Betsy Fagin Responds to Camille Roy’s Sherwood Forest

Sherwood Forest puts me in the mind of robbing somebody: robbing the rich, redistributing to the poor, clad in the greens, blacks and browns of the greenwood. Being an outlaw in a community of outlaws–a prince of thieves. Only the crime is not theft. It’s not money we steal now, it’s something else: disturbing the peace, violating status quo taking shape here as text. Our booty is language and the embodiment of language in fleshly experience. Or the embodiment of experience in fleshly language.

Camille Roy’s Sherwood Forest is an investigative journey through an urban landscape of menace in which the passively observed turns active, engaged and participatory. This journey begins with the visual intensity of the naked dance and/or violence of D-L Alvarez’s cover image emblazoned with hot pink lettering. This vibrancy is immediately offset with soothing dark green paper that leads us deeper into the forest– dark and tranquil home of mystery, possibly hiding terrors. This contrast immediately positions the reader at the center of conflict, witness to and participant in whatever awaits. Sherwood Forest is rife with provocative images and challenges that confront the reader: the nature of fairy tale, what it’s like to be separated– broken into pieces and reformed. Streaming through these notions is an ongoing exploration into the nature of criminality.
I’m fascinated with elements of nature/forest in the work, how does the environment present itself? Our landscape (our place), the backdrop for our crimes, as announced in the front matter, will be San Francisco: the Bay Area with “fog so heavy the cars in the street/appear to be moving through snow.” (14) The fog provides cover, protection in the urban landscape. There are a few trees, some flowers but in spite of the green paper setup, it’s an utterly urban environment, an urban experience.

Here, the forest is no forest, but “fields of degradation and crime” (71), littered with strip clubs, and hotels— Hotel Paranoia (I think I stayed there once) and movement (not-movement, not linear, not laid out) toward something green—lots of green. Baskets of fake money green, clothing green, green in the way of being new to something, fresh. Wide-eyed with something almost like innocence “metal handcuffs annoy me. But the furry pair… they’re so soft…”(19) Surely innocence was outlawed here long ago.

This hotel strip club forest is a forest of bodies: desire body disgusted, discussed. “I locate disgust: where it goes, I go.”(44) Pleasure body pained, “…so hot I could hardly stand it…ravaged by love.” (10) Here “bodies are stubborn./Piling on top of one another    simply for warmth.” (64)

Warmth exists outside the reach of laws, roles, accepted expectations. The princesses and thieves and other fairy tale-inspired characters who make appearances throughout Sherwood Forest are re-working their roles, their bodies, their place in the world, the world itself. Aware of ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ but existing outside of, even in opposition to those norms: “I know I’m wrong. Wrong is that burn/in my crotch.” (9) Desire obeys no law.

The text raises questions about agency and the passivity women (and those in women’s roles) often suffer in fairy tales–and everywhere else, “restraint in the interest of refinement” (44)– and reworks them in poems like “Cinderfella” and “Red Hood.” It is most successful when the work focuses on its own landscape and bodily experience (as in “Lucy in the Sky”) and strains when the text adheres too closely to the scripts of previous tales where already, “we know the story.” (7)

Ballads report that Robin Hood, most famous denizen of Sherwood Forest, fought injustice and tyranny, challenged authority, lived a life of great adventure. Stephen Knight, Robin Hood scholar, got a lot of attention years ago for drawing attention to Robin Hood as a gay hero in his essay “Forest Queen.” All these years later, it seems completely obvious.“I will neither haue house nor land,’ said Robin,/‘Nor gold, nor none of thy fee,/But I will haue those three squires/To the greene forest with me.” (from Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires.) Roy’s streetwise Sherwood Forest taps directly into themes of sexuality and gender identity in her depictions of life in this wood.

Gender is fluid, it is a construction, only bodies are real. “My body is every body” (22) and every body is mutable: “her tongue leapt from his heart” (7). The physical in this forest becomes as fluid and conceptual as any other construction. Every body in this forest is morphing, changing, reinventing. Bodies are parts, but bodies and parts are also selves and parts of selves (a fine distinction): “the self is made only of non-/self elements” (27) of toes, mouths, hearts, tissues, a “sad gutter in the throat.” (10) Both Sherwood Forests serve as places of hiding, but also places of sanctuary where radical transformation can take place.

Back to the idea of stealing though, what riches do we have or what can we steal?
There is no money to be had in Sherwood Forest, the only money in the book is counterfeit.
“–I don’t know what to do with the money.
–good thing there isn’t any.” (51)
What are the rich robbed of? Rich how? What wealth? We are all rich in flesh, in incarnated experience, the greatest spoils of which are sex. Sex abounds here, we’ve hit the jackpot of sex, the pot of gold is sex: “Bad sex. Abusive sex. Kinky sex. Established sex. Tunnel of love sex.” (38) “sex like an orange lining. sex like tubs. sex like glazing. sex like pan/ fried. sex like lettuce crisp. sex like tea. sex like waiting. sex like cotton dyes.” (43) “a cluster fuck/A closure fuck.” (40)

So what is the crime here? Redistribution? Breaking down into component parts? Disruption?  Green is money, riches, but green is also halfway between heaven and hell. Green is embodiment, corporeality. Life and death. It can provide sustenance, as Spring. Green movements represent the environment and its healing—the earth itself. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Sherwood Forest offers an idealistic vision of healing what is broken, gathering disparate pieces together in a unifying consciousness, but I would say that there’s a hint of salvation to be found in this forest.

In the ballads, Sherwood Forest was a safe haven for outlaws. What they really stole was authority, self-determination. So too here. Whatever crimes are committed, they are forgiven. Though the landscape may seem hostile at first, with its drawn swords and pooled blood, “All the needles in the forest/dipped in cocaine,” (35) this is our forest, our home.

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