Review of This Visit by Susan Lewis
Buffalo: BlazeVOX Books, 2014. 104 pp. $16.00, paper.
I got some new reading glasses and I hate them. I don't just see with them; I concentrate a little too much on the act of seeing. There is no doubt I see better with the glasses, but they're fraught for me with notions of age and deterioration and beauty as a lessened priority.
I broke them in on a very worthy read, though—the poetry collection The Visit, by Susan Lewis. This is her eighth book, and it shows, glasses or no, and I tried it both ways.
My first time through, I used my laser glasses-focus and really scrutinized the work. The poems had complicated geographies. They circled back on themselves; some lines were spurs or fragments, and some were roundabouts, hard to steer out of.
I think I preferred my second reading, the sans-glasses reading, when I softened my gaze and just went along where Lewis pointed. Lewis approaches her reader in an intuitive, collaborative way, and once I accepted my role as co-creator of the work, I found the experience vivid and energizing. Consider this snippet from the title poem of the book:
On the wall with no writing
through the dark glass
(floor littered with doll heads)
the grenade of your despair
plus sleep, that sweet rehearsal
(fingertips in love)
wistful bones withering,
Reading lines like these is somewhat like viewing a scene dimly while someone with keener vision or a more advantageous viewpoint offers a description. When I allowed myself, I felt it deep inside my flesh, those "fingertips in love" and the "wistful bones withering." This passage, by the way, is the end of the section, and yes, it trails off, and yes, it ends with a dash, interrupted.
In reading the collection, it is helpful to remember its basic conceit: This Visit, the title, seems to refer to this visit to Earth—this incarnation, this life among many we will experience. The voice in the poems is wise; it seems to have been here before, to have racked up some special insight. The work here is intelligent.
It is also intellectually demanding. For one thing, it is allusive, including quotes from The Waste Land and many other works, so that the reader is always on the lookout for another layer, for a lining. It is also discursive, with a mere hint of an argument running through out, with a thread showing here, and here. I guess I'm describing the book as a well-made jacket, supple and perfectly constructed, but it's also something more ethereal than that—like a jacket constructed of still-beating wings.
Speaking of construction, the collection is structured very deliberately into four sections, the first of poems titled "My Life in..." ("...Dogs," "...Microbes," "...Fresh Starts"), and the second of epistolary poems ("Dear Tomorrow," "Dear Random Object," "Dear Crutch"). The third and fourth sections are more open, and I found the third section, containing the title poem, most accessible in terms of Lewis' project, and most rewarding to me as a reader. But I did admire the strategy here, especially that of beginning with a glimpse at all the different kinds of lives.
A favorite in the first section is "Dear Dear," with a title signaling the sort of playfulness I came to expect in the collection. It's a poem, like many others here, that rewards out-loud reading, as in these final lines:
in the cool glower
at once ought
(hurry up please,
Lewis' wordplay is delectable and subtle. I enjoy the pairing of "lean and "lessen," the barest suggestion of rhyme in "glower" and "repair," and the T.S. Eliot reference at the end. There's a lot to chew on, and the worrisome, bespectacled me, taking my first read-through, almost missed the pleasure for the puzzle.
At the end of the day, poems aren't puzzles, although some reward a picking apart and a deep consideration. Lewis's certainly do—but they also offer drive-by pleasures, a sonic lushness and the occasional thrill of recognition. I'm tempted to find a wholly new way of seeing—opera glasses? microscope? monocle?—and take on The Visit again.
You can purchase The Visit here.
Karen Craigo is the author of two forthcoming poetry collections, No More Milk (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Passing Through Humansville (ELJ Publications, 2017), and she maintains the daily blog Better View of the Moon. She teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri.