Space Struck by Paige Lewis
Sarabande Books 2019
I learn the universe is an arrow
without end and it asks only one question:
How dare you? I recite it in bed, How dare
you? How dare you?
It seems strange to be writing about poetry right now, while everybody struggles with huge changes to their daily lives. And don’t @ me, I did a BA in English Literature and an MA in writing poetry—I know art is important, but it matters in a completely different way to things like food and housing and medical care. The thing is, this book of poems feels essential. It gives us a whole new perspective on the world—revealing even the most ordinary things as something precious and strange. “Every experience seems both urgent and / unnatural,” Lewis writes, which reads almost as a premonition, printed months ago and truer now than ever.
The first of Paige Lewis’ poems I ever read was “You Can Take Off Your Sweater, I’ve Made Today Warm,” and I was completely charmed from the offset. As the playful tone disassembles into something more fractured and frantic, the poem outgrows itself and starts to take up too much space on the page, breaking out of its couplets. I love the beautiful oddity of the poem’s narrative—“two men / floating in a rocket ship are ignoring their delicate experiments,” they are turning their ship around and coming back to Earth for you. You will take one as a winter husband and one as a summer husband.
This poem does something I’d never read in a poem before—it turns against the authority of its own narrator’s voice. It asks why you should do what it says, even when it can offer you everything:
do you want to know Latin
okay now everyone
here knows Latin want inflatable deer
You can stand and walk away even as it speaks. You can ignore the men, the deer, the rocket ship. You can leave your sweater behind, even though it might be cold.
The collection’s opening poem, “Normal Everyday Creatures,” is just as brilliant, and points to how the voice of the poem controls its perspective, playing a game with us—“I’m going to show you some photos— / extreme close-ups of normal, everyday / creatures.” This voice is a generous guide, offering hints, promising to revise the game. I find it oddly comforting to have—at the very beginning of the book—such a clear acknowledgement of the power the speaker has, to direct our attention to or away from certain things. There’s an honesty in it that makes it easier to trust the speaker, as they ask us to follow them into the dark (and the rest of the book):
And when the path grows too dark to see even
the bright parts of me, have faith in the sound
of my voice. I’m here. I’m still the one leading.
Throughout Space Struck, small pockets of the divine appear in ordinary places. St. Francis takes off layer-upon-layer of robes in the corner of a studio apartment. The poet’s bed turns into the “Chapel of the Green Lord,” sacred in all its dishevelment. God’s secretary leaves an exasperated message telling you to “Get real, darling. If He answered all prayers / you’d be dead five times over.” She’s busy but sympathetic, taking a moment out of her day to warn you. These men will take every inch you give them: “if you offer a sorry mouth, they’ll break it.”
And just as the transcendent becomes commonplace, very specific everyday things suddenly seem holy. What an extraordinary thing to be on a train, “approaching the station where my beloved / is waiting to take me to the orchard, so we can // pay for the memory of having once, at dusk, / plucked real apples from real trees.” How strange, to pick fruit with your own bare hands. Stranger still to have to pay money for the experience.
In one of my favourite poems, “The Moment I Saw a Pelican Devour,” the poet asks what makes something a miracle. Is it “anything that God forgot / to forbid”? When women in factories were paid to paint watch dials with radium, they were told “to lick their brushes into sharp points.” This poem reads as a kind of elegy to these women, whose bodies became something unearthly. The miracle, Lewis writes, “is not that these women swallowed light,” but that the Radium Corporation claimed syphilis as their cause of death. They are resurrected here before us, more vibrant than saints, commemorated with dignity and grief.
Space Struck is generous with its attention—it focuses in on normal everyday creatures and women lost in time; it pans up to show us the intricacies of admin work in heaven; and it turns outwards to the Voyager space probes. The list goes on, and whatever these poems turn their gaze on they do so with compassion, grace and a hint of playfulness, shining a light on the humanity in everything. The book becomes a showcase of extraordinary things, which seemed, up till now, completely ordinary.
Ash Davida Jane
Ash Davida Jane is a poet from Wellington. Some of her recent work can be found in Peach Mag, Starling, Scum, The Spinoff, and Best NZ Poems 2019. Her second book, How to Live with Mammals, is forthcoming from Victoria University Press.
Paige Lewis is the author of Space Struck (Sarabande Books, 2019). Their poems have appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Best New Poets 2017, Gulf Coast, The Massachusetts Review, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. Paige currently lives and teaches in Indiana.
Paige Lewis website