Space Struck, Paige Lewis, Sarabande Books 2019
Last Dream, Giovanni Pascoli, trans. Geoffrey Brock, World Poetry Books 2019
Space Struck, the debut collection from Paige Lewis, is a book of unembarrassed love poems, written in what is probably the defining verse idiom of our time, the first-person digressive lyric. I say “digressive” because experience itself resists narrative, resists easy alignments of cause and effect. People make stories; their moments do not. This mode sometimes confuses personal experience with poetic drama. Its many disclosures, its formal attempts toward capital-n Narrative, are, therefore, risky. But, in Lewis’s case, the risk of personal disclosure proves to be vital. In this book, people in love are always and never ordinary. They are at once perfected selves and shadows of one another, and flutter like starlight or heartbeats, like bodies in orbit in “My Dear Wolfish Dreamboat, Stand Still”:
Give them a moon—here, balance
this egg on your nose. Oh darling,
now they’re building a telescope!
Do you think they can see me?
Clearly? Does it hurt?
These lines confirm something of Lewis’s thesis, which is, like all good love stories, paradoxical, imperfect, strange, and recognizable: love for others is, by extension, love for the world, and is radical not so much as it changes the world, but, rather, because it renews the creative potential of a world otherwise dead to enchantment.
But love ends, of course, in pain: the pain of consummation, separation, or death. This idea is summarized at the end of “Magic Show”—Lewis has a real ear for endings—a poem about (what else?) the uncanny attraction of things and people, or one person on another: “And this makes / sense, like how earth refuses to release its pull / on the moon. Look, she says, look how full I was.” The past tense is crucial here; no one really knows how full they are until they’re empty. And the losses one suffers, the ones implicit in living in the world, are close to beauty, nearer to outrage: “The color is half the pain. Why / would anyone else want to see? How dare they?” (“Because the Color is Half the Taste”).
Here’s another notion these poems provoke: Love restores nothing but an inward potential to love something else—
Watching you chew your mint, the men
forget about their gritty toothpaste, about
their fingers, numb from lack of gravity.
They see you and, for the first time since
liftoff, think home. When they were boys
they were gentle. And smart.
(“You Can Take Off Your Sweater, I’ve Made Today Warm”)
—which is to say that love and its attending gentleness is self-perpetuating and a kind of intelligence native to children, one that might survive the annihilating “good sense” of sure judgement and reason relegated to adulthood. Love, like good poetry (this collection sometimes conflates the two) refuses reason: “A dartboard in every garage! // A prison sentence for anyone caught / explaining magic.” Love and poetry are therefore party to the same project: they act against our impulse toward pattern and regularity, preferring, if not chaos, then free play and surprise.
There’s so much to do within the meanings of these poems. There’s more happening in the lines themselves, of course. Everything here is hinting at song, making noise between the notes. If not music—and I’m more and more skeptical that poetry really makes music—what they make possible is the same kind of thing made possible by sight-reading composed music—a possibility of harmony, of counterpoint. There’s at least the potential for contrast and song in these lines from the close of “Diorama of Our Need to Escape the Cold We Make”:
I used up my toothiness years ago—
rendered myself kind. And besides, he’s teaching me
confinement. How to feel the fences. When he
pulls me toward the fire, he pulls me by my wrist.
It’s rare to read a book whose tensions are so close to its subject, a book that intimates so much the experience of loving something, someone, and delimits what a body becomes when love happens to it. The book’s tensions, which are dramas of personal commitment and cosmic change, are left humanely unresolved. This reader’s always more invested in the middle of a story than the end because endings never really happen. If they did, that would spell the death of reading, writing, and literature itself: “Look how full I was.” There’s little forecasting in this book. It describes things as they are and were, but not as they should be: “so we can // pay for the memory of having once, at dusk, / plucked real apples from real trees.” It serves, therefore as antithesis, if not quite a remedy, to the fatal future, where all precious things seem, especially now, doomed to futility. This is how Lewis ends a poem called “Last Night I Dreamed I Made Myself”:
Do they still
count, these hours I’ve spent on my
own? Do they still count if I’m saving
all of my shiniest thoughts for you?
