lie down too
Alice James Books
Reviewed by Erin Lyndal Martin
Certain shellfish come with a kind of “key” on their underside to help you open and consume the meat inside. Often, books of poetry are the same way, featuring poems that teach the reader how best digest the meaty poems within.
There are a few keys hiding throughout Lesle Lewis’ lie down too (Alice James Books), but mostly unlocking this volume’s exoskeleton leads to more questions about how to read it. One such poem that simultaneously opens and hides the book’s content is the remarkable “Fear of Wolves.” “Fear of Wolves” is the book’s first proper prose poem but reading it—as well as the rest of the volume—forces the reader to question what a prose poem is. Lewis’ poems are usually left-justified single lines, double spaced. Are these prose poems with small stanzas, or are they lineated poems that could be read as prose? The biggest, most surprising question that this conundrum raises is this: Why does it matter? Not merely for the sake of opening up the tired form/content debate, but to better understand Lewis’ book. Why do we—if we indeed do—read prose poems differently? What expectations do we put upon lineated vs. nonlineated verse?
“Fear of Wolves” is an outstanding poem because it is the first piece in lie down too that makes the reader entertain these questions. Lewis’ lines, which often take wild imaginative leaps flow better within the comfort of the prose structure. But is that structure a farce to the fact that the now-enjambed lines seem to have a logic to them? Or does this structure simply teach us how to read the other poems?
We have our talking-baby-dreams and then it’s day,
and we’re fine and fine and sad and fine. We let our questions off
their leashes and we head to the picture show lugging our
philosophic backpacks. We walk, we run. Something else could
This stanza (from “Fear of Wolves”) is not necessarily more cohesive than the lines we later find in “August:”
The tops of the trees, the mommies and girls, are in the sky.
We regain our momentum and desire.
We’re mostly brain and the house is full of sleepers still.
The frogs think we are weeds.
We’re in the mood and going down.
What is it about the white space between the lines that makes this poem so disquieting, so difficult in which to find continuity?
And how does a poet establish continuity (if continuity is even necessary, which is yet another debate)? Usually, in poems where lines are as disjointed as they are in lie down too, looking to the speaker for transparency yields results. Querying the speaker’s (or speakers’) use of language, reliability, references to other poems in the text(s), etc. can reveal much about a cloudy poem. Such is not the case with Lewis’ work, however. Here, even finding a speaker is much of a fishing expedition. Lewis switches fluidly, often within the same poem between “I” and “we,” but the book gives no clues as to whether this I and me are constant throughout the book or even throughout a single poem.
Whatever the relationship is between the I and the “you”s (that form the “we”), the “you” always seems heavily invested in similar engagements as the speaker. In the stunning opening poem, “Sex in the Farmyard by the Light of Mars,” Lewis writes:
By the lights of cars and howling dogs, we attempt a mild form of honesty.
The afternoon slants in and cows stare out.
Your goal is to unload the trailer and mine is to fill the wood-shed.
We lie together in the sawdust.
The urgency of these missions—this and others—continue through the book with a burning exigency and quite strangeness. “We build a long white bridge over the lake privately,” Lewis writes in “The Sky is Overcast As My Head.” “You put the plastic baby on the moving walkway and took pictures of its progress,” she opens “The Plastic Baby.”
The bizarreness of so many actions that comprise these poems seems both highly tempered and heightened by the easily digestible one-liners that often appear in otherwise opaque poems. “To stay with the accessible would be ridiculous,” Lewis asserts later in “The Plastic Baby.” And maybe that line indeed is the built-in key on lie down too‘s underbelly. What, the book asks, is the payoff for staying “with the accessible?” What is the payoff for not? These are just two of the questions raised by Lewis in lie down too, a book with many locks, many keys, and many underbellies.
Erin Lyndal Martin is a poet, fiction writer, music journalist, critical prose writer, and essayist living in Madison, WI. Her work has recently appeared in Gulf Coast, Bat City Review, and dislocate. She can be found on Twitter at @erinlyndal.