Red Rover

Red Rover

by Susan Stewart


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


Red Rover is both the name of a children’s game and a formless spirit, a god of release and permission, called upon in the course of that game. The “red rover” is also a thread of desire, and a clue to the forces of love and antipathy that shape our fate. In her most innovative work to date, award-winning poet and critic Susan Stewart remembers the antithetical forces—falling and rising, coming and going, circling and centering—revealed in such games and traces them out to many other cycles. Ranging among traditional, open, and newly-invented forms, and including a series of free translations of medieval dream visions and love poems, Red Rover begins as a historical meditation on our fall and grows into a song of praise for the green and turning world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226774541
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/01/2008
Series: Phoenix Poets Series Series
Pages: 118
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Susan Stewart is the Annan Professor of English at Princeton University. Her previous books of poems, The Forest and Columbarium (which won the National Book Critics Circle Award), and her works of criticism, The Open Studio and Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (which won the Phi Beta Kappa’s Christian Gauss Award) are all published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt


By Susan Stewart


Copyright © 2008 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-77454-1


    The Owl

    I thought somehow a piece of cloth was tossed
    into the night, a piece of cloth that flew

    up, then across, beyond the window.
    A tablecloth or handkerchief, a knot

    somehow unfolding, folded, pushing through
    the thickness of the dark. I thought somehow

    a piece of cloth was lost beyond the line—
    released, although it seemed as if a knot

    still hung, unfolding. Some human hand could not
    have thrown that high, or lent such force to cloth,

    and yet I knew no god would mind a square
    of air so small. And still it moved and still

    it swooped and disappeared beyond the pane.
    The after-image went, a blot beyond

    the icy glass. And, closer, there stood winter
    grass so black it had no substance

    until I looked again and saw it tipped
    with brittle frost. An acre there (a common-
    place), a line of trees, a line of stars.

    So look it up: you'll find that you could lose
    your sense of depth,

    a leaf, a sheaf
    of paper, pillow-

    case, heart-
    shaped face,

    a shrieking hiss,
    like winds, like

    death, all tangled
    there in branches.

    I called this poem "the owl,"
    the name that, like a key, locked out the dark

    and later let me close my book and sleep
    a winter dream. And yet the truth remains

    that I can't know just what I saw, and if
    it comes each night, each dream, each star, or not

    at all. It's not, it's never, evident
    that waiting has no reason. The circuit of the world

    belies the chaos of its forms—(the kind
    of thing astronomers

    look down to write
    in books).

    And still I thought a piece of cloth
    had flown outside my window, or human hands

    had freed a wing, or churning gods revealed
    themselves, or, greater news, a northern owl,

    a snowy owl descended.


    I met the girl who held the flower and mirror
    and the boy who sent his hoop up to the god.

    Put away childish things they said, and stepped
    into the future. They were made of baked earth,
    their tenderness intact.

    Robbers had come and gone, come
    and gone for years
    like glass.

    In locked cabinets,
    washed up: a bone brooch, the sea's
    furl, an iron fire-dog.

    The hoop rolled down again,

    The girl awoke and put her flower
    inside the mirror.

    The boy cart-wheeled
    behind his wheel, end over
    end, over

    endless sand. We think of them.
    They never think of us.
    We think of them.

    And the hard-hearted doll
    repeated the lesson:

    love's asymmetry is true,
    they never think of you,

    love's asymmetry is true
    love's asymmetry is true

    Games from Children

    my mother's garden

    I lost my copper key
    in my mother's garden

    I lost my silver knife
    staring at a cloud

    I found my wooden boat
    hiding in the rushes

    I found my wishing stone
    hiding in my shoe

    I lost my copper key
    hiding in the rushes

    I found my wooden boat
    staring at a cloud

    I lost my memory
    when I learned to whistle

    If you find my silver knife
    hide it in a stone


    I made a fist
    and it grew two ears,

    long ears with
    a mumbling

    mouth. Then
    I opened my hand—

    it grew
    four feathers

    and another hand
    rose to meet it,

    and two
    thumbs made

    a doubled
    dove's beak,

    curving and
    nodding on

    the windless
    white: one four-

    fingered wing
    swinging out,

    the other
    feathering in—

    blackbirds of my
    bedroom wall

    black birds
    flying faster

    than the arc
    of headlights

    from the road

    beyond the
    window, looming

    and emptying
    looming then

    then looming

    then emptying
    the room of all its light.

    king of the hill

    What looked like a statue held a shove.
    even so, it was hard not to want
    to run full throttle straight
    into the arms, the very harm
    of it. Some thought the figure at the top
    was of another kin or kind, that only blind
    force would send him over. Others swore
    he would give or bend, that something like love
    was standing there and could be swayed by reason
    or kindness—just a push
    might do him in. The view from below
    was blocked by distance, and the relentless glare of the sun.

