Breadcrumbs For The Disenchanted: Peg Alford Pursell’s A Girl Goes Into The Forest

Reviewed by John Biscello

A Girl Goes Into the Forest
by Peg Alford Pursell
Dzanc, 200pp., $16.95

In the dream I was sitting with my mother in a restaurant lobby, waiting to be seated for dinner. The hostess came over, asked me my name, which I confirmed, then told me to follow her — I had a phone call. At the hostessing station, I took the black phone with the cord and on the other end of the line was my sister’s voice: tremulous, distraught. She told me she was lost, could I come get her? I asked her where she had gotten lost. She said she couldn’t remember, and when I asked her what was around her right now, what did she see, she told me that she saw trees. Lots and lots of tall trees. She said she was in a forest and she was beginning to panic because someone had told her that if she was there after it got dark it was going to be really hard to find her way out. And it was starting to get dark. She begged me to find her before it was too late, and then the line went dead. When I awoke from the dream, I understood that my sister, who in this reality had been mired in the living hell of drug addiction, had been calling out to me from the forest in which she found herself, her soul-being, lost and desperate, without a single bread crumb to orient her movement and recovery.

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This, the unmappable forest, a vegetative X-ray detailing the hinterlands of one’s interior, belongs to a place outside of time. This is where Dante eternally carves Beatrice’s name into granite bark with a bloodied fingernail; where Red Riding Hood, remixed in a narcoleptic loop, repeatedly falls asleep on a bed of pine needles and dreams of axes. This is also the limnal territory which Peg Alford Pursell stalks in her new book: A Girl Goes Into the Forest.

Ranging from snapshots to fables to cryptograms to psychic annulments, the seventy-eight tales in this book form a sort of staggered cortege and fugue. In Pursell’s moon-haunted woods, unmarked trails are spiked with loss, regret, longing, and broken promises, and the characters primary languages are subtext and silence. The book opens with this passage (“Into the Forest”): “Tentative, curious, uncertain, alive, she followed him into the woods, moving in the direction where she imagined the rest of her life waited. So ready for something to happen.” And it is this hiccuped waiting, peppery and ingrown, and unwittingly stitched to disillusionment, which locks Pursell’s protagonists into a state of bated yearning and restrictive orbit. “I always think I’ll circle around to the exact explanation for what went wrong. Having and wanting at the same time — that’s what it was to carry my daughter inside me. After, I was emptier than I could have imagined…” (“Old Church by the Sea”).

“The younger sister is a cloud watcher. She knows no rain is coming. Clouds will continue to gather, to coagulate, to purple. Other things will happen. Maybe a fire. But no rain.

She places her palm, wet with dishwater, on the window glass. The older sister stares at something unseeable in the distance.” (“A Pair of Sisters”).

The elliptical intensity of Pursell’s tales brings to mind Yasunari Kawabata’s classic “palm-of-the-hand” stories, with revelatory flashes and glimmers registering in different tones.

“But life is never only a moment. Through the passing days, she would become other selves as the moments allowed. Yet she would never forget the one inside who’d been the first to welcome her to herself.” (“The Ossuary”).

“She’s always been a disappointment, sang the wine in her blood, and she uselessly poured more to drown out that tune. Perhaps a kite; wouldn’t her husband like to fly kites with her on the beach?” (“Perhaps a Kite”).

“But who can live in the territory of hindsight with its perfect, monotonous terrain?” (“Daylilies.”)

It is barbed and passive strains of monotony which both imperil and bind together the couples and families in Pursell’s universe. Or, as one woman wearily offers, “when he despairs that we are aging, us, a couple well-matched to the extent that the matching feels like too much like sameness, and comfort and contentment just aren’t enough” (“I’m An Expert On”).

Clarisa Pinkola Estés, in her seminal Women Who Run with The Wolves, wrote: “All creatures must learn that there exist predators. Without this knowing, a woman will be unable to negotiate safely within her own forest without being devoured.” This, too, or perhaps specifically is an overarching and essential part to Pursell’s forest-scape. Women, in different phases of their lives, with different levels of awareness, negotiating their way through shadowy woodlands and feral terrain.

In “Smoke, Must, Dust,” the female protagonist posits, “I think there’s something unacknowledged about survivors. It’s possible to want to be good at it, survival.” In that sense, A Girl Goes Into the Forest is also a survivor’s handbook, an oblique guide to self-preservation clothed in the skin and bones of modern lore.

@riotmaterial
riotmaterial.com

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