Comparing Lesle Lewis' work to that of other poets is challenging.
When I first heard Lesle Lewis reading the poems in Landscapes I & II,
before reading them on paper, I initially thought: oh, she's just like Brigit Pegeen Kelly,
but lighter, funnier. Her narratives trip through surreal territory, giving more of a sense
of mood than of story. Maybe Brigit Pegeen Kelly crossed with Denise Duhamel? Later,
reading the book of prose poems, dream-like, musical, full of breath and rush,
I realized a better comparison might be Matthea Harvey, whose whimsical paragraph
poems pull you along inexorably. Unlike Pegeen Kelly, whose long-lined narratives
are full of a twisty, apocalyptic sense of doom, the playful paragraphs here lead us
to imaginary landscapes (with a hint of the familiar) where the characters may be real,
archetypal or symbolic, the declarations come out of nowhere, and a statement of aching
emotion might be followed by a pun or a breezy observation. Take, for instance, the lead
poem in the book, "Story," in its entirety:
"You, my girl, I don't dislike. Faith is a male. This is a love story.
Doubt is a character too and her sidekick, self appraisal. Patience
is another character if you hang around him enough. Death plays itself.
If the boy is an innocent, he believes the girl will be the only one.
She knows love is temporary but she loves the boy. Along comes the poet
who sits on a bench, watches, and cries. It is so beautiful and more than that.
So is everything against the poor boy? Along comes a man. He's willing to wait
and see. He feels no stress either way. Maybe he wants it to work for the boy;
he probably does. Who doesn't love the little man? In the end, death itself
shows and clicks the characters off one by one. What's left? The love lingers
in the air. The doubt hovers. The patience stays patient. Nothing is lost.
Spring comes to all of us."
The title is already an ironic commentary on narrative. We follow the speaker's stage
directions with confidence, the introduction of abstract ideas as characters, the archetypal
girl meets boy scenario. The rhythm and music of half-rhymes string the reader along.
Many of her poems are like this, with their movie-like plots and the landscape and characters
of dreams and imagination. Her flights of fancy don't rely as much on gilded language
as on your willingness to suspend disbelief, to trust her leaps from one thing to the next.
The short, declarative sentences build a foundation of trust each word and sentence
is simple enough. But stacked together, spring, death, the boy and girl, the poet all bring
a heightened level of strangeness to the poem. The language is like a children's bedtime story,
but the story as told by someone insane. Your expectations for character, for plot,
are undermined but not in a cruel way. This is disjunctive, syntactically unique
but grammatically flawless and at the sentence level, imminently understandable.
"Story" is only one of many poems in which Lewis tweaks the conventions of contemporary poetry.
In "Without You," she addresses the modern love affair (seen in numerous literary magazines
and in Lewis' own work) with using the second person the "you" in poems without really
addressing who the "you" ever is. She also critiques the confessional narrative strains of poetry
while simultaneously commenting on the method of addressing the reader, second person, or other "you"
characters, in these lines:
"Can we talk?
Your love life might interest me, your childhood, your current health issues.
For me, it's always you, you, you."
Just the title of another poem, "Oh, to Be a Non-Complainer!" seems to humorously evoke early
confessional poets - while the text of the poem seems straightforwardly confessional
(if in that second-person voice rather than first.)
In one of the longest, densest poems in the book, "Bumblebee Love," Lewis's strategies
of storytelling, using the inclusive "you" and "I," as well as addressing the titular "Landscapes"
of the Northeast, seems to build up into a more personal whole. "I'd like to finally say who you are,"
she claims at one point in the poem. The end paragraph seems like an everyday scene between old friends:
"We talk about suicide, and do we really think New Hampshire is separate from Vermont?
How the ferns let the path and the path lets the ferns! These are the days we dream of
and the wind blows them for us..."
At the opposite end of the spectrum, in one of the shortest poems in the book,
"I Love Lenora," the declarative sentences about the "we" of the book seem all-encompassing,
magical, and the reader confidently believes in the "we:"
"Under a cloud over New Haven, our train is unmoving.
The recurring image of the train throughout the book symbolizes the way the writer
is moving through landscapes, which end up being the concrete, grounding structure
of the collection details like seal heads popping up, barns, and mosses keep
us firmly connected to the real world. The ambitions of the collection to play
with surfaces and expectations, but also reveal something about the writer's surroundings,
and thereby, herself are grand, but the playful styles and voices undermine that slightly.
I found reading individual poems entertaining, but reading the entire set of poems together
to be a more satisfying experience than reading any one by itself, because the buildup
of images and meanings becomes more tangible as you go. At once nonchalant and sincere,
the speakers of these poem seem bent on revealing little of themselves and allowing intimate
but minute glances into their worlds and subconscious at the same time. The lack of traditional form
there are some line breaks, but paragraph breaks are more common along with the seemingly
purposeful disjunction - may make Lewis' poetry seem more challenging than it truly is.
It is worth the work to continue, and there are many rewards for the reader as they go,
both aural and imagistic; even those looking for personal revelation will find something
to enjoy here. I enjoyed the breathless freedom these prose poems allowed the writer,
and trusted the poems to build me an imaginary world that I could both relate to and admire
as a construction. Landscapes I & II is a delightful excursion into the real
and imaginary worlds of Lewis's mind.
We were born once; we walked through forests; we tried to save ourselves
and our belongings; our fathers died and went away in boats.
We are drifters, I tell you, handsome."
View three poems from Lanscapes I and II
Lesle Lewis is also the author of Small Boat, which won the 2002 Iowa Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in many journals including Pleiades, American Letters and Commentary, Northern New England Review, Old Crow, Green Mountains Review, Barrow Street, Mudfish, Slope, LIT, Sentence, and Pool. She teaches literature and writing at Landmark College in Vermont and lives in New Hampshire.