This Momentary World
Nine Mile Books, 2022
As a reader and owner of many Selecteds, I’ve pondered how to go about reading them. If the book is arranged chronologically from first book to most recent, what are the options besides reading from cover to cover, poem by poem (never skipping!) in some kind of effort to map out some sort of developmental arc? I often have felt opposite, tempted to read the last poem first and then to work backwards from there to see how far back I can go before the quality of the work peters out into the attentions and experiments of a greenie writer who hasn’t fully digested their influences but are full of promise.
Another way is to start in the middle, maybe with poems from the first individual book I have already read, not in the poet’s actual beginnings but those poems that I first personally encountered. In this sense, poetry books carry a mystique about them, taking us back to particular moments in time where we as readers and writers were also developing, we ourselves works in progress (not just the poets we were reading). Ever reread a book of poems, no longer loving the book as much as before for its craft and revelations but still relishing memories of the time when one first encountered said book and valuing the same book nonetheless? It’s easy to feel this way about songs, albums, films, such works of art framing and preserving old versions of our selves in quiescence. To skip chronology and first revisit poems from books we’ve loved in the past is another way.
I met Pamela (Jody!) Stewart back in the early Nineties when she was helping me to shepherd my own first book of poems into print at the Alice James Books Cooperative which at the time still made its home in Cambridge, MA. The press had already published Jean Valentine’s Selected called Home. Deep. Blue. New and Selected Poems in 1989 and had her next book, The River at Wolf, under contract. These two books by Jean Valentine made me fall in love with Alice James Books. I simply could not imagine ever having a book of poems of my own published at the same press. Alice James Books felt out of my league! Jody called me with the acceptance, letting me know how much she loved the manuscript I had sent in, how we would be working together if I chose to accept their offer and sign the contract. Her own book with Alice James called Infrequent Mysteries was just out.
In writing this review now, I realize there’s so much I could never know back then. How Jody Stewart and I would become friends, stay friends after our Alice James Books Cooperative commitment had run its course. In order to join the Coop, I had to pull up stakes and move to Massachusetts, matriculating at UMass Amherst and getting my first place out in the country in a tiny town called Montague. It was in Happy Valley that I met my husband to be (now husband of 30 years). Jody lived in a nearby town called Leverett. Her house had a moon room, a meditational space you had crawl up into via a ladder. I cannot read Jody’s poems now without bringing all my memories along. What I didn’t know back then was that Infrequent Mysteries would mark the midpoint of four decades of Jody’s writing. She ended up moving out to Hawley, MA, started up Tregeley Farms (a fiber farm) with her then husband, and even after their divorce, she’s still there now tending to her motley flocks and orphans and strays. I cannot read a single poem of Jody’s without such menageries milling about.
With all this backdrop, consider these lines from “The Ghost Farm” from 2010:
The horses have no use for fences.
The barn keeps itself clean
and heavy horses know their job.
When sheep jump, their fleeces fall away
skirted and ready for carding.
Wind blows dust from summer roadsides
into a lace which wraps the apple trees.
The ghost farm is the idea of a man
I loved one night. Our histories of whiskey and skin
drifting through one another
in the cool open-windowed air. (145)
Jody Stewart goes on to say that it’s in a landscape like this that we can find “its shadow / putting down roots in a newly plowed field.” This sense of time, with its haunted cyclings and re-cyclings, suffuses her tellings and retellings over long decades. Consider these lines from “Route 116 to Conway” from 1979:
I’d like in the hot backseat
of the Plymouth dreaming the car
leaped over each shadow
that crossed my cheek—from
air to pavement to air again! We’d
get there faster. One August morning
I sat up, sick from the drive,
and saw them on the long,
curved bank of the Mill River: six
little people, their house and barn,
two dogs and a cow. They waved
to me as surely as this white page
accepts ink. No one
believed me. Twenty years later I see
the people each day
while driving back from work.
I see them waving across fast water,
across icy banks in winter. (53)
If you do the math, if Jody Stewart were rewriting this poem today, she might have to say, “Sixty years later I see . . .” So much has changed, so little has changed. It’s strange to consider these compressed spaces of time that flow in and out of a Selected, entirely unintended except by way of temporal juxtapositions and happy accidents.
