murmur in the inventory by erica lewis

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“The job is to take and tell the stories,” erica lewis writes in her third full-length poetry collection, murmur in the inventory. And tell the stories she does. She culls her stories from the murk of remembrance. She tells them brokenly with a collapsed sort of language. lewis weaves her slivers, splinters, and erasures into a brilliant cohesion that moves from hums and hushed whispers to a literal scream at the book’s close.

lewis prepares us for the fracture throughout murmur in the inventory with a one-line piece, “margin or error or understanding,” in which she posits, “as if we had been better all along portraying fragments.” The titles of the poems are preceded by a series of dashes before the language actually manifests. The poet’s stylistic decision to do so increases the tension and play between the real and the imagined. It is a clever, visually arresting aesthetic move that allows both poet and reader to hover in that in-betweenness of word and implication, the actual and the perceived, dream state and wakefulness. For example, “as if a phone answering itself” is titled in the table of contents, yet on the page where the poem appears, only a series of blips stands in for the title. This poem in its entirety is all shadow, trace, and eerie silence—a ghost itself:

there is no
it made me feel less alone

In addition to the Morse Code of her titles, the excellent manipulation of white space, and lack of punctuation, another stylistic choice is lewis’s use of the lowercase i. She begins the collection by addressing the reader/a lover (aren’t they the same thing?): “you are still here where i left you/you are your own ghost.” But where have we been left, and why have we been left (or perhaps abandoned at the outset)? Why this unimportance of self? Is an I/i needed at all in this collection? Does the self just get in the way? Is there any legitimacy in the act of witness, or does personhood detract from the ghostly sort of gauze lewis manages to throw over her poems? The collection would read even more harrowingly if the self were removed altogether, if it were told from the perspective of an entity or that of diluted, flailing memory rather than an i . . .

The lack and failure embedded in memory persists throughout the collection. In the attempt to remember something, we’ve already lost. It’s already a version of a version of a version of a “fact,” an occurrence, a grasping at something that’s already slipped past us. lewis writes of “memory spitting blood into an enamel basin,” that “memory or loss bores holes into you.” What else can we call memory? According to lewis, we can rename it “a body forever recomposing.” Poems such as “that most things we are drawn to only because” further explore this art of misremembering:

people say i’m crazy but i believe that you just have to
live with the things
the juxtaposition
in what you don’t see
the great hot emptiness ahead
what you keep calling memory

lewis’s poems are snippets of brilliance that devastate the reader in the best possible way. In “this is also true,” lewis invites the reader to hum with her and carries one’s face with the delicacy reserved for cupping water in her hands. She continues to reflect on the spectral nature of language in this piece:

the speech is an indication of what we don’t hear
necessary avoidance
a violent sly anguished
mocking smoke which keeps
the other in its place when true silence fails
we are left with the echo
we are nearer to nakedness

At one point in the collection, lewis writes, “you know her only as what survives in fragments.” Her language is indeed fragmented, remaindered, phantasmal. But it smolders so! Moments of staggering beauty such as “flicker speaks where about an object” and “i have long since lost my hands in the circuitry” are just some instances of the gorgeous restraint that permeates these poems. Every word is held accountable and must carry a sort of gravitas. For all the white space and sparse lines, what remains in the gaps after all the excess has been chipped away is striking. lewis manages to strip language down not to its bare bones, but the particulate marrow contained therein.

erica lewis warns us, “you might start with meaning and end up with frequencies,” and this collection leaves us where we began: fragmented, pleasantly spooked, and adrift on the wavelength of her echo’s frequency.

Carleen Tibbetts lives in Oakland. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, , Metazen, Monkeybicycle, H_NGM_N, Bitch Flicks, and other journals. More from this author →