Hello, Friends. How are you? Please say you’re sheltering well—perhaps with some humans and animals you love? And with plenty of books, I hope—for guidance, solace, both?
This is the first review I’ve written in quarantine, and I wasn’t sure whether to acknowledge that fact—though upon reflection, I felt I should. The world isn’t business as usual, so this can’t be reviewing as usual either.
I’ve been thinking a lot about book reviews lately, as I’m seven years’ deep in my reviewing life now, and seven years feels like a significant number. I’ve started encouraging my students to write reviews, too—grads and undergrads alike—as a new way of approaching, appreciating, or simply getting to know a text better.
Not long before our campus closed down in mid-March, one of my students asked me what I thought the purpose of a contemporary book review was. “I mean, it’s not a book report, right? You’re not trying to prove you read the book. And it’s not a scholarly article to present at the MLA conference. So, what is it for exactly?”
This question was just the nudge I needed to clarify for myself what I think I’m doing here and what I hope I’ve been doing these past seven years: “No, you’re right. They’re not written for MLA; they’re written as PSAs.” When I heard myself say it, I knew that I meant it: “A book review is the literary equivalent of a public service announcement. Why might the reader need this book? What might the reader learn from this book? How might this book help somehow—shed light, give hope, push boundaries of content and form?”
Paige Lewis’s debut collection Space Struck does all of these things. It pulses with light and shimmers with hope. It also expands our sense of what a poem can do/how a poem can move and the many ways a poem can occupy as well as transform a page. (Bonus feature: I love that the poet’s name is Paige! Their name contains both the watchful/thoughtful “I”—perceptual motor of the poems—and also the place these perceptions touch down/take hold.)
Let’s say you’ve been holed up inside for quite a while now, as most of us have. Any board games on your tables yet? Any juggling or yo-yo-ing going on in your rumpus rooms (Lewis: “Such joy in naming: // Analemma Room, Room of Caviar / and Unbearable Situations, / Room // Where We Spontaneously Combust”), any Slinkys walking down your stairs? I ask because Space Struck is a book born of the impulse to play. (Lewis: “I can tell / you this because this is my game—I’m allowed / to give hints.”) In my notes, I wrote, This project yokes a deep-veined, eco-social-consciousness with a sincere and forthright jubilance. And while it absolutely does—so conscious! so jubilant!—I’m concerned my description here might sound a little more MLA than PSA, and we need the PSA right now more than ever—whether we love to play, are afraid to play, or most of all, if we’ve forgotten how to play.
So let’s try this, by analogy: Space Struck brings together the swively whimsy of the kaleidoscope with the skill and sophistication of the Rubik’s cube. Look! Look! Look! Then—See. See. See. In fact, this book embodies my favorite compound word—first the visual gorge followed by the quiet contemplation: Look-see. As in: Let’s have a look-see!
Space Struck is the poetry equivalent of camping out in your own backyard, gazing up at the sky from your sleeping bag (Lewis: “the gemmy starlight / the click click click // of the universe expanding”) as your elbows splay wide in the grass (Lewis, again: “the moon smells like spent gunpowder”). You aren’t going to look at the sky, or the world, the same way again after.
But Space Struck is also the poetry equivalent of working a calculus problem at the kitchen table, by candlelight, well past midnight, during an electrical storm. (Lewis: “Imagine a line of identical circus clowns // frantically passing a pail of water from / the fire hydrant to their burning tent. // Now imagine a hole in the bottom / of that pail.”) There is that much space in these poems, with their trap doors in the floor, their safes in the wall, and their vast, cathedral ceilings. There is that much palpable emotion, too, which strikes like love or lightning or a long-reverberating gong.
As in calculus, we find a strong penchant for infinitesimals on Paige’s pages. (Lewis: “the pay phone, the umbrellas, / ribbed and open, the top layer of frozen lake, / and the ice skates”; “the jar of wisdom teeth she keeps // nestled between sequined vests”). As in calculus, we find a precise study of continuous change. (Lewis, again: “the place where / people take and the taking becomes / its own person”; “a peach so ripe that even your breath / would bruise it”).
Perhaps you’re having trouble describing the way you’re feeling in quarantine. What if there were a book so intuitive and nuanced that it could stand in for a mood ring?
For instance (check all that apply):
as if I’m on the moon listening to the air hiss
out of my spacesuit, and I can’t find the hole. I’m
the vice president of panic, and the president is
I don’t think I’ve ever written
the word doom, but nothing else fits.
Every experience seems both urgent and
Lately, I’ve been feeling betrayed by names:
the king cobra isn’t a cobra, the electric
eel isn’t an eel, and it turns out my anger
was fear all along.
Sometimes we need someone to find the words for us, to stitch them together in a meaningful way, to make us look and see together like watching a movie with a voiceover that zooms us right in. Paige Lewis made the pictures with their words, and Paige Lewis also made-wrote the words that accompany these pictures. Narratives, reflections—“bright particulars,” every one.
Ever have the craving to stretch out on your couch and be transported by an engrossing film you’ve never seen before—perhaps with a big purple box of Good & Plenty in your hands? Space Struck is that film that takes you somewhere else, sets you viscerally in motion—on a train ride, a visit to Noah’s extant Ark, the Terre Haute Planetarium, a house with an obstructed view, a park bench with a rocket ship looming overhead—to destinations as divergent and eerily similar as a magic show and Purgatory.
