Take a Moment


Lie Down Too, Lesle Lewis (62pp, $16.95, Alice James)
Emporium
, Ian Pindar (83pp, 9.95, Carcanet)


Let me begin by quoting from Lesle Lewis' poem 'I'll Laugh when I'm Ready' as a means of trying to explain something underlying in lie down too: 'Lately I've been tortured by these abstractions when really they are only doors with knobs on the wrong side.' If we allow the 55 poems that make up lie down too to represent these abstractions-turned-doors, then we're left with nearly 55 knobs that we, as readers, have trouble reaching. Nearly.

Some of Lewis' poems get the job done, no questions asked. Here is 'Aretha and Giacometti' in its entirety:

     The mule stands just so to get that slice of morning glow.

     You remove a horsefly from your coffee.

     It's a short life so full of insects.

     When you say, 'Look at that,' I look at the same time.

     We never talk.

Within those lines is a condensed version of what makes parts of
lie down too so enjoyable. The imagery isn't overwritten. The narrator has a curious eye, but a quiet tongue. And the ending somehow creates a rubber band ball out of one rubber band. 'Aretha and Giacometti' is, however, one of the few exceptions to lie down too's rule. Most of the poems read too quickly, which is less of an issue by itself, but when combined with the fact that most also don't linger after being read, the book ends up being fun in the moment only.

Lewis' quick style certainly favors the poems with shorter stanzas, rather than the longer prose-poems. In these poems, she almost always has one sentence stand as a full stanza, allowing for successive scenes for the reader to contemplate, but with considerate pauses:

     At the quarry floating, a big dead bear belly down.
 
     What did he think before he died?

     What if difficulty of access to the unconscious is its only defining feature?

     We call Fish and Game and Fish and Game won't come.
                  ['Bear Questions']

     You enter the philosopher's gallery.

     Your categories have been all wrong up until now.

     No adjective is small enough for the work you do in your life on the planet.

     Are you trying to be me sleeping on my side of the bed after all these years?
              ['I See My Categories Have Been All Wrong up Until Now']

These read swiftly and purposefully. And this is not to say that the longer poems lack that same kind of purpose. The author's mastery over the one-liner often benefits her in those poems as well, such as with 'April Afternoons': 'They thought we were saying the candy machine on the third floor was broken, but we were saying our girlfriends have left us and our hearts are broken.' What prevents those kinds of poems from elevating to the level of the shorter works is that they use the same style of hard imagery, but disallow the stanza breaks that make reading the shorter poems easier. Thus, the reader will often be referring back because of the feeling of having missed something.

To give it the credit it deserves,
lie down too is often intensely hilarious and thoughtful. But with a $16.95 price tag and pages that sometimes seem more anecdotal than poetic after the book's been shut, it's hard to say for certain that readers will think it worth the purchase (even with such a fantastic design by Alice James Books).


Ian Pindar's Emporium is also worth a moment of your consideration. The beginning of John Ashbery's quote on the back cover claims that 'It was about time for somebody to be channeling Eliot,' and I couldn't agree more.

Pindar literally breathes life into stale and gimmicky forms. '
Les Vacances de Monsieur P.' is a sestina. 'Les Vacances de Monsieur P.' is a poem that I don't hate. These two sentences next to each other amaze me. Any writer of poetry will tell you how difficult it is to write even just a mildly successful sestina, and Pindar shows us how it's done while using ambitious end-words in 'affection' and 'remainder' without making us want to gouge our own eyes out at regular intervals. Form enhancing content is a common occurrence in Emporium, and it makes the Eliot comparison appropriate.

And yet the eternal question arises: what the hell? Amidst Pindar's careful construction is sometimes a voice planted embarrassingly on a massive pedestal:

     And the monarch is above the law
                  Crown Immunity
     and the Privy Council shrouded in mystery
     and the keeper of the monarchy the BBC
     and every royal wedding is a funeral
                  for democracy;
     and our elected representatives reprimanded
     for mentioning the monarch in the House
     and the misinformed multitude
                  wave flags and worship
                  wave flags and worship
     a phantom at the rotten core
                   of our botched democracy.
                                [from 'The King's Evil']

                   Men of action, irrational,
     suspicious of intellect: all dissent
     is betrayal and betrayal death.

                    Fear difference: the enemy
     within. If you are weak
     you will die, as Nature intended.
                                [from 'Society of Blood']

I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being lectured to at various points in
Emporium, which was so surprising considering how great some of the other poems are. The opening poem, for instance, begins the collection with such creepy energy:

     Darkness beyond everything.
     Nothing visible except

     limbs turning, seeking rest,
     arms and legs bending, unbending,

     like a puppet examining its joints.
     The head moving from side to side

     as if struck by invisible fists
     from different angles, from inside
                [from 'Figure Study']

The good thing is that the over-the-top-finger-waving moments don't bog the collection down. It's just merely interesting and confusing to experience those moments when they do happen.
Emporium could have easily been pared and been a better book. It emanates creativity, at one point joining lines of over one hundred poets, from Langland to Chernoff, in a poetic 'Chain Letter,' as it's titled. This kind of experimentation stands as its main charm and makes it worth reading and re-reading. And as this is Pindar's first collection, I'm already excited to see what he comes up with in his follow-up. Hopefully, though, he'll have made his political opinions more seamlessly integrated into the poetry, which he has such a natural connection with, whether it's echoing the storytelling brilliance of a peak-performance Tennyson in 'Big Bumperton on the Sabbath' or using rhyme and form in the most contemporary of fashions:

     Your third marriage collapsed like an old barn.
     The crash of it silenced the saloon-bar chatter
           
     like the cry of a newborn.
     You never expected to stumble and shatter

     like a fumbled glass, or drown
     amongst strangers in a bar.

     On sunny days, the curtains drawn,
     Pernod on tap but no beer,

     the decor emerald green and gold
     your early promise unfulfilled,

     you hid away from the world,
     certain you had failed.

     Your looks dropped away with the years
     and the people you knew.

     The son you stopped talking to cried real tears
     at your funeral, but not for you.
            ['An Accident in Soho']


           Sean Colletti 2011