These lines suggest that time can change with thought—not merely our perception of time but the quality of time itself. Which implies what one often suspects of poetry, that it’s spellcasting more than anything else. Finally, there is this diminuendo, another ending, from the title poem:
he lifts my nightgown and kneads my thigh.
He says, How deep, like he’s reaching into a galaxy.
He says, How full, and looks up to see if I wince.
Who does the singing in love songs? Everyone in earshot, I imagine, if they’re good as these.
I hadn’t heard of Giovanni Pascoli until Geoffrey Brock’s new translation of his selected poems arrived a few months ago. Pascoli was an Italian poet of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s perhaps best to read these as I did, with little context or explanation; they are poems from a language I do not speak, in an idiom that I hardly recognize as my own. And yet Brock’s Pascoli achieves something I think many contemporary English-language poets are too self-conscious to attempt. Here’s an epigram called “The Past”:
Returning to places where I once shed tears,
I see in those tears now a kind of smile.
Returning to those places where I used to smile—
oh! those smiles: how full they were of tears!
This is a clever poem, dependent on a keen if initially obvious inversion of experience and memory. I admire it because it eschews personal authority in the interest of a more generalized humanity. None of these “places,” “tears,” and “smiles” are specific to a given space or time; things aren’t always as they were, and when they are, they’re never fully. To call this poem merely precious would be a poor misreading. Anyway, what is this world of words, its consolation, if not the more precious now? Pascoli was a poet for whom the world’s pain reversed itself in a kind of late childhood, a learned gentleness toward the world and one’s memory of it. Naiveté isn’t quite a virtue, but innocent remembering is. Thus Pascoli in “My Evening”:
These voices of blue shadows . . .
they take me, like lullabies,
back to what once I was . . .
I’d hear my mother, then nothing,
in the dark evening.
Detail, in these poems, is a form of care, an acknowledgment of one’s attention to the world where doom is rightly proximate to grace. “Fog” describes the joy of familiar things in a time of suffering:
Hid from my eyes what is dead:
the world is drunk on tears . . .
Show my two peach trees in bloom,
my two pears,
that spread their sugared balm
on my black bread.
That those pears are “sugared,” that the “black” bread might be savored simply for its color, that bloom slants so readily into balm, are all minor miracles, proof of what good translation can do when one writer is fully equipped in the language and sensibility of another: “bloom / balm” is as much Brock’s rhyme as “meli / meili” is Pascoli’s.
What most endears me to these poems are the ways in which they admit that a world reclaimed by poetry is too often a world annihilated by creative attention, that one’s writing about the spaces one inhabits—physical, social, metaphysical—deconstructs so much of what we love about those spaces. This is what happens to a pair of priests in “Autumn Evening”:
They walk, and speak among themselves of death.
And all around them dead leaves fall to earth.
Among them fall the dead leaves, one by one.
They go to watch the death-throes of the sun.
I love how light is cannibalized here: a sunset devours the sun. These end rhymes “death / earth,” “one / sun” are Brock’s; in Pascoli’s Italian, death (morte) and sun (sole) double themselves. That kind of repetition is useful; there’s a dirge-like oblivion in repeated end-sounds. But Brock’s rhymes are just as effective and, better yet, sly: death easily echoes in earth. “Death and Sun” relies on the same obliviating light for its last stanza:
Likewise when you gaze upon
the star that in our lonely sky is burning,
you see—what, Eye? A nothingness of sun,
a void, churning.
I like that the sky is “lonely,” a paradox through inversion: wouldn’t the sun seem more alone in the sky? Perhaps the sky forgets itself, which is a penetrating notion, one that perhaps betrays Pascoli’s self-consciousness as a poet and belies the innocent clarity of argument that buoys his work. The interrogating Eye often loses the world in too much light.