August 21, 2020KR Reviews

On Rainy Days on the Farm by Lesle Lewis

Hudson, NY: Fence Books, 2019. 97 pages. $16.00.

Poetry, for some poets, is what they can bear saying when language feels insufficient; Lesle Lewis’s sixth collection, Rainy Days on the Farm, is rigorous in its doubts and in the delights that emerge alongside them. Its ambivalence is winningly blunt: “Moods don’t matter,” she writes in “Our Bravado,” sounding like somebody, stuck in a storm, saying that being wet doesn’t matter. “I’m not saying anything,” Lewis says a few lines later. “Sequencing is arbitrary,” she writes after that—or before (does it matter?). She sums up human life with similar coolness: “everyone desired and then mended and then desired again.”

And yet, the poem is fizzy with specifics. “You were my snowman and my beekeeper and my oxygen mask,” Lewis rhapsodizes. She suggests that even when you “believe wholeheartedly in doubt,” there’s functional abundance (“high ceilings, terraces, cocktail patios, and justice worked”). The lush stuff of the world, of language, is matter, even if you’re not sure it matters. Lewis’s work has long found sustaining comedy, and prismatic radiance, in wry juxtapositions. Her new collection explores the tension between knowing we’ll “eventually lose everything we love” and the ability to “find love,” continually, “field after field.”

Or as Lewis tells us, “Anything might come next,” pronouncing “anything” to evoke buoyant possibility and distressing randomness. The poems—which usually are composed of discrete statements, each sentence a stanza—can recall the language of authority, of aphorisms and logical premises. But Lewis disarms that authority through insistent nonchalance (“This happens and then this and then things stop. That’s the plot.”) and a preference for lists that takes flight through syntactical flatness, bringing together “devastation and privilege and fairies and pigs and pumpkins and a man under a thinking sign.” These catalogues—their wild treasuries—complement moments of stricken reportage (“You died on the couch. / I forgive you”). They spin the carousel to give evidence that the world still provides, even if crisis and dissolution and meaninglessness are never far away. Look, they seem to interject, there’s “a parade, a baby, a swim, a dinner, a concert, an ice cream.” Check out those ducks.

The poems, thus, elaborate through accumulation; their terseness turns to transformation, suggesting that the imagination might yet save us, whether or not we want. The “single cry is ‘Help,’” Lewis writes in “Two Yeses,” as though summing up every message. She then imagines a pillow becoming a “soft, puffy bicycle,” ready to ride beyond what we can say. In “What the It Does to the You,” transport emerges from Lewis’s fanciful consideration of “small words”:

I see small words.


On the horizon.


And I’m not.


Afraid to also be.




Via magnifying glass.


I zoom in.


On the small bridge.


Behind the trees.


In early spring.


In Holland.

The punctuated short lines offer multiple meanings—you can read each period as a conclusion or a pause—and give the impression of labored utterance. They also foreground textural accumulation, from bridge to trees to seasons, setting up the leap to Holland. One may be in doubt about being itself, and “afraid to also be,” but the imagination continues to exceed us. This imaginative action can be ebullient (“I have tiny lightning bolts in a bowl for breakfast”), though Lewis often foregrounds closed circuits (“I almost can’t bear this feeling and I’m not feeling any ‘thing’”). Erin Lyndal Martin, reviewing an earlier collection, described such statements as “easily digestible one-liners” that temper and heighten lines that are more florid, sometimes literally (“‘Are you meditating?’ you ask me in English. / No, I am sailing on a floral boat”). They can feel like deliciously groaning koans, sketching a world that’s folksy, fungible, and stark. “The deer hanging in McGuirk’s barn is not what we call living,” Lewis writes in one poem, bada bing. Another offers a variation on the chicken that crossed the road: “But where is Chicken Bridge? / Where the chicken truck crashed.”

This humor is lightly ironic, yet Rainy Days on the Farm’s skepticism and satire belie the hope for usable wisdom, however provisional. One poem is titled “Every day is a self-improvement opportunity”; Lewis seems to mean that with a wink and a nod, and many passages recall the notes one might make during a crisis, to get to the next moment. “To learn is to lose what we thought we knew. We doze under just enough to wake not knowing where we are which is perfect,” she writes, deadpan and earnest. Elsewhere, among ambient grief, she reassures us that “it’s okay if in the total collapse of meaning, this is the temperature.”

That acceptance of changing temperatures plays through Lewis’s poems, helping their process of “cohering and disintegrating, spilling out in endless and beautiful loops, independent, never sentimental, and unafraid of uncertainty,” as Laurie Saurborn wrote of an earlier collection. In these lines from the book’s final poem, the twelve-page “Lunchtime,” you see the scope that this process achieves, from earnest grappling to imaginative gladness:

Did I forget to say that we are white?


How are minds are not blown away?


Have we fallen into the sea or into psychedelics?


Our shapes fall unlit.


Our shadows fall on a boat, a newspaper, garbage, an egg, a field, a fish, a school, a neck, a highway, New England, a herd of cows along a snaking river.


Sun pours on the river, opens us and breaks us.


Love eats us up.


You say that south is down from here.


I anticipate your departure.


I act cheerful as if cheerfulness were here.


I become this gladly flying sock shape.

“What we think is for sure . . . is not for sure,” Lewis writes near the end of the poem, before concluding that “we accumulate, release, suffer increased accumulation.” Rainy Days on the Farm is a book of wondrous accumulation; I am grateful for its capaciousness and big-hearted jolts, those lightning bolts in the cereal bowl. But I’m also grateful for its clear consideration of suffering, of our “wantingness” and loss. “The bridge might get longer for its reaching,” Lewis suggests, which isn’t strictly true, but in her poems, you could believe it.