    So human to feel the dominion of the sun
    as a yoke, to learn that radiance can shove
    a gaze back to the ground. The reason
    for submission disappears: it's just part of the here below,
    like thinking there's a harmless form of harm.
    Time and time again, the figure up there swore
    he would never relent, that it was his want
    or whim to stay there, impervious to love
    and hate. Our path was made straight
    by that stubbornness—just a final push
    we thought. But we were blind
    to the outcome waiting at the top.

    once we began the game, it seemed impossible to stop
    caring and turn to something else. The sun
    was so hot, the voices drew us on, the crowd's blind
    will bore down. Our sisters saw the harm
    and called us back; our brothers swore
    we couldn't go. They had felt the shove
    and pull of it themselves, but forgot the way a want
    grows to desire. The path was straight,
    as clear as day—with a push,
    they tried to lead us on to reason.
    But we were planning our attack from below
    and couldn't be bothered to listen to their love.
    There were flowers in the meadow: buttercups and loveliesbleeding;
    milkweed pods with down bursting from their tops;
    daisies by whose petals lovers swore
    to love forever; and thorns left behind the leafy blind
    of the thistles. Beauty was a mask for harm
    and everything under the sun
    had the power to draw us on or, just the same, push
    us away. Does the weed also feel the deep want
    of replacement, the need to go straight
    for the root, then draw it out from below
    there in the dark earth's hush—over
    and over? Why look for a human reason

    When nature has a reason
    of its own? The saint said the love of a neighbor is really love
    for love itself. The soul reaches out to the good. In the blind
    acceptance of those about her, she makes a final push
    toward the divine. Souls hover
    about and above one another, in the want
    of connection, promises foresworn,
    and, for a time, they set all forms of harm
    aside. It's vital, this straightforward
    link between them, as necessary as sunlight
    or water. In such a world, the top
    has no added value. The place to be is here below.

    The thinker, too, looked below
    the surface—to the master's power and the servant's reason.
    It was the master who was blind
    to history. Once he resisted the push
    toward death, nothing else could harm
    him. By then no more want
    could arise. The servant swore
    he couldn't care less, giving reality a shove.
    But the truth of his work stood there in the sunlight,
    steady as need and the love
    of craft. The master won, though it turned out the top
    was a dead end, leading straight

    To oblivion. No one can escape the straightforward
    claims of the makers, the rule of the here below.
    The king stands at the pleasure of those who swore
    to go on and on with the game. He tells himself it's love
    that keeps them swarming there in the sun
    and rain, elbowing and shoving
    for a closer look. But he knows what they want
    is the tooth and nail of him, that the push
    and prop of his image can occupy the top
    for just a while. There behind the blind,
    the assassin waits and has his reason—
    though it's never just his own. And the worst harm

    Comes from the innocents who never see the harm
    at all. The crooked made straight,
    the mad the font of reason,
    the prophets at last gone blind.
    The bloated fish rose to the top
    of the stream and the rowers pushed
    them down again with a shove.
    The rowers were
    hungry, and the sun
    was in their eyes. Below
    the dam, they waved their low-bells:
    what you want

    Is what you get
, they said. And what we wanted
    was to find the meadow, and everyone unharmed.
    The farmers came running for the top,
    frantic, clanging with shovel
    and ax, cockamamie, heedless, straight
    through the gardens, scattering the love-nests
    of the larks and plovers. They swore
    they would push
    away the past. Their reason
    was impatience swirling there below
    intention. Father or son,
    son and father; either way, they were blind

    To the particulars and, all in all, blind
    to consequence. To stop too soon is to want
    to stop wanting. The hunters have their cunning reason
    and go about their work by stealth. Straight
    as their arrows, they aim for death, though love
    is what closes the distance. Show
    the trophy high on the wall, swear
    to the courage of soldiers and sailors—the top
    of the mast, pushed
    deep into the dirt, flies a flag that declares the end of harm.
    But the orphans lie sleeping in the doorways below
    and will rise up, furious, with the sun.

    In the end, love, there are only one or two left beneath the sun,
    surrounded by silence. The blind
    light blanketing the hill retreats and returns, oblivious. Love
    turns the world and brings it ill or harm.
    We guessed there'd be plenty and then empty straits
    and both would set the whirligigging top
    a-spin. We didn't need a better reason
    than that to join the push
    of generations. An aching want
    for the future drove us on, then shoved
    us back to the past. All the while, the meadow waited below.
    Within the locket, it's the image our hearts wore.

    We had promised, we swore
    and crossed our hearts. In that sun-flecked
    wood, all faith was blind.
    The little boat rolled through the straits
    and inlets, bent, unswerving, toward home. No other reason,
    none at all. Now here below
    in the something-ever-after, I've had at the top
    of my thoughts a thought of love,
    the shape it had before it turned to harm.
    And what I've wanted
    to do is to return to the source, the first push
    before the fulcrum's shove.

    The trail to the top
    of the hill meandered. A lark hovered, shadowing the clover below,
    and the hunter's blind was, in the end, abandoned. Everything that seemed
    worth wanting
    could slowly flower, like a weed, into harm. Still, the mind can straighten
    its own path; reason has a nature sworn
    to truth. A final push is waiting; its patience is a synonym for love.
    The king was an idol. There's only the daylight glinting there beneath the sun.


Excerpted from RED ROVER by Susan Stewart. Copyright © 2008 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



     The Owl
     Games from Children
          my mother's garden
          king of the hill
          red rover
     Oil and Water
     Songs for Adam
          Adam lay a-bounden, bounden in a bond
          the names
          the dream
          the cool of the evening
          as clerks find written in their book
     The Green
     Thoughts made of cloth


     The Erl King
     The Former Age
     When I'm crying, I'm not speaking
     When I'm speaking, I'm not crying
     Gold and Soil
     Elegy Against the Massacre at the Amish School in West Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, Autumn 2006
     The Lost Colony
     The Complaint of Mars


     The Complaint of Venus
     Thoughts made of wood
     Variations on <The Dream of the Rood
     Dialogue in San Clemente
     A Cone Flower
     In the Western World
          the sun is charity
          a boy's voice
          the window seat
          the figure in the garden
          a little room
          the rocks beneath the water
          there is no natural death
          moon at morning
          the fox
     The Field of Mars as a Meadow
     A Constant State of Gravitation
     The Vision of Er
     The Fall
     Three Geese

Customer Reviews