Marly Youmans’ new story in verse begins with an invocation of all that the world has forgotten, or tried to forget, in the name of being “realistic.” The first lines run as follows:
The wildwood holds the remnants of the past,
Strange ceremonies that the fays still love
To watch—the rituals of demon tribes
Who once played havoc with the universe,
And everything that says the world is not
Exactly what it seems is hidden here,
But also there are paths to blessedness.
All that follows in these pages hinges on the ambiguity created by that late line break: “everything that says the world is not / Exactly what it seems.” For, from these first lines on, we are drawn away from that common certainty that things like demons and fays are “not” into a world where “everything” is “not . . . what it seems,” and where all that we claimed no longer to believe lies hidden and waiting for us.
Along with Youman’s young protagonist, Seren, we are being invited into the “wildwood.” Drawing on the inspiration of J.R.R. Tolkien, Youmans has written not just a fairy tale, but a fairy story, by which I mean a story intended to rekindle in us a vision of the world where the demonic and the blessed lie in wait. To put it another way, she has invited us into the world as it actually is and as it would appear to us if we paid sufficient attention to the hidden presence of good and evil that shape our lives even when we pretend to disbelieve in them.
Like most fairy stories, the plot seems simple enough. A father speaks his “passions” too near the wildwood, complaining of his two reckless boys and wishing he’d had a daughter instead. Something hears and “something sees” this wish, and the boys wither away, while their mother feels a daughter “swelling” in her womb. The young girl, Seren, grows up playing and dancing about her brothers’ grave. While the parents clutch at their little girl to allay their grief, the now teenaged Seren climbs trees, hears the wood calling her name, and feels drawn to a destiny “unlike” that of “other, lesser girls.”
Seren is soon led off into the woods by a voice of “low, seductive music,” whose owner she calls, for lack of a better name, “Ariel.” Ariel murmurs fairy stories to her and the wildwood takes on an ever more enchanted and entrancing appearance. Though warned against this enchantment by the sudden appearance of a ragged girl named Lia, Seren ventures into the magical center of the wood as she climbs a tall tree.
When a bell clangs, she covers her ears, falls, and awakens to find herself captive. And not just captive. She will be the victim of a briefly described but no less brutal for all that rape. Ariel, now revealed as a god, along with his conspirator, an old gray king, will make her their “vessel” for a seed part god, part king, and part woman, in explicit echo of the ancient epic Gilgamesh, where we learn of the protagonist, “Two-thirds of him is god, one-third of him is human.”
The scene, while not violently narrated, is painful, and is the first moment that we realize Youmans’ fairy story is no child’s fairytale, no idyll of a little girl’s dream, but a recovery of the world as it appeared to the ancient authors of Gilgamesh and of Genesis, a place of giants and brutality, where goodness struggles to find a way.
In the aftermath, Seren sets out wandering on a journey deeper still into the wildwood, ever farther from home, and has a series of encounters with the strangers she finds there. She is led to some kind of recovery of all that she has lost, but not before she has also endured much suffering.
Youman’s has produced a story of which there is much to admire. In some ways, Seren echoes and overlaps Youmans’ impressive 2020 novel, Charis in a World of Wonders. Charis was a historical novel set during the American Indian conflicts of the late seventeenth-century. As its protagonist is forced to flee with her sister into the woods, during an attack on the family homestead, the historical setting becomes a place of unfolding signs and wonders of God’s providence. Seren is as it were the more timeless fairy story expression of such a plot. It takes place “once upon a time” and without any clear indication of when that time may have been. Youmans’ rich prose in Charis contrasts interestingly with her ambitious style of verse narration in Seren. The tale in verse is composed of sixty-one stanzas, each one functioning like a short chapter, and each stanza consisting of twenty-one lines of blank verse concluded by the short rhyme form known to readers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as the “bob and wheel.” (That is, except for stanza thirty-nine which seems to be missing two lines.) To offer one instance of this form, here is the conclusion of the sixth stanza:
Of starlight filled her dreams
With an enchanted glow,
Its otherworldly gleams
Dislodging gloom and woe.
Seren is a strange and, in a way, important book. Youmans here and in two other books of verse—The Book of the Red King and the Thaliad—has done contemporary literature an important service by aiding the renewal of narrative verse. Other poets have demonstrated the plausibility of the realist verse novel (as in David Mason’s Ludlow), the science fiction epic (Frederick Turner’s The New World, Genesis, and Apocalypse) and the thriller (Aaron Poochigian’s Mr. Either/Or). Youmans’ draws us into a more familiar poetic terrain, an enchanted world reminiscent of medieval romance, but without ever sounding merely antiquarian.
