Sunday, June 12, 2011

Diversion: Poetry from Lesle Lewis -- LIE DOWN TOO

I liked Lesle Lewis's two earlier books: Small Boat, and Landscapes I & II. I liked watching her read aloud from her books, too. So often the lines she crafts are such complete surprises that I'm lost in thought, scrambling for context, and when she reads those lines aloud, they seem to simply belong together. I was eager to sample her 2011 collection from Alice James Books, lie down too.

Scattered through the pages of this elegant square-format book are poems that hint at the calendar (and mostly appear in the same order that the months would). Some actually suggest those calendars that had a "Girl" for each month -- like the poem "September Girl," which begins, "She runs away. // When she goes home again, she gets punished." The next three lines are longer and hint at a wider story, although no narrative actually links them -- but the "girl" ends the poem naked, sitting on an abandoned farm machine. How my mind leaps, searching for that image on the calendars I've seen in car repair shops over the years.

I love the start of the poem that follows this one, with the title "Conscience and Gloom." (The provocative design of the book places the titles to one side, suggesting that that might come before, come after, or simply accompany the verse lines.) This one starts, "A man does the same thing in many versions over and over. // He realizes art has no infinite shelf life." His travels and troubles superimpose themselves, and by the final line, "He is standing frozen in the banks where they stop plowing Cook Hill Road."

Ellen Bryant Voigt, teaching a group of high school teachers one summer, gave me the words to talk about what happens when I meet poems like this: My "hunger for narrative" has to stand on the sidelines. Something magical is happening, but it has nothing to do with the pockets of the poet or the price of admission. It's a coupling of familiar with new, of phrases almost remembered but twisted in mid air like a lasso, settling on the head of an unexpected animal. It's seriously fun.

Whether the voice of the poem is walking with someone down a wintry avenue of birches, or literally seeing air and sampling happiness, it is a voice that's rich, full, and wondering. "Froglike and tender," as another line in the book asserts.

I'm so glad I opened this book and worked my way from page to page. My "narrative hunger" is a wolf that growls when it isn't fed. But there's a poem in here that tackles "fear of wolves," pinning it crosswise on the page. "We let our questions off our leashes," Lewis writes. "Something else could happen." And in this book, indeed, it does.

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