Saturday, December 02, 2006

On the Tip of the Tongue: Arguing With A Collection of Poetry

I've never met the poet Lesle Lewis (that's right, her first name has an unusual spelling), but the photo on the back of her 2006 poetry collection LANDSCAPES I & II looks like a nice person, relaxed, dressed in sweatshirt and corduroys if I see the detail right, with a tousle of short fair hair, a wide grin. Still, if she tried talking to me the way these poems read, I'd explode: "Why can't you stick with one topic for longer than a sentence? What do you mean by talking about an alligator, Milwaukee, love, and summer, all at once (in the poem "Bumblebee Love")? How am I supposed to understand that prose poem called Story?"
In fact, "Story" begins, "You, my girl, I don't dislike. Faith is a male. This is a love story."
Honestly, I thought I'd go crazy. But I kept reading. Lines like "You've had some accidents and some illnesses and some lovers" grabbed me. or "There was a singing by the river, and no one but me was thinking of me." (That's from a two-paragraph prose poem called "Wrapping Paper.") And it began to feel like being immersed in a new language, where at first the only phrases you're sure of are the ones that borrow from the English you've always spoken, and then you begin to recognize the words that mean "please" or "too bad" or "awesome." One night you wake in the darkness and realize the voices in your dream were speaking in that other language, too.
So Lewis's carefully chosen sequences build to inner recognition of how conversations happen, inside the mind as well as spoken; of love and its absurdities ("For me it's always you, you, you"); of what a creator might really be if our minds were that stretched, that elastic.
By the time I reached the book's finale, a ten-section poem, "The Moon Is Over Alstead," I knew that Lewis inhabits the same rock-and-water-and-weather New England that holds my own heels and heart. I even had a sense that it might make sense to put heels and heart into the same stretch of poem, and not to worry too much about which bones or blood vessels linked them. This collection is fresh language for me, and although I struggle for footing among its unexpected twists and bumps, I like the energy and the challenge.
And that's what leads to my recommendation: Pick up this book and set it aside for an afternoon of cabin fever or depression. That's when the line "You keep your soul in your dog" will bless your day with laughter, and a couple of poems later, you'll hit "Abstraction puts on her cowboy boots. Who else would walk the boundaries with you and photograph your pears?" Ah. The world is more free than it seemed before, while Lewis spills its phrases and images into her poems.

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