Indeed, in one respect, the poem sounds something other than timeless. If it is set in the land of fairy, some of Youmans’ best passages describe a land of wood and waterfall that vividly resembles the terrain where she lives in Upstate New York, the land of James Fenimore Cooper, that place shaped so strikingly by adventures and running water:
Seren climbed up high enough to wonder
At water-dragon coils and serpent-streams,
And in the distance heard impetuous
Music of many waters thundering
Against the boulders of a riverbed.
By the time I arrived at the point in the story when Seren will endure a sort of monstrous birth, I realized that Youmans’ imagination was rare enough and strange enough that I was going to have a hard time describing it. In places, she reminds me of W.B. Yeats, that poet of Irish fairy land whose imagination was so violent that his stories made the young children of Oscar Wilde to recoil in terror (not, I imagine, an easy thing to do). Even some of Youmans’ phrases, such as “That she should do some high and lonely thing, / Like a secret princess in a tower,” echo Yeats’s signature style. Her plot has the odd wandering quality of the anonymous Gawain from which, as I noted, she partly borrows her form. I was reminded also of the final two books of Lois Lowry’s Giver Quartet, where that novelist’s imagination becomes so weird and digressive that the reader can do nothing but stare.
I was further reminded of Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus, in part because both works explore the spiritual consequences of violence and selfishness, and in part because Vodolazkin, like Tolkien before him, deploys the fantastic chiefly to remind us that the world really is a place of fantasy. Medieval civilization, with its sense of life as a pilgrimage to heaven; of the birds and the beasts as intelligible figures of the divine mind; of tapestries of unicorns resting by lords and ladies picnicking, as a sign that the spiritual is always standing at leisure by the material—all this, Vodolazkin and Tolkien in their different ways, showed us was not a vision of enchantment now lost, but a properly realistic and open vision of wonder to the reality that confronts us all. Fantasy is habituation for life.
These kinships between Youmans and Tolkien are not coincidental. More than two centuries ago, the romantic poet William Wordsworth published his ballad “We are Seven.” In the poem, the mature narrator recalls an encounter with a young girl so naïve that she knows nothing of death. When asked how many children are in her family she replies, as the title tells us, “seven.” But the narrator persists in asking where her siblings are. Some have gone to sea, some have moved to town, but “Two of us in the church-yard lie.” The narrator is befuddled that the little girl counts siblings, living and dead, alike in the sum of “seven,” as if she did not know the difference between life and death. The girl plays round their graves each day, as if they were still her playmates.
Wordsworth’s is a deliberately sentimental poem. He looks upon the naïve girl and, in his skeptical modern mind, cannot resist interrogating her to get at the brute fact of things: her brother and sister are dead and no more. But he also stands in wonder and with a bleary-eyed envy that she should still possess a vision of things so innocent that the border line between life and death seems permeable and insignificant. The English romantic tradition began by lamenting the loss of such an innocent, enchanted vision, but as it developed it sought to recover that vision for the modern world. Wordsworth went from lamenting the loss of imaginative vision to possessing it to see into the spirit of nature. Writers such as C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Tolkien are heirs of Wordsworth insofar as they also approve the innocent eye as a true one.
Youmans’ Seren, which also begins with a girl playing about two graves, does not imitate Wordsworth’s poem, but, in the spirit of Tolkien, Vodolazkin, and others, turns it on its head. Fairy stories do not look back to a time of naïve enchantment, but summon us to recover eyes sufficiently realistic that they can see across the boundaries of life and death, of the workaday world and fairy land:
To Seren, all the world seemed liminal,
Its solid self desiring to be mist,
To fall away and form into the new,
A land with shapes and colors never seen
Youmans’ tale is not a complete success. The plot is inadequately sustained by dramatic tension; some stanzas tell us what is happening, and the next repeat the same by showing it; the ending, while satisfying, is too abrupt; the rhymes are sometimes off and the bob and wheel not usually operating in service of advancing the story. And yet, the poem, overall, is weird in an intriguing way that makes it a worthy addition to her growing list of fantastic tales. It reminds us all that every step beyond our door risks entrance into mystery.
• Related at CWR: “2020’s Best-kept Literary Secret” (Nov 9, 2020) by Jane Greer
Seren of the Wildwood
By Marly Youmans
Wiseblood Books, 2023
Paperback, 72 pages
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