Review of A Door in the Forest, by Yve Louis.
By Tara Walker.
At the beginning of A Door in the Forest, Yve Louis includes an abbreviated definition of forest from renowned philologist Walter William Skeat’s An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language:
Forest. (F.- L) O.F. forest. - Late L. forestis, free space of hunting ground; foresta, a wood […] – L. foris, out of doors; adv. Allied to L. fores, doors.
This dictionary definition provides a kind of map though the book: the evolution of the forest from hunting ground to a wood, then to out-of-doors … and then to doors themselves. In A Door in the Forest, the woods are both hunting ground and refuge: the forest is out-of-doors, within doors, and through doors. The conceptual locus of the forest is ripe with fairy and folk tale allusions, and Louis maneuvers deftly through this rich history.
Not unlike the evolving definition of the word forest, Louis’ collection morphs and changes; meanings build upon meanings, as layers on/of the forest floor. Throughout this journey travels the thread of both story and poem—each is a character in the book’s developing world. The opening poem Story describes a mischievous narrative, running wild through the woods, leading “the player” on an unrestrained chase. The poem is formatted in italics, except for the one central line: “Which path? Which path is the story of me!” Presumably this voice is the player herself, trying to navigate the “maze of riddler trees.” Louis peppers her poems with these lines in italics, picking up the thread of the voice that calls “Catch-me-catch-me-if-you-can.”
The final poem, and book’s namesake, A Door in the Forest, caps this chase that sustains itself throughout the work. In this final poem, the reader—the searcher—is told that there is no retreat from the chase because “the way closes behind in tangles/of detour and cul-de-sac.” The voice of the first and last poems seems to come from the forest itself, a sage-like being possessing an omniscient perspective of human narrative.
Throughout the collection, the reader is lead into the stories of both mythological and historical figures—Louis involves everyone, from Hansel and Gretel, to Nietzsche. By telling these stories, Louis brings the struggles of these characters to life, however she also brings the writer’s struggle to life—the battle to keep creating in a world that keeps pressing the act of creation into small, restrained spaces. In Lost, the Brothers Grimm are confronted by Hansel and Gretel, who thank the men for writing them out “of that old witch’s place back there!” The Brothers, conversely, bemoan this confrontation with their characters:
Jakob grieves: What have we created here?
What innocence destroyed?
The poet seems to grieve along with them, and in the final line she notes the loneliness of the writer’s endeavor: “For those who write a world, never to find a home.”
Louis offers a moving but delicate empathy for writers, artists and thinkers who feel left behind, misunderstood or under-represented. In Euripides Among the Athenians, Louis describes the playwright as an unappreciated visionary:
with solemn wit
their theatre sports
thin coins of applause spatter
/no one relishes
your thrusts to the heart
The poem also characterizes Euripides as having the last laugh, showing his toughness by walking away. He is described as a kind of ancient Greek rebel-without-a-cause:
/the rip in your jeans
Chaim Gantar Abandons the Song of Himself, is another poem which pulls metaphors and characters out of their familiar and original contexts and places them in new, semi-disturbing ones. The poem references Whitman’s Song of Myself, but as Louis writes in her notes, it “answers Whitman in the negative of totally different circumstances.” Gantar struggles with his identity, his self, his soul:
soul? here soul
aspires to nothing but its own
jigging in time
sans hair, sans teeth, sans everything
but the burden of memory:
Louis pulls in the famous Shakespeare quote from As You Like It, (a play set primarily in the forest) as homage to canonic literary tradition, but also as a way of creating stark contrast. In Shakespeare’s play, the monologue from “Melancholy Jacques” is a cynical shadow amid a playful comedy. Gantar, on the other hand, is not a foil to other, happier characters, but is completely alone. While the new context Louis gives Song of Myself is not completely clear, references to the Jewish Holocaust ripple throughout the poem, and remark specifically on loss of identity. Despite this loss, the subject in the poem continues to survive, stripped of self, but not necessarily hope:
Yet, even here, a leaf will unfold
sudden, and green…
even now the heart will knock,
air still push from lungs, ribs, throat
to tear an old truth
stone’s shocked quickening -
I live, I wrestle with meaning.
In A Door to the Forest, to live is to wrestle with meaning—to follow an evolving and convoluted narrative that serves up, intermittently, moments of both terror and joy.
Underwater Flying, gives us a close-up on the “plateau years” of Henry Lawson, one of Australia’s best known early writers. The poem shows us the underbelly of Lawson’s fame his “crumbling reefs of a marriage,” his doomed attempt at giving up alcohol, the “verses he must flog for grub,” trying to escape “blunt-edged poverty.” Two of the important women in Lawson’s life—Bertha, his wife who separated from him in 1903, and Isabel, his landlady and benefactor—are given prominent roles in the poem; once again demonstrating Louis’ talent for giving voice to those history has rendered voiceless. By providing a close-up of a less than glamorous time in the writer’s life (for example, writing of Lawson slumped into poverty and depression in his later years despite his fame) Louis also gifts him a deep and relatable humanity and sympathy, and even the reader who knows nothing of Australian history can appreciate the shards of hope scattered at the end of the poem:
-then with a flourish for the grand finale-
sells the latest sketch.
And decides to live.
A Door in the Forest is a poetic and layered path through the thick, dense wood of folklore, fable and history. Sometimes playful and sometimes grindingly painful, Louis shows us the underside of the forest—the hidden places under leaves and brush, in the hollow trunks of trees and untold stories of human loss.