Paperback, 104 pages
In Susan Lewis’ latest collection of poetry, This Visit, she informs the reader of the paradox of being alive in the poem, “Severence:” “the world too beautiful/despite these flaked years.” She repeats this throughout the book, reiterating her passion for existence through metaphors and sleight-of-hand magical language. Lewis creates a landscape of language that shifts meaning and then doubles back to remind the reader of what her main intent is in this collection. I believe that a poet writes from a sense of urgency; that is, a poet looks for the source of life and the meaning of life by writing poetry, and Lewis is accomplishing that in this book. She writes these poems as means to explain and explore the complexities and the fragility of human existence. She explains the inevitable in the poem, “My Life in Microbes:”
But (you say)
some of my best friends are—
to which I nod:
It is a simple response to read and enjoy This Visit as a book that is filled with word play, puns, and intellectual maneuvers. However, there is much more to this collection of poetry than one finds in the first reading. Lewis gives the reader a sense of urgency in her poems, even as they come across as being delightfully clever. There is a seriousness written between the lines of these poems, and Lewis is very serious in her intentions in This Visit.
Lewis’ title, This Visit, suggests that someone is going to or has gone “to see” another place on this earth or in someone’s psyche. It can be agreed that we are merely “visiting” the earth and that our visits are temporary and may be occasional. As humans, we try to hang onto life as we know it and as we see and experience it with as much surety as possible. But regardless of our urge and desire to stay, it is only temporary. We try to convince ourselves that we will continue to live forever, and we posture and present ourselves in that way. Lewis tells us this in the poem, “My Life in Sheets:” “strapped & / balanced/ in their come-hither / wrappers, misconstrued & /moribund, mould’ring in / chat chat chat…” As humans, we are firmly entrenched in the idea of always being here, on this earth, but as humans, we also have memory, and we realize that is not how existence continues. It discontinues and is tenuous and fleeting, and it is not at all secure and eternal.
Not even language can hold us secure and can be held suspect, even as we continue to try and believe in its immutability. Through the playful use of alliteration, Lewis describes the lack of precision in human communication in “My Life in Fresh Starts:”
The din of words
marking what is
Language falls back on its meaning and cannot be understood.
Lewis skillfully uses language that seems to be self-conscious of itself as thought—thought understood as being and existing, or being a part of the life force. However, one views language, with all its slippage and lack of authority or credibility, as not being able to make our existence safe. In fact, it does the opposite; it exposes our lack of safety and stability. In the poem, “Keyed Out,” Lewis argues that we live our lives with great anxiety and with only small periods of peace.
If you can’t abide
the flighty hours,
rushing & stalling
to spite the war
of pleasure &
skip ten steps
We create meaning out of myth, and re-interpret our myths as narratives of our lives. Lewis gives the reader terrains and situations we experience as humans. She presents our lives as those of dogs, microbes, life in streets and branches, or as breath, and she animates through the interpretation of language and meaning. In the title poem, “This Visit,” Lewis reminds the reader of the inevitability of change: “while the debt of the body/on loan” and that not even language can contain life without any change. In fact, we are the language—we are constructs of the language, and we construct the language, as suggested in “Fresh New Order Of:” by
an aggregation of
stamping on a fresh new
order of finitude
Lewis writes about the eternal dilemma of existence. As long as we know that we are alive, we realize the tragedy of existence and the inevitable ending of life. Even though we continue to believe in our individual immortality, we live and then we are gone as quickly. We decay, and we are in the process of decay as soon as we are born. This is the burden that we carry. Lewis expresses this through language that is slippery, and changes meaning and shifts meaning into other meanings. Her poems give us the many dimensions of being alive and the fragility of those dimensions as we change throughout the words that create our lives. Lewis tells us in “This Visit:” “the word, I mean, reeking / its sly promise of rectitude / as if we know what should be done.” We give the words power, and in the end, words shake our belief in everything that we know we should believe in. Lewis lets the reader down gently, however, with a sense of removal from our problem through her humorous mocking at the frailty of human existence.