I’ve been an unabashed fan of Paige Lewis’s work since I first read “The Moment I Saw a Pelican Devour” in the 2017 Best New Poets (originally published in Sixth Finch and re-published in The Adroit Journal as a part of Lewis’s 2018 Gregory Djanikian Scholar portfolio). As such, I feel it would be a complete disservice to Space Struck (Sarabande Books) and its poet to not start with a note about Lewis.
Paige Lewis is the recipient of the 2016 Editor’s Award in Poetry from The Florida Review and is, as previously mentioned, a Gregory Djanikian Scholar. Their poems have flooded such journals as Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, and The Georgian Review with the strange and miraculous, all of which have come together and grown wilder from their close proximity, bound together in Space Struck. Lewis’s poems overwhelm their readers with so much subtle wonder it’s surprising St. Francis doesn’t just appear in your apartment and slowly begin to strip off an infinite series of robes. But, more than that, in Space Struck we are treated to a journey simultaneously into the vastness of space and into the depths of the earth, hell, and ourselves. Lewis’s speakers invites us to take their hand both literally and figuratively as they take us through a world of equal parts violence and play, leading us through a pseudo-purgatory in a manner that directly alludes to the journey of Orpheus and Eurydice. What remains to be seen is whether we can ever really escape, or if our fearless leader and lover looks back and dooms us all.
This theme, of escape or doom, begins with Lewis’s opening poem, “Normal Everyday Creatures,” which acts as a powerful genesis, wherein the act of naming literally brings that creature into being, helping to populate the stage/world the speaker has welcomed us into and is inviting us to play in with them.
I’m going to show you some photos—
extreme close-ups of normal, everyday
creatures. A patch of gray fur, half
a yellow eye. When you guess each creature
right, you guess each creature into being.
Beyond this extreme close-up, beyond inviting us to take an active role in the naming and invoking these creatures into being, “Normal Everyday Creatures” sets the stage for a world of dual play and violence. The world as play is introduced through the literal introduction of the world as game—“I can tell you this because this is my game – I’m allowed to give hints,”—as well as through that literal guessing and invocation of the figures; but it’s a high-stakes game that’s being played. The figures invoked through the games are necessarily trapped there:
Soon you’ll have enough to open a zoo,
and people will visit because it’s not every day
they get to see everyday creatures in cages.
Trapped there for the sake of the play (“otherwise you’ve just got the world around you / and who’s going to pay for that? Your father?”) but also for the reminder of the world structure that this play gives. Play creates room for violence: figures invoked through their naming at the top of the poem are now inmates of the world and at the whims of the speaker and the reader, who act as the only active and free agents in the poem. This gives space and rise to the undercurrent of violence spread throughout the poem: “and though he did not wisp his tongue at me, / though he made no rude remarks about / my bony feet or the house I was raised in, I / wanted to harm him.” This sets the stage for a power to not only bring the world and its inhabitants into being, but to even dissolve the world, invoking the frame of Orpheus and Eurydice:
And if, for some reason, you don’t
belong in this space with me, getting fingerprints
all over my glossy animals, then we’ll journey
until we find the world in which we both fit
All this is to say that Paige Lewis is a master of foreshadow, structure, and framing, creating a shape and series of expectations in their first poem of the collection that holds true for the entirety of it.
One of the most compelling figures that recurs in the collection is that of the God figure, one embodied in the first poem by the speaker and later by God as they interact with the speaker and reader. This God figure recurs, notably, as one that embodies the play/violence duality—one that can border on beneficent neutrality or neglect, often demonstrated by the speaker stepping into God’s shoes or another figure related to him filling in the knowledge gaps for the speaker, the reader, or both. This can be seen in “The Moment I Saw a Pelican Devour”:
I mean, if I was God enough
to be idolized, every statue would be a golden
depiction of me riding a goose-drawn chariot
absentmindedly resting my shepherd’s scythe
an inch away from their curved white
as well as in “God’s Secretary Overworked”:
Get real darling. If He answered all prayers
you’d be dead five times over.
Yet, it would be a profound disservice to the immense depths of tenderness that exist in this collection to leave you with only those dark turns and moments. In contrast to the capacity for violence that all the figures of the collection have, or even because of that same capacity, we also see them engage in moments of truly devastating tenderness, sweet moments that never become saccharine nor so sweet as to warrant the dreaded workshop label of “sentimental.” Instead, they are moments that help to keep us reading and falling in love with the poems and the figures therein. The care, romantic and otherwise, that the figures express in Space Struck is so vast that it comes full circle, the self dissolving into a unified whole with their lover (and even with the universe) out of immeasurable affection:
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.
And perhaps even more telling:
that the moon smells like spent gunpowder.
I forget what would happen to your body
in a black hole. I don’t forget your body.
This would be unforgivable.
Violence and tenderness are so inextricable that the logical progression of thought weaves from gunpowder and the moon, to the rending of a body exposed to black hole, to simply the body of the beloved. It’s this affection that helps to drive the overarching plot, it’s tenderness that reminds us that through the violence and indifference of the deity we are still moving forward, holding the hand of our beloved and the speaker of the poem. We are being pulled through this strange place, we are not alone, and we can still make it to the other side. Readers are reminded of this again and again throughout the collection, even when who is leading and who is being led (us, another figure in our shoes) change faces:
As an adult Eric the Great changed his name to Houdini
to honor Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdini, who would open his palms
to the audience and say, Nothing here now—neither anything
nor anybody, before pulling his wife from the ether.
All of this culminates in “So You Want To Leave Purgatory.” Here, we have graduated to the violence and enact it instead of being its witness. We become the active agent. We are given a knife and invited to commit what feels like sacrifice; but the act of the sacrifice is glossed over, the knife traded back and forth as we are asked to forget and to remember. In this we are asked to remain in stasis. Has the speaker, the lover, the one who has been leading us this entire time, gotten us out of the world we have journeyed through, or like Orpheus and Eurydice, are we trapped here forever? Have we declined to return to the reality we originated from? Has the experience changed us? Some journeys are never meant to end, in some spaces we are invited to linger, and some power is too hard to surrender.
My specific heart, know that I am king here.
I have my sword, my seat, and my passions
I’ll need you to be ready to
de-thorn the throne. My weaknesses are many
and stubborn. If you must strike, do so at night,
When I’m outside and alone and looking up.
Paige Lewis’s debut collection is a surrealist delight, a journey that never really ends, and is the kind of collection you find something new to haunt you every time you return to it—from the perfectly executed, individual poems, to a collected set that has been designed and structured so elegantly as to lead you through a true story in a way few collections manage. Congratulations to Lewis on this triumph of a collection; it was a true pleasure to read.