June 12, 2020KR Reviews

On Animul/Flame by Michelle Lewis

Saint Paul, MN: Conduit Books, 2019. 76 pages. $16.00.

Selected by Bob Hicok as the inaugural winner of the Marystina Santiestevan First Book Prize, Michelle Lewis’s Animul/Flame is a self-assured, keenly wrought debut, bespattered with blood and wit and heartbreak. And although the poems intimate a poignant storyline, it is the cool, direct stare of each that binds them together, that dares you to blink first. Early in the collection, the cryptic nine-line “Time Alone” reveals in a few deftly chosen words (“jacklight,” “ICU,” “frightened love”) the narrator Flame’s unsettled childhood, but it also, in the final tercet, lays bare the hard-knocks wisdom she has earned as a young adult:

. . . Soon: Animul’s fist

through the car window, pieces pooling in your
clothes. Rain them into the toilet. Now what.
Now nothing. Stand still and time will reach you.

In a kind of call and response, this scene reappears (as do others throughout the book, quietly folding back on one another) some forty pages on, fraught with even more despair. This from “The Funniest Thing You Ever Heard”:

Thin & thinner lines broken
& then stretched until
some smithereens: glass in my clothes from
the window that doesn’t stretch but breaks.
Pieces in my underwear, what’s
the story says the man at the garage. It’s sort of funny.

It’s that understated “sort of” that dazes like a sock on the jaw.

Key words and phrases, too, chime and echo through the poems—“silo,” “deer,” “drowning,” “ruby,” “the hair’s soft waltz,” “jacklight,” “taught to survive and nothing else”—without seeming contrived, belabored or forced, a feat unto itself. And Lewis plucks and strums her language with a practiced hand. Listen to the driving backbeat of stacked spondees, resolved by the soft alliteration of s’s, m’s and n’s, in this line from “Char’s Sonnet”: “Planets on the sun’s same side, dime-thin, boned and hung,” and the melodic assonance and lilting iambs in this line from “Waking Life”: “the pinbones of cold that / ferry the air, then you’re the air.” She sometimes turns parts of speech on their heads à la Anne Carson: “rubied a ruin,” “I was clocking,” “this is one way to girl me,” “daughters my sky.”

Lewis rarely flinches. At times self-conscious to the point of confession, the poems coalesce into a lyrical, perilous, ultimately noble narrative of mostly sonnet-length or shorter poems. Elements of fable and fairytale conjure disquieting inferences. The voice can be stoic, frank, with little hedging or qualifying, yet seasoned at times with a dash of dark irony. This matter-of-fact tone permeates the book, making the anguish and violation all the more devastating. Here are a few lines from “Char’s Sorrow”:

The thing is take the scissors to bed.
[ . . . ]
The kind of man she’s with
while I’m home, on a farm. I am eleven
          and all this seems like brave but really it is breaking.

The thing about my mother is between the flowers of the wallpaper
I have written tiny words
and jiminy                      it is a garden of the body.
Of crotch and rub and feel me up. So far apart
          no one could know they even                      say.

But it is Animul who dominates Flame’s world, either physically present in many of the poems or insinuating himself between the pages like a bone-chilling mist. In the book’s opening poem, “Animul Sonnut,” we get a flicker of the volatile relationship that frames the narrative: “I’m three months drinking in the / heat and something in me dead. / Nothing left to sieve me. You beat // me to it [ . . . ] // So I ate my toward and took a throat to it. // They tell me now that this will never choke you.”

As prone as he is to violence, emotional as well as physical, so she is to nearly helpless desire—attraction often at the cost of dignity and deep scars. Flame seems both tormented and entranced by him, by his feral nature, his instinctual urges. In “Flame’s Dream”: “Animul comes home / with tail on fire, is insatiable for knowing.” After an argument (or perhaps worse), she hesitates, in “Flame’s Lessons”: “Outside Animul’s door / I was part black at the / edges, part Don’t say please.” In the title poem of the collection, when their relationship has finally guttered out, she resigns herself to bittersweet memories: “Some nights I’ll half awake as if still  / sleeping in that bloom and wither bed.”

I would be remiss to forego commenting on the unusual spelling of his name. Lewis attempts to address his name head on in the book’s second poem, “Animul”: “What, if anything, to make of the false “u”? The “a” was taken / by true brutes, wolves who went too far, dwelled a pace or two beyond // the timberline. As if that’s where danger lived.” This may explain the change of “wolves” to “wulf” later in the poem, when it becomes clear that Animul is the singular latter. But this is less than convincing, especially because there are inconsistencies—“Sonnut” regains its “e” in “Char Sonnet,” “Rivulet Sonnet,” “Sonnet for Flame’s Apartment.” Are we, then, to infer that the purposeful misspellings occur simply because they correlate with Animul? If so, a little too clever by half, not only because they distract more than intrigue, but because they defang the unique power of his name.

Other almost allegorical figures also shape and temper Flame’s life—Char (her burned-out mother) “we were always breathing // in our separate rooms,” Rivulet (her deceased father) “Hence, a rivulet makes earth into a kind of grave with its parting,” Janie (her friend and confidant) “I asked J and wondered aloud how I’ll ever learn if I’m not taut. / J said you have to taut yourself,” Ophelia as Sea Urchin (her alter-ego) “Unhumaned, espined, it’s how // they’ve schooled me, how I know to make / my storyline my own. Such as: The world / is my mantle and I chew through stone.” Each, in their own overlapping ways, contributes to the book’s arc of disquietude and self-questioning. Yet each also teaches Flame how to endure a world that is equally disinterested in her survival or her unceremonious snuffing out.

Flame’s father particularly haunts with memories of thrill and terror. The last poem in the book, “Rivulet/Flame” depicts his attempt to outrun the police, swerving onto a dirt road, telling her to “Duck”:

In the dark one must learn
where to lay their unfixed eyes.

I held two stuffed animals.
We crouched into the seat.

Take the words you saved and put them here.

Still, as good as these poems are, and they are startlingly good, there are a few scant instances where Lewis falters by slipping too easily into cliché or by dropping in a misfit clunker: “make the hearts grow fonder” (“Cut, Never Eaten”), “fresh as a daisy” (“Flame’s Relief”), “bat-shit crazy” (“The Amber”), “heck” (“Rivulet Sonnet”), “runs past you like a train” (“In Truth”). I draw attention to these only because they appear as cheap baubles among Lewis’s otherwise finely-faceted phrases.

And what are we to make of the “/” in the book’s title and in several of the individual poems? Besides its more common referent, “slash” (which carries its own bloodlust connotation), it is also called virgule, oblique stroke, solidus, forward slant, and separatrix. Its root is from Old French, “splinter.” It is used primarily as a substitute for the word “or,” as well as indicating divisions, fractions, and lines of poetry. With this one simple mark, Lewis skillfully provides a lens through which to view the entirety of her compelling collection.

This debut has all the smoky intensity of a pool hall. The poems backspin and kiss, rebound off cushions and crack in brilliant combinations. The stakes are always high. You’d be wise to put your money on Michelle Lewis—she has the talent to run the table.