– Reviewed by Becky Varley–Winter –
This Visit suggests we’re only here a little while, and Susan Lewis makes ephemerality part of the structure through her use of white space, creating poems of fleeting glimpses, glances, moments of contact. Her work is immediately erudite – words like ‘homogenized’ and ‘analphabetic’ jostle with quotations from Shakespeare and others, puns and jokes – but the blanks in the poems give them an air of lightness and zen-like calm even when they are complex, un-resigned, and resistant. Intellect isn’t here to intimidate: the difficulty in the poems is closer to silence, or a mistrust of words. They feel quiet, as if they want you to be listening hard: “the heart of / the endeavor // is the / endeavor”, ‘My Life in Microbes’ states, monkishly. ‘My Life In Sheets’ despairs of political noisiness, “mouldring in / chat chat chat” and “weak progressive / chins”, “(or else blindly listing / toward another old idea.)” In ‘My Life in Fresh Starts’, stanzas are scattered across the page like spilled seeds, riddling on
The din of words
marking what is
‘My Life in Streets (with Breath)’ is more tenderly playful, looking for elusive “contact“, “sugar touch / breath traffic“. Passersby are flashes of flesh: “skin flash / (bare flush)”, brackets acting like small frames, subtly erotic. The body becomes a “nerve party“, a “vision sandwich“, encounters “lighting up like toys”. This poem ends by disavowing presence, accepting, or trying to accept, eventual vanishing from/into the world:
finger the air-cross
on your breast
choose this way to
like a prisoner)
Sometimes This Visit is so subtle that it feels under-emphasised, but that last simile is one of the sharpest riffs on ‘God’ I’ve seen in a poem. This is followed by ‘My Life in Streets (Or Breathe)’, a companion piece with a similar sense of fleeting presences: “the sudden beauty of an ankle, / swathed in cool air––“, “your nape’s / tender curls”. ‘Curl’ is a repeated word through the collection, with associations of softness and self-protection (curling up). Lewis also records “restless eyes and weary mouths”, “men with kind eyes / (& no hope of ease)”: the political protesting edge of her work is full of fundamental care for fragile human bodies, as well as humour and wry satire (at one point ‘class struggle’ becomes “crass struggle”). Sometimes the body feels de-centred, dispersed from its moorings, as if it can’t take the pressure of voice: “blood stuttered, / skin cracked by fixed opinions”. Or it is shut off from overwhelming suffering, “eyes shut to the grating cry / eyes shut to exhaustion.” Above all, it’s ephemeral and subject to the world’s exchanges: in title poem ‘This Visit’, the body is a “debt”, “on loan”.
These deeply-attuned poems can be gnomic and mysterious. I can’t always find a foothold, and after all the careful, deliberate sparseness, it’s refreshing to encounter, in ‘Afterbirth’ and ‘Those Are Pearls’, poems that feel fuller and more relaxed. They still play with non-sequiturs – Lewis will steadfastly frustrate readers who expect meanings to be self-evident – but have the feel of a poet stretching out and cutting loose:
Dear Tree: I’m sorry for what I.
Dear Alphabet: you are my heather, my sweet cream.
Dear Anyone: if only you could drift along.
Dear Current: (who taught me how to move).
[Those Are Pearls]
‘Those Are Pearls’ ends with “a woman’s voice / thick as cream / bristling with ideas / (bright as / feathers)“; the lyrical sensibility of feathers and flight continues in ‘The Black Notebooks’ and ‘Not Question’. These works remind me somehow of the song lyrics of Joanna Newsom in their thoughtfulness and beauty, although they are much less olde-worlde than her style. I also expect Alice Notley to have been an influence somewhere along the line. Lyricism does not mean these final poems are any less engaged with reality (a common criticism levelled at lyric poetry is that it’s self-enclosed, as if the self does not inevitably turn outwards). In the last poem, ‘Severance’, the world is “a sharp thing to pierce our / weak keening”, “Dull & cruel / shot with beauty”. This final part of the collection allows an increasing emotional intensity to seep through; or perhaps I have just adjusted to Lewis’ style, and am hearing her more clearly. “Float with me in this / brittle bowl”, she writes in ‘This Visit’, and I do.