“Tethered between worlds”: A Review of Vievee Francis’s Forest Primeval

Christian Bancroft

By inverting the phrase, primeval forest, the title of Vievee Francis’s newest collection of poems, Forest Primeval, foreshadows the kinds of spaces readers will inhabit, inviting us to consider worlds previously unimaginable; that is, until we experience Francis’s bold, intelligent, and necessary poems. Just like the title’s inversion suggests, we enter these poems on Francis’s terms, which leave us feeling as though we’ve begun an intimate, hallowed exchange with them.

In this collection, Francis considers this body across place—fictional and realistic, and even the body’s relationship to forms outside of itself. “All the Fuss over a Rose” considers the importance of the rose in Cocteau’s film, La Belle et la bête: “It was not simply a vehicle,” Francis writes, “to get from point A, the Beast, to point B, the non-Beast.” The rose, though, “did what roses do in time…it withered,” and by the end of the poem, Francis wonders how Beauty will “please the Beast” and to “not be the cost,” as though Beauty herself might become what the rose once was: dowry.

The relationship between Beauty and Beast is a motif throughout Forest Primeval, and is not mere discord (or even accord), but something more complex and interdependent. As with her first book, Horse in the Dark, Francis again considers the sum total of the human body, but also the parts of our bodies: “How much of the human being is beast?” she questioned in an interview with the Indiana Review in 2012. “On the Last Day” asserts that “Monsters will feast upon Beauty / as they have always done,” though towards the end of the collection, the poem “Beast and the Beauty” has Beast singing songs that sound like “birds singing in the sycamore,” while he acts as “a good mother,” holding Beauty “like a daughter.” The distinction between Beauty and Beast, Francis indicates, is not as clear as we would like to believe.

Francis moves comfortably between reality and fairy tales, superimposing one space onto the other, and, in the process, considers the role of the body—most often, the role of the female body. In “She Whose Brothers Turned to Swans Pleads Her Case,” Francis envisions Elisa, from Andersen’s The Wild Swans, presents her defense to the crowd that has come to watch her burn at the stake. Her “fate” measured by the “woolen albatross, dunked and forgotten…aching to float up.” The poem en face, “Still Life with Dead Game,” considers a woman’s body “tethered between worlds,” and with other poems like “Skinned,” Francis addresses the black female body, a body “shadowed, in a sunstruck field.”

Her poem, “Black River,” pushes that body closer to the edge, in which a woman thinks of throwing herself in the river, believing she “had a mind to become someone acceptable.” While these women desire some form of social approval or consent—despite their bravery and prowess—other poems vocalize this power more frankly: “No gold comb can move through / This mane,” the speaker in “Chimera” declares, “My skin is not translucent. / Mine is a tail to fear,” she continues. These female speakers, however, do not exist in a vacuum; they have a history, whether it’s Snow White and her “dirty smock / upon which seven sets of smudged fingerprints rested” or the speaker—presumably Francis herself—in “Husband Fair” who reflects on her ancestral lineage, “from that woman / not so distant, who never went anywhere beyond a field of bolls.”

There is nothing “distant” about Francis’s collection; it feels immediate, and immediately crucial. These poems, and the speakers within them, draw us closer into their ubiquitary and charged, multivalent spaces, laying “still as an invitation.”