by José Angel Araguz
Midway through This Visit by Susan Lewis, the following lines present the reader with the essence of the overall project of the collection:
touch me here or
anywhere you can find
a place to park your
fleeting as anyone fleeing
hot to outrun the death
These eight lines from the poem “Will & Wish” are charged with crafted purpose. There is the emphatic nature of the voice which shows the speaker’s attention to be centered on the reader and on the act of reading itself. Also, there is the way in which the reader of this poem necessarily engages with this emphasis via the act of reading a line like “fleeting as anyone fleeing.” The change between “fleeting” and “fleeing” moves beyond wordplay within the context of this poem; the difference of a letter transforms “fleeting,” with its connotations of transiency, into “fleeing,” whose tone is one of urgency. The words, with a difference of a letter, have the speaker moving from an objective to a more personal implication. The value placed on the reading experience here and throughout the poems in this collection are often framed by these ideas of “restless attention” on one side, and outrunning “the death / of moments” on the other, making for a poetry whose stakes are of an intimate as well as intellectual nature.
The first section of the collection is comprised of poems whose titles are variations of the phrase “My Life in.” The personal and narrative connotations of this titling are subverted in poems where the self of the speaker is hard to pin down. This subversion, then, becomes part of the engine driving the poems. “My Life in Streets (Or Breathe),” for example, begins:
legs maybeing down,
relocation assent –
blindness of repetition
ignorance of bliss
When one’s “restless attention” is faced with these lines, there is a disorientation that happens; instead of a “life,” the reader is presented with an object list of actions in third person. Yet, this disorientation proves fruitful as it places the reader in the position to find pleasure in the play of the line “ignorance of bliss.” This play on the proverb Ignorance is bliss does similar work as the move detailed above that takes the reader from “fleeting” to “fleeing.” The recognition of phrasing that happens on the level of sound is augmented by the change of “is” in the proverb to “of” in the poem. This change colors what follows in the poem, a meditation on “streets” where “men & pigeons” can be found “lusting for their future.” This juxtaposition of men and pigeons is an example of one kind of ignorance; the nature of “lusting” is having one’s attention elsewhere, ignorant of anything else. The title can be returned to then with the idea of this particular “life in streets” being charged with self-consciousness and unwanted attention, the latter making necessary the “averted gaze, / the anonymous refusal” found in the final lines. While the “life” gestured at in the title is the life of reading, what one is reading, ultimately, is the life; the nuanced gesture and phrase, the charged if subtle turn of a moment.
The second section makes use of a different trope, that of letter-writing. In poems that address subjects like “Tomorrow” and “Random Object,” the opening address of “Dear ____” subverts the personal tone of a genre of writing that also fights against “the death / of moments.” In “Dear Dear,” Lewis sets the tone of this section:
caught in the
Machinated like fruit
in sweetly lost.
Unbend your lap of
luxury & welcome
home your loyal
servitude. As in
dog slave the
clean. As in
make glove not
The self-awareness evident in the first line which addresses the “Dear” of letter-writing as a “construct” builds off the momentum of the first section; instead of the implied inwardness and reflection of the “My Life in” lyrics, the “Dear” construct makes necessary an awareness of an outer subject and purpose. There is a lyric swagger in this voice that both propels the poem forward in a different manner than the poems in the first section, and which invite the reader to investigate along with the speaker. As much as the “Dear” construct is “caught in the / proverbial headlights,” this poem implies that there are meanings outside of this dynamic, that the word “Dear” is only a trail marker on the path to meaning. This kind of address becomes a space for the “restless attention” of the reader and writer. Phrasing like “dog slave the // clean” and “make glove not // lore” make use of the tension between what words say and mean on the page versus what words say and mean when spoken aloud. This riffing on familiar sayings (God save the Queen and Make Love Not War, respectively) create in the reader a space of reflex and reflection; each time the reader has to shift their attention and refocus creates a new moment, the creation of which adds to what I see as the collection’s implied mission to “outrun the death / of moments.”
These first two sections set up the remaining two sections of the collection nicely by establishing the different conceptual modes this poet is able to work in. What remains constant throughout these poems is the feeling of poetry as an active space. These poems are challenging only in so much as they are made to be engaged with on the level of meaning-making. The collection’s title, in a way, can be seen as pointing towards the “visit” of the eye on the page as much as the writer on a subject. As life is experienced moment to moment, so do these poems flicker and bend, accumulating meaning in pieces sought after the fact.
There is a moment in the title poem where this kind of fleeting/fleeing immediacy is implied:
(Mother, what you could have told me)
(Stranger, what you might have known)
It is a moment of solitude, the speaker’s voice speculating alone. Yet, because it happens in a poem, it happens in a space that can be shared, and where the parallel structure of these lines imply a further meaning; the “Mother” and “Stranger” are connected in the same way that “what you could have told me” is connected to “what you might have known.” The same meanings found by different methods; the same feeling behind different words. This paradoxical engine drives not only the poetry found here, but could also be said to drive poetry in general. The lines above also had me return to the book’s dedication, which states:
For my mom, who taught me how – and why – to read.
For the readers of This Visit, Lewis shares the fruits of those lessons in poems filled with an acute awareness of the nature and stakes of the reading experience.
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José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of six chapbooks as well as the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence. His second collection, Small Fires, is forthcoming in 2017 from FutureCycle Press.