Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Lesle Lewis, Rainy Days on the Farm


It looks easy to write for love, water, and love.

This happens and then this and then things stop.

That’s the plot.

Our placentas detach.

Our placebos have side effects.

We are brothers and sisters with conflicting theories.

Do we contradict the given?

Frequently sacrifice the comprehensible to the unfathomable?

To the suffering of centuries?

Is earth to hold the plants?

I’m working my way through New Hampshire poet Lesle Lewis’s fifth full-length poetry collection, Rainy Days on the Farm (Hudson NY: Fence Books, 2020), winner of The Ottoline Prize. Author of the prior collections Small Boat (winner of the 2002 Iowa Poetry Prize), Landscapes I & II (Alice James Books, 2006), lie down too (Alice James Books, 2011) and A Boot’s a Boot (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2014), as well as the chapbook It’s Rothko in Winter or Belgium (Factory Hollow Press, 2012), I am equally surprised and disappointed to have not known of her work until now (although this does provide the opportunity to pick up some of her prior collections). Rainy Days on the Farm is a collection of very sharp meditative sketches; poems that play with fragment and narrative, poems that re-order and shift expectation, and allow the collision of subject and thought to reveal what might not have been otherwise possible. Lewis’ poems might appear straightforward, but they are anything but, and twist and turn in remarkably subtle ways. One good example is this sentence-stanza that sits in the poem “Mania breaks.,” that reads: “Fragment plus fragment equals fragmentation and we can work harder with what we have left of what we have lost or what we have left of what we never had.” There is such a lovely disassemblage and reassemblage to Lewis’ poems, one that rewards careful reading. As part of a recent interview on the new collection, conducted by Benjamin Niespodziany for Neon Pajamas (posted September 21, 2020), Lewis responds:

The poems in this books were written over about five or six years, so there’s a pretty wide range of concerns here, but I think it’s not all that different from my previous books.  I’m always and still concerned with consciousness and the natural world. 

I can’t really be objective enough to say what’s changed in my writing over the years, but I know that I feel more and more faith in my process, that is trusting a poem to teach me where it means to go. And I may be more more patient with the revising process, how a poem becomes itself with time, sometimes years.  

Of course I have lots of doubts along the way too. I guess doubt is also part of the process. 

I’m curious about how Lewis refers to the poems within the collection as prose poems; while I wouldn’t specifically argue against any of that, these are poems that focus less on the prose-poem-stanza than on the sentence itself, something she might just have in common with Canadian poets Lisa Robertson and Daphne Marlatt: very much poets of sentences, and their accumulation. “If there is a couple.” she writes, to open “An Open Easy Door.” “If there is not. // One will die before the other. // If your little life. // A pentimento. // If you loved a banjo. // If you skipped the night. // If this is a post virtual reality crash. // If the text meanders.” Arguably, her blend of the fragment and farm-considerations also includes a resonance to Robertson’s notion of the “pastoral,” and Lewis’ poems allow for a landscape of cows, green woods, rain, horses and birds as both foreground and background, providing backdrop for something else, something equally, if not more important, going on underneath. These are remarkable poems.

The Cows

Assertions in the humongous much you call “complex psychiatric conditions” and I call breezes.

It’s like determining market value or lining up for something stupid.

Is it not enough that on top of nothing there is everything?

No information comes or goes.

When I can’t think what else to say, I say “Thank you.”

Cars pass each other on the highway and that’s all.

Seven, then ten, then twelve cows surround me and their cicle gets tighter.

Their hovering sharpens the light, and I judge the light’s movements, like the cows’, by the freshness of the manure.

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