Alice James Books, 2006
When I opened to the Table of Contents of Lesle Lewis’s second book, Landscapes I & II, I received the first in a series of pleasant surprises. There was neither a Section I nor a Section II, but a listing of poems with charming and interesting titles such as “I Love Lenora,” “Success Doesn’t Matter,” “Bumblebee Love,” and “Oh, to Be a Non-Complainer!” Indeed, these titles gave me a rough approximation of the kind of world I was about to enter, where divergent pieces of mismatched puzzles share loft space, landscapes are hand-drawn with crayons and the vistas are skies as seen reflected in water.
This book is made up of many short poems and a final long piece, “The Moon is Over Alstead.” The style ranges from prose poems to sparse couplets and stand-alone lines. The book lacks an overt arc or thematic treatment of ideas, but its objects, perspective and voice grow slowly outward with each poem in the manner of a web. I think this is a form that Lewis appreciates. In section four of her long poem she writes:
Light in the cobwebbed screen showed a thousand abstract marks we are dying to believe. If only you’d known me then!
What we see in this quote—declarative certainty paired with a poetic leap that defies a too-literal reading—is typical of this book’s style. “The Wart Hog As an Example” contains a passage that approximates a rough statement of purpose:
I try to think about it all. Helicopter accidents and dragonflies, in the same world, hostages and group love, a turtle, a warthog, twenty-two thousand miles. Excellent, but I could do more.
Her emphasis on tone, perspective and semi-surrealist association allows Lewis to move from time-and-space to time-and-space, creating set-pieces out of surprise, revelation and good humor. “It’s not where you are, it’s who you’re with” might be a good characterization of the experience of reading these poems. I quote, in full:
It’s No Small Thing to Be Yourself
I thought (think) perhaps not.
We flew to the music and painting land, a land more wise than benevolent, with more water than mountain.
In the nonphysical photograph, you and I linked necks.
Oh holy bunny! Oh pearl bracelet!
Oh, this is being too high!
This is the other half of our property.
Lewis’ imagination and dynamism pull me through the book, a whirlwind tour that is most enjoyable when it is surrendered to. The leaps within poems are so frequent and the gaps sometimes so large that close-reading is not where the payoff waits. Instead, the effect produced by this book mimics a wide-angle view of a landscape.
Landscapes I & II is more about the world at large than any one person’s place inside it. After reading the book several times and reflecting on it, I feel as if the narrator were only implied, or subsumed in the world it describes. At its best, Lewis’s world is a tumbling mess within which it is delightful to wander. See the following:
The Rain Hints of Spring
The globular soul falls down like falling downstairs and sits low at the bottom of guesswork, that jiggle mouse who lying, smiling, and killing kicks the globate out of bed and out the door where happenstance finds her a domesticated woodlot and a cow field from which even at a distance the cows recognize the glob as two-legged.
In the final piece, “The Moon is Over Alstead,” a more pronounced human face comes out of the work. This sequence of ten prose-poem pieces grounds us in a real setting and offers more hints of round human character than the shorter pieces in Landscapes I & II. The place is rural; there is a child; there are cows; the winter comes on; money is hard to come by. The refreshing thing about this shift of scene is that Lewis makes no attempt to play Robert Frost, and her style and basic strategy remain intact. In this excerpt from section two, we see the intimate and the playful in one paragraph:
I’m sorry this is not my permanent life and the pond never gives birth….A junk refrigerator floats in the quarry and the body in it is my old one….If I’ve just had coffee and good loving, my feelings on death are bound to be upbeat. About the moon and the magazines, let the famous smoke themselves. I’m not sure we need ten toes.
The syntax of these pieces sometimes begins to unravel, as if frantic notes on life are being taken that will sometime later be organized, reflected upon and explained. The sense that life is dizzying runs through these sections, as well as a blending of I/you. Lewis mixes pronouns frequently so that “we,” “I,” “you,” and “they,” cohabitate, although who exactly it is these markers of personhood refer to seems to matter less than the generally fanciful nature of the relationships. The pronouns become players in and of themselves, as if one’s life is really an amalgam of all the nearby lives that touch it.
In the end, nothing very definitive is said in this book, but the thoughts that populate it—fluidly, taking the shape of their circumstance—are often surprising and fun. I’ll leave you all with a small ‘landscape’ about self-knowledge:
We know very little about brains. We make up a few pink petals on a liquor glass wasting away. You ink it up. Boing and you’re talking. Boing again. It’s like you got on a plane and went somewhere. Did you ski both the east loop and the west? Then you’re me.