Review by Ann E. Michael
State of the Union
Spuyten Duyvil, 2013
paperback, 27 pages
It could be said that Susan Lewis’ poems in State of the Union operate by means of the framework of the prose poem as a metaphor for the dismantling and reconstruction of the conjugal relationship through paronomasia, punctuation, and parody; then again, “it’s all false induction ‘til it isn’t,” she writes.
Alternatively, Lewis’ poems could be summarized as quirky wordplay ping-ponging around the subject of marriage: “By which I mean surprise is like a pill, to be swallowed.”
Neither description does much to describe this intriguing chapbook-like collection that fairly leaps with shifts in tone, image, topic, perspective, and timbre. The union of the title acts as place-holder pun on any state of intertwining, be it a nation or a romance. It might be stretching the point, but the word could include Lewis’ union, or concatenation, of diverse communicative elements into a text that coheres and collapses continually, a kind of parallel to the ways human relationships sometimes develop or devolve—especially when love is at stake. In “Don’t Tell Me,” love is “[s]yncope, entropy, & all that jazz,” a wrangle of rhymes and parts of clichés that build to “[t]he sort of fling that’s all the buzz until it isn’t.” Such reversals—would the right word be metanoia?—plague the speakers peopling the poems, who try to “starve on cherries” and who are “choked by too much and not enough.”
Often, these shifts occur with such momentum it feels like collision; the pace of Lewis’ poetry is, as Elaine Equi notes, “frenetic.” One feels hurried through the poems, which might be an uncomfortable sensation for some readers—I’m not taking it in, I don’t get it, I’m rushing.
Yet that may be the point; instead of what love reads like, Lewis shows what love feels like. The heart pounds quickly, phrases don’t make the kind of sense they once did, confusion reigns. And as relationships morph, political and personal bedfellows may sense a sudden spiraling: “Urgently I urge you, gentles, tread gently or not genuflect before or genuine reflection…” The speakers in the poems are fickle, reliable only in their capacity to change yet searching, it seems, for something amid the dazzle that all too often signifies nothing. Lewis may promise “nothing you can put your finger on” but knows the inner life is “a fine & twisted labyrinth.”That kind of acknowledgment makes her book worth a second, more leisurely read during which to appreciate the ways she twists familiar turns of phrase to wring double and triple possible meanings out of what we think we know so well: the language we speak; our concepts of love.
Ann E. Michael is a poet, essayist, and educator whose most recent poetry collection is Water-Rites (2012). She lives in eastern PA where she is Writing Coordinator at DeSales University. Her website: www.annemichael.com.