A Boot’s a Boot by Lesle Lewis
Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2014; 70 pp
Reviewed by Laurie Saurborn Young
In Ways of Seeing, essayist John Berger addresses the relationship between intimacy and distance in large-scale oil portraits. In paintings such as Holbein’s “The Ambassadors,” subjects are rendered in exquisite detail as they confidently fill the mid-ground; yet their impassive gazes create a remote aura impossible to traverse. In a similar fashion, the reader of Lesle Lewis’s fourth book of poems, A Boot’s a Boot, immediately gains intimate knowledge of the speaker’s psychology via her quickly shifting perceptions and cognitions. But as the speaker—the thinker of the thoughts—is always one step ahead, it is never possible to predict with conviction where next her awareness will land. Built of fragments and sentences, often in long lines, the poems hover in swaths of white space—representational perhaps of the space between cell bodies, between synapses, between breaths.
From the start, the poems allow for the unexpected by combining a frequent refusal to name, a tendency towards exhaustive and elliptical self-examination, and the sudden appearance of striking imagery. Repetition, sonic echoes, and parallel syntax connect leaps that might otherwise feel disparate. While such jumps are often interpreted as associative, the poems here read in a way suggesting a path carved not by impulsivity but by synaptic inevitability. “All Forms Will Change” ends with the line: “I licked your medicine off the floor.” A strange image, rich with vulnerability, is made all the more unsettling as any grounding specifics—the why, when, where and who—are purposefully left unstated.
At times reminiscent of a deconstructed Emily Dickinson (from “Noon”: “You are my illness, my door slam, my exquisite half hour.”), the speaker addresses concerns of sickness, mental health, medication, hospitalizations, and the afterlife (or lack of it). These worries, however, are the secondary focus of the text. Jettisoning nostalgia by disregarding the linear narrative necessary for the categorization of past and present, the poems exist not just of the moment, but all moments. These instances are located not in typical societal milestones of promotions, childbirth, marriages, and divorces, but largely in the mathematical and neurological realms. They illustrate linkages of a different sort, of the human connection to graphs and geologies, genomes and numbers. The poems focus the majority of their attention on the between-spaces of the world, where time is malleable as both theory and thing: “We take our time, fold it in half and half again.”
There is relief in imagining the impossible. There is solace to be found in pretending we have more control than we do, that the form of the human body is capable of transformations beyond birth, growth, aging, and death. The possibility of occupying two (or more) states at once is introduced early in the book, in the poem, “When the Qubits Get Home.” To massively oversimplify, qubits, also known as quantum bits, can exist in two states at once (states being 0, 1, or both). In Lewis’s hands, the Qubits are enjoying superposition plus one—they are quantum bits capable of visiting a museum, feeling sad for no reason, and losing a cat. Lewis’s vaulting mind does not require the suspension of disbelief, only the understanding that limitations can be nimbly dismissed, as in “Richter’s Revisions”: “This is our plan if we don’t have another: to admit we are these people, to confess our imagined boundaries, over which there are real disputes.”
Agnes Martin wrote, “From your own mind there is all the help you need.” (“Aus deinem Inneren kommt alle Hilfe, die du brauchst.”) A book beginning with the poem “In Contradiction of the Earlier Work” is committed from the outset to a process of introspective reflection or “re-booting,” existing in a “superposition” both intimate and distant. In the foreground of the Holbein painting stretches a distorted skull. To see it clearly, the viewer must alter her position to the portrait. Likewise, these poems shift for the reader, cohering and disintegrating, spilling out in their endless and beautiful loops. Independent, never sentimental, and unafraid of uncertainty, A Boot’s a Boot embodies the fierce struggle to maintain equilibrium in this destabilizing world.