It’s a book that feeds you, too, heightening your consciousness (Lewis: “I learned / that a miracle is anything that God / forgot to forbid”) and your jubilance (Lewis: “Now, I / demand a love that is stupid and beautiful, / like a pilot turning off her engines midflight // to listen for rain on wings”).
Which is to say: the poems are good, and there are plenty! They’re chewy enough that you won’t finish the book un-full.
Now, it’s possible you’ve reached the arts and crafts stage of your quarantine. Maybe you’re homeschooling a small child. Maybe you’re remembering what it was like to be a child yourself. Diorama-makers, past and present, hear me now: sometimes you don’t need a shoebox to build a small new world. Searching for refuge in domestic cosmogony? Allow me to recommend the literary dioramas of Paige Lewis.
“Diorama of Ghosts” is a dialectical poem, presented in the form of a question and answer between, in my reading, a person and themself. See if any of this sounds familiar to you?
i was so sad
i would have harbored
Have you earned the right
to say sad?
And later, in the same existential conversation, this revelation:
than the silence itself
In school, I liked making dioramas because they were a place where I could put my feelings on display. Not just a way to express what I felt but a way to actually depict it, preserve it—make visible the deep, interior world. Sad could go in the shoebox; silence could go in the shoebox, too. The sadness I felt around silence could also go in the shoebox. A diorama, I learned, was a safe place to make a scene. In this poem, Lewis makes this scene by making visible our typically invisible ghosts: “they cannonballed / right into a punch bowl / and ruined my best / shirt.”
I can see the little punch bowl cut out of construction paper. I can see the ghosts, perhaps made of ribbons from the shredder, plunging into a hot pink lake of simulated drink. A splash arcs across the box, splattering onto a peasant blouse or a plain white tee. Bright speckles might be made by taking a single hole-punch to that same sheet of hot pink construction paper. Punch, punch, punch.
Poems can do this, or at least Paige Lewis’s poems can: become three-dimensional, occupy space, embody complex abstractions in disturbing and enrapturing ways. Dioramas are the art room equivalent of a look-see. First, you peer inside; then, you really peer inside.
And then there’s “Diorama of Our Need to Escape the Cold We Make,” which comes near the end and can’t be read without thinking of our present zeitgeist—quarantine, the global pandemic, and more. This scene is bigger, more elaborate, than the first. Maybe they were work boots in this box, not ballerina flats. Maybe there are little cardboard dividers, too, doubling as stanza breaks.
The speaker and their beloved are captives inside a zoo. This is the poem’s predicament, perhaps one that we recognize. In a book that reckons with endangered species and the vulnerability of nature at large, we can’t help but see the forced enclosure of humans for the parable it is. (We’re thinking of the US border, too. We’re thinking of children in cages, too. How can we not?)
And then these two are escaping, through “a hole in the side / of the wall. He squeezes my hand, leading me in / through the hollow and out beside a mountain, which / has only us to confide in. It says, I am very thin // and not fit to hold you. We climb it anyway. The mountain / teeters and falls back, flattening the town below. / My beloved calls it An Exceptional Wreck.”
Maybe this is an allegory for an economy reopened too soon. Maybe this is an allegory for hospitals paralyzed by overcrowding. Or maybe this is just the world as it is, ravaged, depleted, and sagging under the weight of such need. Still, the poem doesn’t have to proselytize when it can build a story instead. So we can see it, yes, but we can also reach inside.
The speaker reports, “he’s teaching me / confinement. How to feel the fences.” Is this another way of saying he’s teaching me empathy—to look at our history, to see what we’ve confined—the so many fences and the so many ways we were likely to give offense, and have, and will?
In the end, Space Struck is a profound pop-up book bursting with tactile truths. In my notes, I wrote, Notice Lewis’s uncanny ability to find words lodged in other words, like the “host” inside “hostage” and “ammo” written backwards inside “command.” I wrote, Notice how their first lines are often surprising extensions of their titles, opening with a volta rather than building toward one—as in “When They Find the Ark [title] Fox News buys exclusive broadcasting rights [first line]” and “God Stops By [title] to show me how healthy He’s been” [first line]. I wrote, Notice the presence of all the animals—a tie in with the Ark—and Lewis’s flair for crafting surreal scenarios in order to probe real problems.
But those notes might all be a little more MLA than PSA, too.
I’m here to tell you this book is good company—not just in isolation, but especially in isolation. Lewis is nothing if not a luminous and compassionate renderer. For every cramped room, they give us a skylight. For every hard truth, they promise a softer truth blooming just beneath it.
Sometimes, when my students and I read poetry collections together, I ask them to seek out the first word of the first poem and the last word of the last poem—my idiosyncratic way of finding “guide words” for the book. “Humor me,” I say, if they balk. “Just have a look-see.” It doesn’t always work, of course, but it works enough that I keep trying.
Are you dealing with insomnia these days? Are you feeling lonely in the wee hours—anxious, restless, furious, perturbed? This is not a guarantee of perfect reader-writer chemistry, but in the spirit of my review-as-PSA, I feel I should mention: the first word of Space Struck is “I’m,” and the last word of Space Struck is “up.”
As in: “Put on the coffee or the kettle.”
As in: “Don’t worry about the hour.”
As in: “No, it’s not just you, Reader. Really, I promise—I’m up.”