A Walk Through The Woods with Linda Ferguson: A Review
By Corinne Shearer
After taking second place in their 2021 Chapbook Prize, Linda Ferguson’s Of The Forest is out now via The Poetry Box. Using the gestures of a fairy tale, this collection of poems tells the story of a family– Ferguson’s family, in fact. With the loose chronology of a coming-of-age story, we follow this narrator from her first breath – which was assisted with the “kiss” of a doctor who inflated her “pale lungs like dried petals”– through to adulthood where this speaker remains that “child of the forest” ever exploring, ever “unfurling.”
Ferguson makes clear from the first, prologue-like poem that we are going to hear a particular kind of story. Reminiscent of the start to many a fantastical children’s tale she tells us to “think small / insignificant / a twitch / a loose thread hanging from a hem…” She cautions, however, that there will be “no rising action / no villains twirling their mustaches… just a house with kitchen, television and couch…” and a lawn with “sprinklers, somersaults, sunburns…” Yet this “simple suburban story” is more than that, even in this first poem the world around the speaker is animate and leaning towards her as it does for the princess-protagonists in the fairy tales we know so well (though this speaker has a bit more savvy than the usual Disney darling.) This is a story that can only, it seems, be heard by Ferguson; in her words: “in the whisper of birch leaves… when / I’m listening.”
Of The Forest’s strength is its cohesiveness. The “loose thread” for us to tug, the fairy tale theme, pulls us through the collection and imbues everything with a kind of verdant magic, colors it in a glow of possibility which allows Ferguson to animate even the most ordinary details of life– a sister-in-law’s spelling error, for instance, causes the “proud capital F” of her maiden name to become “a wilted frond.” Like fairy tales where names and objects drip with significance, so it is with Of The Forest. Ferguson’s family name and the inspiration behind the collection’s title, DeForest, provides particularly rich ground for meaning. In the poem “née DeForest,” the name takes on the qualities of woodland beings like fallen logs “thick / with moss and mystery / of wild spores” or mysterious “bodies of claws and ink-striped fur / that crouch, / slink, / pounce / through feathered shadows / and strips of light.” Even here, with the name set loose, come alive in the forest, we can detect the notes of dislocation between the speaker and the name that will be revealed more fully in the poem “Why I, a Feminist, Took My Husband’s Scottish Name.” Here the family name becomes a metric for the state of the family, moving from an idyllic childhood with “clouds fluffy as white cakes” to the moment
“…the syllables began to stutter
and stink of sweat and fried eggs
and the white elastic of bra straps,
gripped my insides like menstrual cramps,
tasted like ground beef grayed in the hot skillet
then pressed between slices of gummy white bread,
damp from a single leaf of pale lettuce.”
Gone is the sense of wild freedom; in its place are things more artificial and more menacing. The experiences of the speaker’s adolescence have changed her relationship to her family name and her family: “Now DeForest was shoulders shrinking.” By the poem’s end, the speaker remains conflicted but is now defiant; she speaks of her desire to be “neither Ferguson nor DeForest,” to have her name “be the petal of a red, red rose / or the soft wool of a hunter green tartan warming cold bones / or maybe a giddy flag flinging its sky-blue arms in the breeze…” She never quite lands on what this “adopted name” might be, which fits with this speaker’s tendency to shapeshift from one poem to the next. The other characters in these poems are not exempt from such magic – her mother is identified as a “bird kept in a glass,” her two brothers are most often referred to as a little bear and a wolf – but the narrator herself is constantly changing. Most often she casts herself as a fox “darting across the page, / searching for shadows / between consonants and vowels” or as Gretel in the three-part poem sprinkled throughout the collection, “Hansel and Gretel and Johann.” The poems refuse to tell us the tale of Hansel and Gretel we know, invoking it only to tell us what we will not get: “No hunger, / No stepmother plotting to lose us in the woods… There was no witch. I’ve imagined one though.” What we get instead is a collage of experiences – good and bad – shared by the three siblings as they roamed the woods of their childhood. So, though we do not get any true fairy tale, Of The Forest does exactly what a fairy tale ought to do: it provides us with a lens by which to understand real life, sometimes from a safer distance.
