Going Farther into the Woods than the Woods Go
by Seaborn Jones
Mercer University P, $15.00 59 pp.
Seaborn Jones’s third full-length collection, Going Farther into the Woods than the Woods Go, winner of Mercer University Press’s Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry, is a dark book. The poems are acute, diamond-clear, but dizzying in their refusal to meddle in the perfunctory—they are very serious poems with hints, here and there, of the darkest humor. These are poems with purpose, written, quite clearly, out of genuine suffering, a suffering borne of existential terror and terror of the self—but also of vestigial trauma that simply cannot and will not be culled from the poet’s psyche. Nonetheless, this collection is not monotone—it’s vivid, sometimes humorous, remarkably original, and, quite simply, an excellent read.
Going Farther is divided into three sections: the first, which focuses on (and denies) the self; the second, a collage of war and violence, rife with apocalyptic imagery; and the third, the most lyrical section, rooted deeply in surreal tableaus. These sections work very well as self-contained narratives but together provide a momentum, tonal variety, and readability rarely found in full-length works.
The opening poem, “My Life Is a Getaway Car in Reverse” begins
The weather runs a fever. Triple digit moons.
I’m equatorially confused. My hair is already dead.
Road rage in the kitchen. Serrated verbs.
Concentric voices. Double-barrel blue eyes.
and continues with this staccato intensity, this muscularity. However, there is a hovering anxiety, an ever- present danger here, a terror of the self presented less obliquely in the book’s second piece, “Looking for a Safe Place to Die,” in which the “[d]ay breaks like glass.” Here, the narrator baldly proclaims, “I’m in love with fear.” One of the poem’s concluding lines proves plangent, resonant: “I feel like a fool for having made so many wishes.”
Jones’s poetry laments the vapidities and shallowness of the platitudes in which we delude ourselves and longs, instead, for painful truth, and for the fear that truth engenders. “Drought” begins
I’m tired of the relentless blue sky
the perfect circle of yellow sun
that says, “Smile, be happy like me.”
Not to mention the woman in the waiting room
telling her daughter to “be the best that she can be.”
What might strike as mean-spirited and misanthropic is instead a yearning for empathy, for symbols that correspond to the poet’s reality. This requires the poet to desire total control, if only to create a world that reflects his fatigue: “I want to be God so I can bring a safe, gray sky / that holds soft rain until / a crescent moon says, ‘I, too, am tired.’” The poet yearns for the nightmare of clarity, where the body ages, wears thin, and fecundity gives way to decay. As the narrator opens in “Solstice,” “The world is turning / into winter and / I am a winter man.” Winter, season of cold wind, gray skies, and weak sun, affords the poet a reprieve from his shadow, his reflection, a theme later explored more directly with images of mirrors, as in “Maybe Tomorrow”:
will make the heart
I’ve gone for days
in a mirror
but shake my head
refuse eye contact
The narrator will not confront the self, and in “All My Life,” the poem that follows, the poet suggests that “All mirrors agree that I am worthless.” Mirrors become demonic, conspiratorial, predatory and thus the poet locks the possibility of his reflection in closets when he goes to bed, buries them in his backyard, hides them behind walls. The self runs from self here, as though the poet’s ghost pursues his corporeal form. Even in “Finding One’s Self,” one of the more lighthearted and humorous pieces in this collection, the narrator proclaims that he “ha[s] a bone / to pick // with myself” and if he ever encounters that self, he’ll “give myself // a piece of / my mind.” Whether pursuing or fleeing his reflection, the poet is always at odds with the self.
Other especially beautiful—and sometimes severe—poems in this first section include “Holding a Séance for Myself before I Die,” “Without a License,” and “Berlin,” the lattermost another poem whose narrator aspires to godliness, though through the medium of sugar cubes. This poem is particularly imaginative and rich.
The second section of the book opens with “Communiqué,” here in its entirety:
The shadow of the sun crosses the desert.
The oasis is covered with land mines.
The mirages are on fire.
A veil of smoke covers the moon.
Mimicking the limpid minimalism of shorter Japanese poetries, the war images shunt the peaceful first line into a realm of danger, where even what is imagined, the mirages, are being destroyed.
“Refugees” resonates and stuns with stanzas such as “Families are fragmented like grenades. / We fled with only the things we were unable to carry.” This explosive opening culminates in coldness and silence where “Snow-bones covered the landscape,” and leaders are left speechless. Violence in this section extends even to the natural world itself, as in “Have a Nice Day”:
The sun is decapitated
from the sky.
It falls and
rolls across the desert.
The executioner holds it up
by its fire of hair.
The photographs are blinding.
Its eyes remain open,
its mouth as if
about to speak.
In “Empty Canteen,” yet again, the self is obliterated, though this time, dissolved as a form of nourishment:
holding his helmet
filled with rainwater
drinks his reflection.
Other especially powerful poems in this section are “Stop,” a piece about how war demands the self-murder of sensitivity and nostalgia for home, and the highly disturbing “Across the River,” where “Their dogs / have been set on fire. / Their children / sold into slavery.” Houses are now ash, wells filled with blood, and the only possible sustenance is the phalanx of parasites that feed on the dead. This poem, not only nightmarish, proves apocalyptic, and calls to mind an irrecoverably dead world.
The third section, while still somber, moves the narrative into the most lyrical of the collection. “Do Not Read this Poem until You Have Finished Reading It” speaks of the futility of planned futures and celebrates being “caught in the beauty” of the spontaneous. “Directions” is particularly beautiful and surreal, wherein “wind sharpens itself / on a man’s face,” wherein rain is imbibed from wooden bottles and flowers are eaten, and the exhaled petals take the form of a child. The ending, which I will not spoil, reflects the idea that the narrative itself is not always the key to beauty, that images that populate can give a poem its momentum, and that the poem can end on a note of indecision, of opposing realities rather than unified vision.
The title poem, “Going Farther into the Woods than the Woods Go,” is the most lyrical in the book and reveals the poet capable of subtlety and deft sonic texture, even as the voice is still clear, easy to follow. This poem is, to my mind, the most beautiful in the book, and for that reason I will refrain from quoting any of its lines. It is enough to say, simply, that the poet seems finally at piece as he observes the natural world from his window (a poetic cliché Jones’s vision makes original), even as his mind catalogues the possibilities for this world, an earth so close that he considers joining it, obtaining, finally, a self he can live with.
Mellifluousness and craft-cleverness are not the points of the poems in Going Farther into the Woods than the Woods Go. They are poems about helplessness, pain, and mortality. They are poems frightened of the self and addicted to fear. They deny any notion that a platitudinous culture will quell these mainstays of a sensitive and traumatized human mind. Jones’s poems seem a fusion of Forrest Gander’s luminous acuity, William Carlos Williams’s economy, and Franz Wright’s obsession with the self’s psychological fragility and consequent darkness. Nonetheless, Jones’s book achieves its own voice immediately, singing with a slight dissonance, denying easy harmony, and buzzing in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed.