Sherwood Forest by Camille Roy

Camille Roy’s Sherwood Forest, from FuturePoem is a startling book of poetry.

While Sherwood Forest is not mentioned anywhere in Roy’s book, it serves as a fitting title. It demarcates a space of revolt, both mythic and potential. Sherwood is, of course, the forest in the legends of Robin Hood, the earliest of which seem to derive from the 12th century. In Sherwood, Robin—in the early versions of the myth a commoner, only later a nobleman who is deprived of his land and title—is an outlaw who plots and conducts acts of revolt, re-scripting the social order by robbing the rich to give to the poor. We might argue that the figure of Robin as outlaw is problematic given that in most versions of the legend he serves as a loyal subject of King Richard the Lionhearted. So, his revolt against the established order ends up being temporary and contingent. The politics of our time has secured—apparently permanently—wealth and power in the hands of the very few: “As of 2007, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth” (Domhoff. “Who Rules America”).

Roy’s titling of her book Sherwood Forest mobilizes this history, these associations. Roy has said that her book is the forest. Instead of a band of Merry Men, Roy’s Sherwood is chock full of brassy girls, queer subjects, and a variety of marginal characters. Her writing is Rabelaisian, carnivalesque, full of shit and sex, murderous desires, and yet one that opens out onto something generous.

Sherwood Forest begins with two epigraphs that are also suggestive. One is from Will Alexander’s “Singing in Magnetic Hoofbeat” and it reads:

“Revolt is its bread, its exclusive respiration, its soil. From this evolves its sinews, its glinting explorational fiber. This being the mode of its disruptive English, its anti-memorials, its slow motion lighting…”

The second is from J.C. Johnson’s “Black Mountain”:

“I’m bound for Black Mountain, me and my razor and my gun. Gonna cut him if he stands still and shoot him if he runs.”

Johnson was born in Chicago (where Roy grew up) and his song “Black Mountain Blues” was recorded by Bessie Smith.

The choice of these epigraphs, like those that precede some of the poems themselves (from writers and artists such as Celine, Blanchot, Simone Weil, and Arnold Kemp), is significant. The book begins with quotes from Black artists who cite revolt, and who sometimes use language wrought from figures of hyperbolic violence. These two quotes also speak to historical struggles and violence in the world, but also suggest the linguistic pleasures of high and low diction, disruption, sexuality, the figure of the outlaw, and eroticism. They also provide possible architectures for exploring feeling. Roy will add to this mix, the thrills of the way her writing takes her readers in; you are caught in a snare from the get-go.

The first poem “My Play” begins

You are dead, imagine it.
So I should speak as one possessed,
grim & miraculous. Your word startles
the process: killer.

…The unborn occupy the dead, like some relationships.
Still, the appalling, almost feverish discomfort we cause each other—
this is our science story, which I place
in the safe deposit of your butch heart.

Our audience arrives as voyeurs with a wish, a natural desire
to be transformed into masochists. Not because they want to be
overwhelmed by suffering; quite the contrary. They seek an actual
possibility, not an actualized one.
Yet they suffer from the fact that the body is effeminate (that the asshole
is speaking).
This isn’t shit, it’s poetry.
Shit enters into it only as an image.

…My rather elastic neck droops, hips flatten, skeleton begins its grin.

But it has a bad smell, this play: the aroma of nothing happening.
Then I become aware of the theatrical quality of sex shows, porn, politics.
“The show” is everywhere. Theater is a quality
not a place.

…I want to write Eileen but I’m feeling guilty, I’m too high.

I fold my muscles into wads and sleep soundlessly.
I can’t remember my dreams, they crumble a soft cake.
A picnic with Carla. She brings rosemary bread and surprising pistachios.
She reads to me about utopias.
So touched and happy I float right up into the sky.

This opening poem initiates the reader into the poem’s play, where roles are shifting. The reader is a voyeur but also made a participant, strapped into the game of playing dead, until perhaps she realizes that the poem both speaks to her and is also a dialogue between two others, the “I” of the poem and the “you” with the “butch heart,” but it is already too late. The game has been entered and the poem will speak of us, its readers in the third person : “Not because they want to be/ Overwhelmed by suffering; quite the contrary.” The poem asserts that “ They seek an actual/ Possibility, not an actualized one,” suggesting that it is the theater of the poem itself and possibility per se, not some imagined “real” referent outside its words that its readers are after.

Words, in fact, elsewhere in a poem entitled “Cinderfella” will be called “voyeurs” themselves:

“We have to get to work,
stopping for soldiers & checkpoints
as we stumble over those
voyeurs called words” (8).

The opening poem gives readers a peek into the obsessions, pleasures and violences the rest of the book will explore: death and the dead, aging, masochism, voyeurs, the eerie turning of the poem’s tables, so that the reader is both taken in and ejected out of the poems themselves; there’s story’s relation to S/M, theatricality, feeling, the problem of plot, the beauty of lines like “the safe deposit of your butch heart.”

Roy’s book is full of lush and arresting language. She continually surprises and disarms her readers—and that is hard to do. In her poem “Crime Story” she writes:

“Cool moist air enveloped my skin. Nature so almost perfect. I saw the camellia bush right under my window, hot pink blooms amidst dark leaves that shone like washed dishes” (29)

and later,

“I went to my room. I scraped my cunt until I came…Outside my
window brilliant pink camellias nodded in the dark” (31).

There’s something about the beauty and exactness of description of the camellia leaves “that shone like washed dishes” juxtaposed with lines like “I scraped my cunt” that is wonderfully jarring—The unexpectedness and violence of “scraped” and the way the scraping of cunt is repeated several times.

This poem continues to explore the themes of masochism and sado-masochism that recur throughout and that have to do with the structure of the book and its projects, its exploration of narrative across language, character, theme, gender, sexuality, boundaries of all sorts, discreet and indiscreet poems!

“I perceive this as a problem…feelings have a structure, which is not sentiment. Certain emotions are structurally sadomasochistic—for example, suspense. Even now, writing this, I feel that pained warp, as though someone whipped my brain tissues…Last time we had sex my beloved made me sit still, which got me so hot I could hardly stand it. It was one of those times I felt ravaged by love” (31)

“Restraints seem to promise that someday the body will arrive, which means I’m waiting for something real: orgasm confirmation: of belief. I’m still waiting! waiting…” (19)

The following linguistic gems occur in a series of epistolary poems between two characters, Camille and Lucy: 
“I read somewhere that dialog is tongues-in-a-nest” (40) and “that’s my feeling. It’s invented & pleasurable & underage” (41)

Or from “The History of the Slut in My Relationship”:

“That sentence
is a sort of dildo” (47)

But as I said, these poems have a generosity too, one that makes itself felt particularly here:

“I love the cloud
Around speech
We call the body…
House of sensation.
Built crud wrapper”    (“Parade” 74).

And here:

“As Scott talks, he’s witnessing, & I am thrust in his life. We have some affinity that’s bloody—genetic. Back in the swarm of old Kentucky days we gnawed on the same bone…Now isn’t that a strange thing to think. I must be in a mood. It’s the methods he tells me about. Though they’re not the point. The information hurts my tissues. The air I breathe contains it. Scott leans back, dazed. Smell of black coffee on his breath” ( “Artifact” 72).

I want to leave you with one last poem because it is another piece that performs that magic of taking the reader into the poem as it rewrites Little Red Riding Hood:

Red Hood

Little Red skips through the outback
trailing a red balloon:
I-trial, her floating word.
When she crosses the stream
she falls in.
Tumult under the bridge.

Worlds withdraw from the rushing water.
Names & letters: goners—
With Little Red tumbling after,
To the beat of her grass heart
As all roads disappear
& ruin geometry.
Alone, without politics,
She’s swept from mother to night.

My body is every body, she cries,
Startling a wolf.
“Your proper being is potential,”
he corrects, taking up a trot
along the shore. Other words
of his bad conscience:
“Poor little chick!
Hiding behind spicy red lips.”
(Flapping apart
neither will be saved).

Your house of skin is all wind,
          Sings the wolf, as he swims.
My body is every body,
          She cries, again & again.

O tender bite—!
His one accurate art performs
like a tongue, splitting right from left
in flat out songs.
Finally snacking on the grass heart
(even as she still squeals)
he is no longer embarrassed.
Distrust, disconnection, dishonesty—
he licks the dishes. Takes a nap.

Little Red regrets how she did love it
Or not exactly.
As reddish puckers, the ballerinas,
melted into her skin, our red
mistress tasted throat burger.
Wolf story gleamed under her cloak.
It was so beautiful, that minute.

The “our red” and “wolf story gleamed under her cloak,” subtly rework the entire poem and mark our complicity, seem to let us in on its project, its secret, even if it is hard to say what that is. Delicious.

Camille’s book will be out soon and you can catch her reading with Robert Gluck for the Poetry Center at San Francisco State on Thursday, April 14th. The reading will be held at the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco.

“Bob” appears in a number of places in Roy’s book, including in her thanks where Roy acknowledges that this book “is the product of a context….San Francisco.” She writes: “The Bay Area writing scene has been a rich source of friendships and intellectual life.” Roy singles out Gluck when she writes: “I would like to especially thank Robert Gluck for making me a better writer, and for all the dimensions of our long association.” A line/quote attributed to “Bob” in Roy’s poem “Properties of Criminal Girls in the String Universe” is another delight: “A secret of life is that it’s fine to be dead. Getting there is the problem” (65).


Interviews with Camille:

I interviewed Camille in "Torquing the Erotics of Attention," in November 2008 here, and in Poetry Flash in 1991. A reprint of that interview "Words in the Mouth" is available here.

You can read an excellent three-part interview that Michael Cross recently did with Camille here:

Part I here

Part II here

Part III here

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