Saturday, March 29, 2014

Susan Lewis’ “State of the Union” (Spuyten Duyvil) and “How to Be Another” (Cervena Barva Press)

Reviewed By Rob Talbert

ISBN 978-0-923389-91-8
Lewis’ chapbook, appropriately titled “State of the Union,” delves into the kaleidoscope of emotion and obstructions that arise in hyperactive urban landscapes. Juggling one’s personal desires with public image in fast-paced daily life, compounded by the constant discovery of new experience, forms the central conflict with which the poems are concerned. “This is not a movie” Lewis opens her chapbook, “but now & then it feels like one, & often has the same symptoms.” These “symptoms” she references are addressed in the successive pages with busy and overstimulating streams of prose poetry. Thickly constructed, the inundation carried by Lewis’ lines serves to emulate the swath of urban influence that is “spontaneously irrupted, inter- if not co-, exogenously layered like that sexy cake you sport to shield you from the reign of expression.” Every poem is a strong current of sounds and implanted thought, of shifting gears and approaches, but within that current is a distinctive cry against the confusion. A cry for the unfiltered, unarmored, connection. Reading through these poems is like walking through rush hour pedestrian traffic, and in the barrage of advertisements, smells, sounds, and ideas you suddenly lock eyes with someone passing you, someone gorgeous. And then they’re gone. Swallowed up by the environment. “State of the Union” is an overview and structural parody of our collective behavior in densely populated areas, specifically, how we often let one another fall by the wayside in the overwhelming world.

The full-length “How to Be Another”gives similar attention to these themes, yet carries a more personal, confessional, tone. The book turns away from the larger audience “State of the Union” addresses and begins a private conversation, one-on-one with the reader.

“In the metropolis of my psyche, no one is mayor. It’s a minefield in there, a bed of thorny roses. You may not be simpatico, but someone needs to dive in. Someone must swim these waters. Everyone will drown.”

If “State of the Union” is from the exterior looking in then “How to Be Another” is from the interior looking out. It is a collection of poems constructing multiple passages toward empathy, which is exactly what it means to “be another.”

A unique strength of the poems is their refusal to specify the nature of personal relationships. Most poets eagerly take us right into their bedrooms and relationships. They tell us specifically who said what and the colors of the furniture in order to bridge their experience with the reader, with the interior and exterior worlds. But Lewis does this without the cast of characters and props. Only a “you” or other personal pronoun is mentioned in her poems, rarely is it ever a sister or husband or friend or garbage man. “How to Be Another” is an account of the we, him, or her. This obscurity allows the reader to engage solely with the effects of conflict rather than the people who cause them. The effect Lewis creates is welcoming because to include these specifics would change how I read the poems. I’ve been angry before but never at my brother, because I don’t have a brother. Eliminating this  “overload of blurred identities” allows the poems to be entered with necessary neutrality. We read of experience without the vessel who carries it, and this direct, pure interaction produces a kind of clarity. As Lewis explains, “False consciousness adorns our sparkling smiles, like spinach, like bling, like a koala clinging to his fix, but that certainly is no excuse.”

Wordplay is another credit to Lewis’ book. Each prose poem is woven with highly developed assonance that brings both richness and new dynamics. As the poems address the repetitiveness of daily life through subject, their construction simultaneously takes on repetitiveness in sound. The cadence is an intended parallel to the habitual patterns in our lives.

“On & on towards death & its weak-kneed counterpart. But enough about us. […] Say again what I might knead, seeded & sown, thrown like caution to the wind, wound like any toy keyed up to meet its maker.”

The use of the ampersand in place of the word “and” is consistent throughout the entire book, and I sense its presence serves as a subtle reminder of our dependency on symbols. Symbols are myriad in the overload of urban environments and missed intentions, and symbol, by its very nature, demands inference. Like the McDonald’s arches or Nike checkmark, the ampersand in Lewis’ poems is a structural illustration of something larger. In this case, the danger of inferring what you think you know.

Playful and unapologetic, “State of the Union” and “How to Be Another” are not just easy to step into, but easy to inhabit. Each book rapidly addresses our fragmented concepts of anonymity, narcissism, appreciation, sympathy, diplomacy, physics and other concepts we brashly agree to understand. The voice is frank and forever in the flux of shifting emotion and environment. The poems are brief and acute. They are narratives, signposts, windows and fragments that stream heavy lines pulled right off the sensory-packed urban streets. Within these lines lies the struggle for each of us to connect and empathize with others. The struggles to clarify what symbols, what sounds, mean and how they affect us. Rife with misunderstanding and wordplay, the situations in the poems are all too recognizable. They threaten with the noise and confusion of lost focus, collectively emulating a crowd of people, all talking at once, while a crowd of ideas floods their minds. “Pay attention,” Lewis warns, “or the clamor in your head might very well prevail."

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