Ferguson’s poems sometimes suffer from a certain vagueness. We get the sense over the course of the collection that some traumas have occurred, both real and imagined, but we are not given full access to them despite the speaker repeatedly offering us “the truth.” What is apparent is the enduring wedge between the speaker and the brother cast as the wolf/Johann. This oft-fractured relationship seems to occupy several of the poems in the collection; it is apparent that the speaker wishes to establish or re-establish some form of connection with this “blue-eyed wolf” of a brother. The prevailing question of the poem, “Some Questions I’ve Never Asked My Brother,” concerns itself with tenderness. Having been caught in an embarrassing moment by the brother, the speaker – not particularly ashamed or angry on her own behalf, just (many years later) sounding somewhat exhausted – asks: “Was there a name / of someone – a teacher, neighbor or friend – / who kindled tenderness and awe / in your narrow breast?” We might look at for further explanation of this relationship in the final section of “Hansel and Gretel and Johann” when we learn that it is this brother who seems to have first disrupted the innocent world of the speaker, prompting her to reflect: “Maybe innocence is a fairy tale woven / by shining spiders.” The love of the speaker for both brothers is evident, however, in the last stanza: “nothing to do, then, but wait for wolf and bear and fox / to reunite as a single constellation that flickers / on the shortest summer nights.”
Ferguson’s love is not limited to the family she grew up with; of the four “Love Songs” scattered throughout the collection, three are dedicated to her husband. The nature theme endures as an expression of the speaker’s interior, emotional landscape; speaking of his voice, she describes it as “all sprouts and fronds / and stirring seeds, laughing leaves, / echo of bells over the hills…” In “Love Song 3” she waxes lyrically about their life together: “We live in the forest of our hearts– / nest of moss and fern and oak / woven with the heathered lilt / of hills and whiskey and peat fires.” Unlike many fairy tales of old, Ferguson’s forest is not a threatening unknown looming in the distance, for her the forest is an expansive, amicable world that exists both within and without– and she is consistent in her use of nature this way, allowing her poems to wander like vines, intersect, and flower in surprising ways. Yet one poem of the bunch, crafted in the formal style of a pantoum, does not behave this way. “Alive and Well” uses the form’s strict, repetitive pattern to convey the uncertainty of the speaker as she wonders after a brother who now lives in another city. As the speaker cycles through hazy questions and memories of living under the same roof as this brother, the form reveals a greater poignancy: repetitions create relationships. Here, as in real life, what comes up is a mix of emotions both sweet and bitter, tender and distant, but the powerful nature of the siblings’ bond – of their routines together – becomes clear through multiple iterations; many a night must scenes such as this one occured: “Once he stood in our butterscotch-colored kitchen and taught me how to make everything from tomato soup to spaghetti.” In this way, the emotional significance of the poem is not revealed in its content but its movement.
Ferguson has a habit of using more metaphors than is needed – giving us three or four images where one would suffice and be, perhaps, stronger – but we might forgive it and see this tendency as an extension of the speaker’s explorative nature. Though curiosity sometimes gets the better of her as she turns an idea around several times as if to see it from several angles, we are forced into that state of unselfconscious discovery too. “Love Song 4” gives into this desire completely and it is the most effective for it. Following the titular poem which, maybe appropriately, is the most emotionally turbulent, “Love Song 4” seems to be dedicated to herself and to the reader. This final poem is an invitation,“come,” she writes, “let us grow organically from the fragrant forest soil / or from the green pond floor or in the endless field / of gas and dust of the atmosphere– let us flourish / where we’re planted, blown or roam– / let us astonish ourselves with unimagined / flowering.” It is no spoiler to give you the final lines of the collection, Ferguson builds to this moment of earnest optimism, arms thrown wide and welcoming to the reader, throughout the collection. Even when she prevaricates or denies us a story, there is a distinct sense of hospitality in her writing, an exuberance at having us along.
Over the course of the collection, Ferguson illuminates something special that both fairy tales and poetry share: the building of worlds. These are slower worlds, quieter worlds; worlds where one can lose oneself, turn away from the real and, often, incomprehensible for respite. Of The Forest is worth a read for the journey into this kind of space, where pleasures can be had, curiosities followed, and fears faced if only one takes the time to wander.
Corinne Shearer is OyeDrum Magazine’s Book Review Editor and an interdisciplinary artist based in New York City. She’s currently completing her MA in English Literature at The City College of New York. Corinne works predominantly in dance and theater as a performer, choreographer, and teaching artist. She’s been featured as an artist-in-residence at The Triple Nine Festival and named “Director’s Choice” at Spoke The Hub’s Winter Follies. She is also the founder and curator of Spitball, a performance series for artists of varying disciplines. She is currently accepting published or soon-to-be published books for review in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.