Reviewed By Carol Ciavonne
- The Word Works (2018)
- 84 pages
A zoom lens is meant to help us see what we otherwise could not: a ship far away on an expanse of ocean, the color of the tail feathers in a flying bird. In this metaphor, the immediate frame for the reader of Zoom is Lewis’s sense of wordplay—the words flash and dazzle. There are multiple puns and allusions—some delightfully funny and some that bite—but the play and profound thought fuel each other. Zoom focuses on our American condition: the observable popular culture of our time and the recognizable concern we have about the environment. It also focuses on our human condition: changeable, anxious for love, fearful of death, aware of (and trying to ignore) our own. But more than meets the describing eye, Zoom is an enquiry into the question of our existence.
Puns are “as old as language, possessing irresistible appeal and appearing in all literatures [and were] discussed and analyzed by Aristotle and Cicero,” according to The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms. “The pun could be used for comic effect, but it was also a means of emphasis and an instrument of persuasion,” though it sometimes went unheeded. Croesus, for example, did not believe the prediction of the Oracle at Delphi: “Whenever a mule shall become sovereign king of the Medians, then, Lydian Delicate-Foot, flee by the stone-strewn Hermus, flee, and think not to stand fast, nor shame to be chicken-hearted” (“List of oracular statements from Delphi”). Unfortunately for Croesus, Cyrus (who was the son of a Median mother and a Persian father, thus half-Mede, half-Persian) could be considered a “mule” and Croesus lost his empire. Puns, as spoken by the oracles, demonstrate to us that we are clever, yes, but that perhaps we aren’t as smart as we think we are, while still opening the door to multiple perceptions on our humanity. Shakespeare, Joyce, and Stein used them and they continue to be a feature in works by contemporary poets like D. A. Powell and Solmaz Sharif. Employing many varieties of allusion, alliteration, and puns of all types, Susan Lewis makes the reader laugh, sometimes uneasily, but she also makes us stop to consider our rich, frenetic biological and literary existence. In “Stolid”, she writes:
Hail to the cheat & other icy escapades, indebted to begetting the microbes haloing our dreams. Careful, in our slap-dash way, like typewriter monkeys theeing and thouing ‘til the vowels come roam. Standing in place, aerobically enmeshed. Thrashed and slathered. Illusion of stability mister & missed until baby makes free.
“Stolid” contains multitudes: “Hail to the cheat,” “‘til the vowels come roam,” and “baby makes free.” Throughout the book, the poems often take classical forms: sonnets, eclogues, odes, and like puns, they take the idea of form and play with it. The book is arranged in three sections—titled, literally, “3rd,” “2nd,” and “1st”—following the operation of a zoom lens, as the book narrows its focus from the wider third person view to the close-up final poems in the first person.
In many of the poems, Lewis draws not only on familiar metaphors and common American vernacular, but on those bits and pieces of poetry or mythic lore that live in our consciousness and inform our philosophy. The Romantics, for instance, saw the world as a unified whole in which feeling and consciousness were a necessary part. Lewis points out what might be our contemporary view of Xanadu while “wander[ing] through the leaving gaze of caverns minuscule to man” (“Make Haste”). In our present day, when almost nothing is measureless, the mystery and even the idea of unfathomable caverns as “minuscule” is a notion that would have quite surprised the Romantic poets. Or maybe our hubris has made all things minuscule in comparison to us? But in “False Promise,” an allusion to “La Belle Dame sans Merci”, “pale and wondering that no birds sing” (now that we have so endangered their habitat) is balanced with “Like JK’s sparrow scratching out its message in the desiccated hedge.” The original quotation from Keats’s letter: “The setting sun will always set me to rights, or if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel” (“Letter to Benjamin Bailey”). Maybe to take refuge in the small acts of nature in the moment is one way we can take pleasure in existence when confronted with the latest statistics.
The relationship between ourselves and nature is reiterated in other poems, most poignantly in “Another Chance.” “Like the soulful loris, whittled by our auto love” is a syllepsis that refers both to our species’ self-love at the expense of other life and one of our greatest contributions to the extinction of nature, whether by slaughter or pollution: the automobile. Our relationship to nature is as inextricable from our current political situation and as “comfortable as couches couched in pretty promises” (“In Praise of Lying”). The hopeless question in “This Is When”—“What is to be done but breathe in toxins and perseverate”—hints that persevering is only perseverating, not changing the conditions that cause the toxins.
Lewis’s wit is on view throughout the book, but she repeats the trope of “the swell of strings,” “to the taut & tragic swell of strings,” “to the swell of strings” (“The Original Self-Pleasure Equation,” “In a Contingency,” and “If /&”) as a poke at the sentimentality that allows us to imagine our lives as bigger and more romantic than they are, as screenplays complete with orchestral theme. In “In Praise of Mortality,” Lewis pokes at our reliance on the simplistic epiphanies of slogans, “tripping off the tongue of the heart of the matter.” Then, in “If/&,” she turns E. M. Forster’s “Only connect!” into, variously, “Only compress,” “Only dissect” (“Only Dissect”), and, my favorite, “Only delegate, you growl, lauding the lay of the landed, biding your ticked-off time” (“Four Shortcuts to Amelioration”).
It would be a mistake to overlook the sheer joy of some of the wordplay: “In the puddles of your future: ruminants. Ruminate on this, they say” (“In the Puddles”). Or, the alliterative “another aging aunt with violet hair, violent if inviolate” (“This Is When”), and not to mention “Not to mince woulds, but this sibilance is skilling us” (“Dear Sir”). And I think she has invented a new plural: “Lassitude of dogs barking for their phantom herd” (“Make Haste”). Is it just me, or is this a pun on the old TV show?
But poetry is surely philosophy. It’s clear that one of Lewis’s central questions is how the ephemeral events of the world and the context of literature and culture that we have built for ourselves affect our ephemeral beings, the perception of ourselves, and how that influences what we do. And beyond. Is there a beyond? Lewis asks in “Only Dissect,”: “Who will glean the logic of our final iteration?”
We may read and study to try to make meaning of our existence, but as in “Words Dying Off,” “neither Berkeley nor Fossett can console.” Along these lines, in Natural States, philosopher William Fosset writes:
To say something is meaningful is to say that that is how we arrange it so; how we comprehend it to be, and what is comprehended by you or I may not be by a cat, for example. If a tree falls down in a park and there is no-one to hand, it is silent and invisible and nameless. And if we were to vanish, there would be no tree at all; any meaning would vanish along with us. Other than what the cats make of it all, of course.
What good is philosophy in the face of this vanishing meaning? We are “the obscure & the celebrated stuck on this light-bouncing surface, Narcissi with or without reinforcements & other major minor distinctions” and “the universe grows itself to death beneath our naveled gaze” (“Words Dying Off”). Complicit in our own destruction. And yet.
THERE IS THE WEAR
of thought that cuts & floats without blight or bile.
There is the fine particularity of subatomic particles.
There is the clouds’ rosy hole through which
creation peeks and beckons, then retreats. As for the
frantic lives of animals & plants, the faux stillness
of minerals, the bell curve of phase change—I
am confident in osmosis, both cognitive & erotic.
I am certain of limits, as limitations litter my fear,
like plastic isles in a hapless green sea. You swallow
animal, mineral, & vegetal. Twenty questions bare
identities not yours, which slips & slides from
my desire like false advertising, false promise, or
truthful testimony. In the world of bats, dinner is
charted geometrically. In the world of foresight,
death has long tentacles, prying backwards, spoiling
some moments, enhancing others. Not to regret
sentience is to be ready for the next brutal blessing.
In this beautiful poem, almost a personal creed, Lewis brings together science, nature, and our own consciousness. Who are we when “twenty questions” or a thousand bring no definitive answers? Is our consciousness superior to the wondrous ability of a bat to find sustenance? Not to regret sentience—isn’t that joy or at least allowing the possibility for joy? And what is a brutal blessing but something that has the capacity for both great sorrow and great joy, great destruction and great creation? Maybe we are our own brutal blessing. In one of the most hopeful lines in the book, I imagine a being looking through a zoom lens at us, seeing our brief lives, our fear and frenzy, and also our capacity, if limited, for beauty and goodness. In “Crashing”: “While we panicked pan-flashes brighten & ignite & even shine.”
Carol Ciavonne’s poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Boston Review, Colorado Review, New American Writing, among other journals. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Rain Taxi, Pleiades, Colorado Review, and Entropy. She is the author of Birdhouse Dialogues (LaFi 2013), with artist Susana Amundaraín, and the collection of poetry Azimuth (Jaded Ibis Press 2014). She is an associate editor for Posit, an online journal of literature and art.