Seasoned by long experience in the same way the best fairytales are, Jody Stewart’s poems are equally fluent in Maiden and Crone. Her Selected reads like a “picture book” that we can turn “Page by Page”:
Most days this child forks the worst of the stained bedding
from the bred ewe’s fold, tipping her basket
onto the frozen pile out back. One day, caught in the straw:
a curved spine, wrinkled nut of a head, four hooves
all slathered red. Poor ewe bleating and turning.
Everyone cold or stuck in small enclosures:
a farm, its fold, the paperweight and page. So the wolf
steps into the white meadow beyond manure steam.
He smells the lamb’s blood. You smell it too as your hand
reaches for that cold jug of vodka hidden behind the family Bible. (138)
So many of Jody Stewart’s poems are Songs of Innocence and Experience folded into one. Neem Karoli Baba was fond of saying “Sub Ek” or “All Is One.” This collapse into the One can embody the concentrated shorthand wisdom we find in Zen koans. Consider this short poem in its entirety, “The Stupa That Lobsang Built”:
Wind has woken and lifts now
above its secret nest of stones.
Breath travels up the golden air
of a strict, but improving mind.
So many bright findings
and my beloved black cow in a doorway of light.
See? The mathematics of labor blesses everything,
gives it rest on the sure flat stones
which are not as still as they look. (144)
In such timeless spaces, we’re not surprised to find shifts of movement in apparent stillness, vertical time erupting through, even myth intruding, both Orpheus (90) and Eurydice (79) making cameos in her earlier poems, and Penelope in the much later “And Yet, Some Days Feel Different,” also from 2010:
There’s a lot of guys downstairs, noisy
and on her nerves. Anyway you look at it
one war rolls over into another.
Better to cut the warp and wind a new one.
Sometimes she thinks they’ve beaten her.
If she could run off, she would.
The river comes at her to point the way
but everyone calls her back.
Shear the lambs. Wash, card, spin. The key
to hell is under the mat,
the small lichen-dyed mat she wove as a bride
where the old dog sleeps. (143)
The mythic and the ordinary dissolve into one another, Ithaca as homey and comfy as Hawley, MA in the here and now. Afghanistan rolling over into Ukraine. Having had the privilege over many years to visit Jody’s farm, I’m astonished at how the ordinary gets transformed in her extraordinary poems. Here’s a short poem from 2014 in its entirety called “Almost Singing”:
Under her breath, she rummages for Christmas.
She pauses to watch the snow and thinks of sin and its wolf prints
on the slope back down to the barn. But that was then—
Yes, there’s always then and now and the snowscapes of in-between.
Her breath catches. Never bury a child far from the house. Smoothing
that red wool sticking stretched at the toe, she holds it to her cheek.
Never bury a child where she can’t hear you singing. (151)
Strange to think of this Selected, This Momentary World, sitting like a snow-covered graveyard where the dead lie buried, perhaps thawing into Spring, only to freeze back over again where Jody’s farm “perches solid and cheerful / on the north side of Hog Mountain,” our Poet Prophet tending to her daily chores “feeding goats, sheep, chickens, dogs— / the buckets and shovels / and always that thin architecture / of envelopes, papers, checkbooks, pens”—an accounting of this mundane world made in her poem “Daily.” All the while, the ghosts on her farm that she must contend with welcoming her (and us) with mortal arms, informing all of her tasks as our Poet bears witness to life’s rich repast:
As I work I feel the distinctly
different nipple of my radiated breast beneath my shirt.
Though the scars begin to fade, the skin
stays blushed and tender.
For eight dragon chemo months
I did few chores. There still are smells
which sicken me: diesel, tea tree oil,
dog and human shit. And scented dryer sheets!
I’m ecstatic now to have an inch of hair!
Most days were quite okay.
Nausea just another kind of job.
Today I’m joyous in the barn,
mucking out or sorting fleeces. Daily
I salute the funny numbness in my arm:
its freedom of the now I’m in—
glad for chocolate, dogs, for daily breath
and the extending hills beyond. (135)