believe that the Little Red Riding Hood story was intended to warn young girls about the threat of devious sexual predators. These darker undertones permeate Roy’s poem, as the wolf refers to “spicy red lips,” that are “flapping apart” before “His one accurate art performs/ like a tongue, splitting right from left.” In the context of this book, “Red Hood” suggests the clitoris, itself cocooned, and the brief and regrettable pleasure Red Hood finds in her own consumption points to the preposterousness of the girl’s centuries-old socially prescribed position—to fear sex and then, when forced into it, to love it. Given the book’s title, I cannot help wondering if Little Red would have been the victor rather than the victim of the story if she had been differently gendered, like that other Hood, he of Sherwood Forest. Yet the image of the consumed or cocooned girl locked inside a body is a contrast to the girl who in “Lucky Fortune Is Good” transcends her body to become a bird, emerging from the unnamed Garden of Eden as a poet. The dangers and limitations of girlhood can, with luck, be escaped.

As the speaker of “Crime Story,” remarks, “every story I love disappears before its end.” Such is corporality. I am at the edge of my proverbial seat (with or without handcuffs) when I arrive at the final poem, “Parade,” in which Roy writes:

I love the cloud

around speech

we call the body …

House of sensation.

Built crud wrapper.

The body is a flimsy warped structure functioning at the service of speech. Again, language assumes a religious significance as I recall the Biblical take on bodily impermanence—but “Built crud wrapper” is somehow much more compelling than “dust.”

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Lauren Russell is the author of the chapbooks Dream-Clung, Gone (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2012) and The Empty-Handed Messenger (Goodbye Better, 2009). She is an M.F.A. student at the University of Pittsburgh.