Zoom   by Susan Lewis   The Word Works , 78 pages, June 1, 2018 


by Susan Lewis

The Word Works, 78 pages, June 1, 2018 



In Robert Bly’s essay, “What the Prose Poem Carries With it,” published in a 1977 issue of the American Poetry Review, the poet states, “it’s possible that while a bird is building its nest an idea for a song it has never sung rises to its small head.” Bly’s assertion is playful, and an entrance into a longer and more pointed set of clarities on the prose poem, but it is his astute uncovering of three specific things that has me coming back to it: a nest (one being built); an idea (as it arrives); and a song (arising). In more than one sense, the prose poem offers the poet the chance to build from, and thus sustain, a perception. If successful, the prose poem can also find space to riff on its own melodies until an idea is unboxed, perhaps even sung in a different way. The poet Susan Lewis is no stranger to jousting within these confines of the prose poem, and her latest book Zoom, winner of the Washington Prize (Word Works), takes turns oscillating between idea and song, between either and or; yet this oscillation is not a traceable back-and-forth paddling, it is one of patience and pace.

Visually, a prose poem is a brick, so it is also thus a building block. The poems in Zoom are center-justified, allowing the prose itself to prowl in a kind of charged district of squares and blocks, where if you stare long enough you can find patterns in the placement of ampersands. Additionally, most of the poems in Zoom have titles that are first lines, so the poems build into themselves, beginning with having already started. Lewis’ poems thus commence their zoom. This is one of the tricks of the prose poem, that it literally looks like it’s a container without a lid, but that it can contain just as much speed as verse, and Lewis uses the prose poem almost as a way of boxing in the breeze of logic. In doing so, she often lifts the lid several times within the poem, when and as the logic surfaces, and lines swing out fast with gripping clarity. Consider this poem from the second section:




to reach the beauty seed. Wanting for. Not riven but licentiously taxed, need-struck, united. Why not offer your infancy or plead guilty as particulately charged? Lost as any battle. Brittle & eventual, warrantless as sparrows pecking, positively capable. Others not so savvy or confused, eventful as lost breath, dangling from this cliff & the next, aspirational & in-. Out of order & dissed, inordinate & sub. Uninformed in unformed cahoots, stepped out from your marital peonage, spreading murk as if it’s what you live for. Meanwhile, back at the heart of the convocation: miasma. Plus a bridal train of pardon --- wan, perhaps, but never staunch. Coursing juice through unmapped sylvan routes, nosing toward the seeping source.


The first and obvious connection is the deliberate pace, the zip and zoom. It bolts and recedes, questions and retreats. It is aware of itself as unaware. But of the many definitions of zoom I’ve been thinking about—all drawn from the American Heritage College Dictionary at my desk—this is not the “rapid movement,” nor the “buzzing at a low and continuous pitch” (though both of these things happen) that comes to mind, but the moving “while making such a sound” that sparks Zoom, and it is the suchness of sound these poems try to discover.In “Stealing Upstream,” thinking comes to a definitive halt with this “aspirational & in-” and falls literally back “out of order,” only to be subbed by its own syntax. This is poetry with intention but the intention is most aligned with how to move through language while beholden to its sound. Of how to slow oneself down when speed is all there is. Speed of thought; speed of the news; speed of the day and the way it bruises us all. But how do we cope with and gather ourselves in these spectrums? 

Zoom takes place in three parts, beginning with section three—titled 3rd—and ending with section one, 1st,  as in 3-2-1-action. Perhaps the book is like that countdown, but to locate one specific and principal scene or subject in Zoom would be to misdiagnose Lewis’ work as being interested in simple frames. Lewis is interested in the ways in which “digging for the logic in this slow accretion” (38) might silo—and thus divine—the “gravity of situations situated between nothing & something” (39). This is the either-or sense I get from reading Zoom, that there are perhaps too many overt yet oblique either’s and or’s, and yet we exist in the horrors between; we must move while making our sounds and that’s what keeps us parsing out the rest of the excess between such back and forth. Lewis does not bunker the frivolity of desideratum either; as the sections build upon one another, they retain a playfulness that both praises language and restores it to its own sincerity. Let us consider four excerpts from various parts of the book:


                             “Entanglement, entitlement, &

all that jazz. Like tail-feather, tailwind, backdraft, 

backlash.” (21)     


      To halve and have again, heaving against

the universal grain, drastic & brandished

with blandishments of the highest order. (29)


    Real if not

ideal, salivating & slavering for a taste of any kind

of limit. Limned in profile or its loyal opposition. (42)


                                                    Come to me now,

admired as I am mired in my mineness, & ever &

ever my fantastic fifteen flee. (52)


Each of these excerpts reveals that consistent poetic tools are being employed—there is internal rhyme, and the same lurch-and-snag pace of each sentence, but what has also happened is a venture from something purely external to something more internal. A venture from that which language always provides (play) and the world we inhabit while making it work for us (work). Up until the last section, the poems in Zoom manage without an “I” or “me,” almost to a noticeable default (they can begin to seem too ethereal when a voice doesn’t own them), yet the default is also admitted to in the later poems because the voice behind the language has been trying to stay away from a place of being “mired in my mineness.” Somehow, Lewis avoids the mineness until what makes for any “mine” must get through, and the third part of a good prose poem, at least via Bly, is that a song must arise. The nest cannot just be holding an idea idle, ungestured. That said, when Lewis allows an “I” to arrive in the very first poem of the last section—“to your inner waltz I hesitate”—we are firmly grounded, surfaced. It is now a place of song where, despite hesitations to go internally, the speaker in the poems is speaking for themselves and thus more directly to us.

But perhaps the best lesson in these poems—and yes, prose poems can’t really get by without seeming like lessons—is that the ground where the “I” lives is not always favored, not always steady, and certainly not the most challenging place for any one poetic speaker to live. Lewis puts a twist on this late in the book, in the poem “By Which I Promise,” 


                        I may head for higher ground,

I may grind & bump & give the take to the

man on the street, but I won’t forget your

inner life, that fine & twisted labyrinth. 


This is to the say the poet is not done with any day by weight of what can be seen and experienced in any one hour. Nor is the poet treating any hole as whole. In the same 1977 essay of American Poetry Review, Robert Bly goes on to say that “a prose poem does not ask for general statements, it urges us to return to the original perception, before the conclusion rushed in, provided by the mind.” There is no more fitting way to describe what Lewis is doing in Zoom than to say she returns, especially in the first two sections, to the original perception that begins the poem, trying not to let the mind, or the “I” in this situation, rush to conclusions. To conclude would be too easy a set-up for a prose poem—here, let me go in this box and come out slow and certain. In Zoom, Lewis lets the poems sway and murmur in a very urban type of transport—by the minute, never right on time, closed into the ears of transit’s great inhabitants—but she does this because she knows how to pop the lid, how to release the idea when it has found some melody. By doing this Lewis is also using the poems to admit that we cannot always return to the initial perception, that the mind sometimes needs the speaker to step up and attempt conclusion, all the way up to an unless. 



Tyler Flynn Dorholt is the author of American Flowers (Dock Street Press), and co-editor and publisher of the journal and press, Tammy. He writes, makes art, and lives with his wife and son in Syracuse, NY.