"Via Negativa"

introduction for a reading by poet Susan Stewart

Tom Devaney, Program Coordinator at the Kelly Writers House
February 20, 2002

co-sponsored by The American Poetry Review

Susan Stewart writes gorgeous and troubling poems. There are many things we can say about their musical, reflective and meditative language. One idea I found to illuminate some of Stewart's work is the medieval notion, found in Aquinas, of a negative theology.

Negative theology posits that God is essentially and totally other than man, fundamentally unfathomable, deprived of human attributes.

In her poem "Scarecrow" Stewart writes the "secret/was that he had no secret." From this observation the poem moves on to "anthropomorphizing is what crows do.// The gods do not have bodies and souls;/they have only their radiant bodies.// They are perfect and have no sense of their perfection."

In Stewart's hands we believe that the bodies—which are not bodies—are "radiant bodies." In her hands, the lines are poetically convincing, true.

In the chapter "the Emergence of a Nocturne Tradition," from Poetry and the Fate of the Senses>, she writes, "that night scenes are used to interrupt the teleology of narrative, to heighten symbolism, to lend musical structures of return and repetition..."

The impulse of the nocturnal expresses itself in "all that is not day." Like the "truncated light of the forests," Stewart's poems emerge to disburden us from our false imaginings of daylight.