It’s a rare writer that can make a book about death pleasurable, and yet Jennifer Firestone’s third poetry collection, Gates & Fields, is nothing if not just that. Firestone writes poetry that breaks through the noise of the political moment and our short attention spans to pull us into wider but ever-present human concerns, reminding us that art is necessary for living. More curious than elegiac, with echoes of Steinian repetition and exactitude of sound, these poems search for the language and music to map out grief, as they explore metaphors, modes, and mythological frames for dying.
Gates & Fields resists settling into any one relation to death, and instead opens up various narrative registers for encountering it. At its center, the book offers the refusal to accept an already-formulated understanding of loss that lies at the heart of the experience of grief. This refusal is by its very nature unyielding, in that it is open-ended and one is always in relation to it. These spare poems shimmer in that spaciousness with their nuance and subtlety.
Gates & Fields opens with the epigraph, “The Carriage held but just Ourselves—,” a line from the famous Emily Dickinson poem “Because I could not stop for Death,” otherwise known as poem 479. Coming after the book’s dedication to four loved ones who passed away during a four-year period (2006-2009), the invocation of Dickinson converts the poem into a vehicle for a road trip with death. If the poem is the carriage, our conveyance toward and through death, it also signals the impossibility of emerging on the other side. We remain, as in the Dickinson poem, where time stops, forever traveling past “fields of grazing grain.”
The “field” is a lens through which to metaphorize death, alongside the idea of a gate or latch: the dividing line between life and whatever comes after. The first section, “Gates,” turns on the Judeo-Christian idea of death; in asking “What might it be?” the poems imagine both the graveyard and the heaven it conjures:
This place previously in a vision Wet pen drawn at the line
A place religiously tied religiously religiously
A person, place or thing
Bring they pebble or they flowers or thy inscription
Bring bring bringeth your love
Dear ones bringeth your love
Ashes to trees
Firestone follows this traditional imagining of heaven with the recognition that our culture’s commodification of the afterlife renders it too knowable:
This place a concrete place
A place to be bought and sold
A place or stationary object
Yet, in the next section, “Fields,” this “place” spreads out in front of you as far as you can see; “A lineless horizon with no individual markings.” In imagining death as presence without “individual markings,” we begin to understand that the book replaces the absence of certainty with wonder. Firestone uses the idea of the “field” to open up the unending process of meaning-making that happens when one is faced with the unknown, the place where we make symbolic meaning. The poems recall equally Robert Duncan’s “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” and Charles Olson’s idea of the space of perception as a field (“That field is large, relational, in the sense of operative, and alive,” Robin Blaser writes of Olson). While enacting Olson’s ideas of perception, the poems at the same time engage in a version of his open-field placement on the page.
Presently attend to this whole space Not a designated marker
Perhaps presently attending The field fills eyes
With what is not seen the field is busy
These poems use “field” as both a character and a generator of meaning. In the refusal to settle on one image, Firestone’s imaginings are in motion, suffused with sound, are sound itself: “The field sings.” Most importantly, she writes:
The field signifies the field.
This line is an acknowledgement of the wondrous possibilities of signification in language. However, it is also a disavowal in that it refuses to make use of language’s symbolic function, insisting on the desire for the word to be an object. The refusal here points to the way that absence is at the heart of all signification. We want words to be the things they signify, as we want the dead to be their names, something we can speak and make appear.
Firestone’s poems also consider the mythological understanding of death as a return to nature, a notion crystallized in the section titled “Leaves.” The old English word leaf, as in a plant leaf or foliage, or the page of a book, derives from the German laub or leub: to peel off, strip or break off. Leaves are named for their act of detaching, and for the moment of death when they materially transform. Leaves leave and that is why they are leaves. So named, their bodies are reifications of that moment of death. And yet their deaths are glorious, transforming the landscape so utterly that we have named an entire earthly season after leaves, after their eponymous act of falling.
From falling leaves to failing bodies: Firestone gently registers the uncanniness of the dying body; it is both ever-present and already receding into memory. She renders the horror of witnessing death through the ecological, where death is a natural process and the poem a nature scene. When she writes: “Food shoots through pipes / Whitened / The moss laying bare its body,” whether you read the mechanical “pipes” as intestines or hospital tubes, they are part of an embodiment revealed by “moss,” a plant that usually covers over other flora. In reminding the reader of the body as a part of nature , Firestone does not turn away from death, or making it pretty, achieving a delicate balance. And yet, though the body dies, something still lives on in nature, in myth: a Demeter-like “She”: “She bringing her hands through the field.” The ghosts live on, the grieving live to listen for them, and these poems, like leaves in Fall, color the landscape glorious.