In her debut collection, Ida Stewart offers readers a soundscape that is both playful and deadly serious in its love of our language and its concern for the poet’s place of origin—the West Virginia mountains. Gloss weaves these thematic strands into poems of praise and elegy that interrogate—sometimes directly, sometimes by suggestion—the changing Appalachian landscape and the multivalence of English speech. One of Stewart’s many gifts is the ability to push plain Appalachian diction to the level of high lyricism. “I’m floodplain folk—,” she says (in “The Bottoms”), “open arms and gasping / pores—drunk and fixing to drink / some more.” Her speakers are reverent and enraptured but never hollowly Romantic, a people “always in a fix / here, fixed, fixing, asphyxiating / on the basics” with “the mountain breathing down [their] necks.” The exhilarating sense of dread in these lines lingers on every page, tempered always by the physical delight Stewart’s sounds and rhythms can’t help but trigger.
Many poems in Gloss deal with the destructive mining practice of mountaintop removal. The result is a collection that is necessarily political but, thanks to Stewart’s deftness, never preachy, never self-righteous, and anything but self-pitying. Even at its most direct, Gloss chooses matter-of-factness over vitriol. Take, for example, the end of “Glossary: Tainted Words” (one of several “Glossary” poems in the collection):
To keep in an existing state;
to preserve from decline;
to uphold and defend;
to affirm in or as if in argument;
from the French
hand & to hold.
Even in this moment of dictionary-like seriousness, it is the soundplay of “mountain” and “maintain” that allows this poem its moving, associative resonance and pushes the tone from the impersonality of a glossary entry to the quiet intimacy of “hand & to hold.” While Stewart’s defense of her mountains can be, as here, calm and powerfully quiet, that is not always the case. She is not afraid to throw her voice into speakers whose words tumble out as urgently and frenetically as their thoughts, as we see in “The mountaintop refuses his advances,” one poem (reprinted below in its entirety) from a series of eleven portraits and monologues:
I need you like I need a hole in my heart
a soul in my head a hold in my hand and
sand in my bed a foal in my whale a flood
in my horse a toad in my ode a skoal in
my toast a hot coal in my throat a listen,
drop dead, you toll in my house for you for
whom I’ve bled infrared black and blue you
pistol-spit you stone-face you price on my
hide you violence purebred: I need you like
I need another vowel in my head another
hope in this hope-heap of hope upon hope
that becomes me my knoll my knoll-edge
my backbone my hymn-knell to this earth.
Even at her most playful, Ida Stewart brings deep feeling and serious insight to the page as she propels her readers from poem to poem. Gloss is a fast-moving book, but not for lack of substance, and Stewart’s variations in form and pacing ensure that the poems never run monotonously into one another. Alongside the glossary and text-block shapes seen above are poems such as “The mountaintop unmoored” and “The Family,” which make powerful use of short free-verse lines, short stanzas, and sound-mirroring in constructing the body of Gloss, as well as blank verse poems like “Subsidence” and “Salamander” and sonnets like “What Gives” and “Sum,” which are as strong and vital as bone.
Ida Stewart is a serious poet, and if she is playful it is a serious play, like Vygotsky’s, in which she engages—a play that blurs the real with the imagined until her imagination becomes our reality. That is exactly what Gloss does for us. For those who want to see how far the imagination can stretch words without sacrificing meaning, this is a necessary collection.
Ida Stewart. Gloss. Florence, MA: Perugia Press, 2011. Paper, 92 pp., $16.00.