Paige Lewis’s debut poetry collection, Space Struck (Sarabande Books, 2019) is a wonderful first effort. The poems feature a strong poetic voice that is contemplative, humorous, witty, philosophical, and politically self-aware. Lewis’s technical skills shine through in the way they use form to express poetic thought. In Space Struck, form and language are incredibly fine-tuned as the speaker moves from one concept to the next. Additionally, the speaker embodies an excellent sense of tone; it is intelligent, warm, friendly, and compassionate even as the poems explore darker topics. What is noteworthy about these poems is the way Lewis maintains the self as the central force operating throughout the collection. The speaker often meanders through elaborate mazes of thought, and yet, it is their strong sense of selfhood that serves as the solid foundation of poetic expression. Lewis can venture far outside the self and explore the depths of their interior self—often times in the same poem. This is what makes Lewis’s work interesting to read; their ability to shift between both modes with great astuteness and skill, creating a body of work that is both intellectual and humanist in scope.
“The Moment I Saw a Pelican Devour” is a poem where Lewis’s personal musings about spirituality turns into a serious meditation on suffering. In the beginning of the poem, Lewis states “…when you tell me that saints / are splintered into bone bits smaller than / the freckles on your wrist and that each speck / is sold to the rich, I know to marvel at this / and not the fact that these same saints are still / wholly intact and fresh-faced in their Plexiglas / tomb displays.” Much of the poem is about how remembrance is practiced through spirituality: “trepanation patients wear their / skull spirals as amulets” and “mothers frame the dried / foreskin of their firstborn.” And yet, there is a wonderful shift that occurs in the last part of the poem that acts as a counterbalance to spiritual remembrance:
the early 1920s, women were paid to paint radium
onto watch dials so that men wouldn’t have to ask
the time in dark alleys. They were told it was safe,
told to lick their brushes into sharp points. These
women painted their nails, their faces, and judged
whose skin shone brightest. They coated their
teeth so their boyfriends could see their bites
with the lights turned down. The miracle here
is not that these women swallowed light. It’s that,
when their skin dissolved and their jaws fell off
the Radium Corporation claimed they all died
from syphilis. It’s that you’re telling me about
the dull slivers of dead saints, while these
women are glowing beneath our feet.
This passage in particular is what makes Lewis so interesting to read. A poem about spirituality suddenly becomes a meditation on what it means to suffer the harshest brutalities under capitalism. Sainthood is criticized, and rightly so, as it is compared to the murder of women by corporate violence and corruption. As the speaker points out, the saints are honored for their suffering, but the women who died horrifically at the hands of the Radium Corporation are not properly recognized for their suffering.
Another particular strength of Lewis’s work is their ability to shift between darker and lighter material in ways that allow the reader deeper access into the speaker’s interior world. In the poem following the one above, “When I Tell My Beloved I Miss the Sun,” the speaker uses the shadow game as a metaphor for intimacy:
We walk into town and play the shadow game,
saying, Oh! I’m sorry for stepping on your
shadow! and Please be careful! My shadow is caught in the wheels
of your shopping cart. It’s all very polite.
Our shadows get dirty just like anyone else’s, so we take
them to the Laundromat—the one with
the 1996 Olympics-themed pinball machine—
and watch our shadows warm
against each other. We bring the shadow game home
and (this is my favorite part) when we
stretch our shadows across the bed, we get so tangled
my beloved grips his own wrist
certain it’s mine, and kisses it.
Here, readers can get a sense of Lewis’s playfulness, but also, through the speaker’s description of the shadow game, intimacy is examined in all of its beautiful complexity. It moves from lighthearted politeness, to warm affection, and then to poignant feeling: “when we / stretch our shadows across the bed, we get so tangled / my beloved grips his own wrist / certain it’s mine, and kisses it.” These last lines are particularly powerful because they articulate a merging of the speaker and the beloved: to love each other is to love themselves. Here, intimacy is unifying.
“The Terre Haute Planetarium Rejected My Proposal” is perhaps the most ambitious poem of the collection because of the way it ventures through complex meditative thought. It is also written in a challenging form: it masterfully shifts between couplets and tercets. In this poem, the speaker laments, “I fear that I’ll / come out the other side of rapture / with nothing but a taste for rapture.” And yet, what makes this poem significant is the speaker’s ability to take self-awareness to transcendent, postmodern levels:
Now, with my planetary hopes dashed,
I’m revising my lecture on futile repetition.
Imagine a line of identical circus clowns
frantically passing a pail of water from
the fire hydrant to their burning tent.
Now imagine a hole in the bottom
of that pail. Why would you imagine
such a thing? That tent was their home.
The speaker paints a clear image of “futile repetition” through the circus clowns’ attempt to keep their house from burning down—which is impressive visually and poetically—but what makes the poem particularly great is that the speaker tells the reader: “Why would you imagine / such a thing?” It is a humorous question, but it addresses the implications of authority and trust. The speaker continues:
If I say, Trust me, you probably shouldn’t.
Even I don’t trust myself enough
to end my own words. But trust me,
there are others who are powerfully worse,
who mold command into ammo, answers
into amnesia. I come from the same place
as everyone else, the place where
people take and the taking becomes
its own person. Where everyone hurts
and gets hurt, and the hurt can be heard
asking the same question—Why isn’t anybody
stopping this? And the powerfully worse take
a vote, they elect their answer carefully:
The speaker makes a distinction between a lack of trust that has to do with internal turmoil and a lack of trust that comes from political corruption. When the speaker says “If I say, Trust me, you probably shouldn’t” and “But trust me, / there are others who are powerfully worse,” there is an acknowledgement that the speaker’s aims are honest even in their imperfections whereas the lack of trust in regards to the “powerfully worse” is the real existential threat. The speaker points out, “I come from the same place / as everyone else… / Where everyone hurts / and gets hurt, and the hurt can be heard / asking the same question—Why isn’t anybody / stopping this?” And the response from the powerfully worse is that they “take / a vote, they elect their answer carefully: / Stopping what?” The speaker refers to this entity as “the powerfully worse” for a reason; their logic is calculated and verified by a vote, which is to deny—and erase—any and all wrongdoing on their part, and the human suffering and misery that results from it.
Space Struck is a wonderful first book; Lewis is an articulate and engaging poet who understands the poetic art of expression. Their work in this collection is contemplative in ways that are incredibly intelligent and insightful. Entering each poem in Space Struck is like entering a universe that is surreal, intimate, welcoming, and challenging in the most spirited ways. Lewis has already proven that they are a master of form as well as abstract thought. With these skills, Lewis can take their poetic talents in any number of directions. It will be interesting to see how much deeper this poet can go.
November 30, 2020