Barrelhouse Reviews: Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis

Review by Megan Egan

Northwestern University Press, 2015

Northwestern University Press, 2015

In her book Horse in the Dark, Vievee Francis expresses frustration at the limits places of our past can put on us, saying: “I want a release from the pasture of my youth.” In her newest book Forest Primeval, she responds to this “anti-pastoral” by making herself indefinable and limitless: shedding her skins and transforming into wolf spiders and creeping ivy.

Throughout Forest Primeval, there is a struggle between fantasy and reality, memory and imagination. While Francis continues to try to build boundaries between the landscapes of her past and present, the past continues to haunt her, like the ever-present wolf, licking the doorknob. Even as the speaker inhabits cities, the pastoral continues to find its way into her scenery. Her poems jump from personal experiences to myths, family narratives to ekphrases. The tidy boundaries between self and world disappear, melding together into a fantastical hybrid forest-city.

The “I” of Francis’ poems is constantly transforming from Beauty to Beast, Wolf to Red Riding Hood, Frankenstein to the Wild Swan. By placing her personal narrative in a tradition of archetypal stories, Francis speaks to the human experience at large. By juxtaposing personal narratives with narratives of mythology, surrealism and fairy tales, Francis challenges us to question the division between ourselves and the stories we tell.

Through the formation of this collective memory, we are compelled to ask: is there really a difference between the landscapes we physically live in and the ones we mentally inhabit through storytelling? Francis demands that we push beyond boundaries of race and gender, expand our definitions of ideas of the “pastoral” and “beautiful,” traveling through a topography that integrates all the complexities of our experiences, memories and folklore.

Meg Eden's work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Poet Lore, and Gargoyle. She teaches at the University of Maryland. She has four poetry chapbooks, and her novel "Post-High School Reality Quest" is forthcoming from California Coldblood, an imprint of Rare Bird Lit. Check out her work at: