‘Of course your zoo will have cages’

Paige Lewis, Space Struck

Sarabande Books, 96pp, £11.99, ISBN 9781946448446

reviewed by Frith Taylor

Paige Lewis's debut collection Space Struck is a study in introspection: it probes the complexities, anguish and joy of interpersonal relationships. Drawing on a range of influences, Lewis creates an intense and richly realised interiority. Part melodrama, part fairytale, Lewis's jaded confessionals create a kind of poetic noir that is nevertheless decidedly contemporary in register.

The collection begins with 'Normal Everyday Creatures' whose speaker invents a game in which identifying close-ups of animals brings them 'into being'. As with much of the collection, what Lewis creates here is what we might call 'plain style' surrealism; a new or altered reality emerges through simple storytelling. While often whimsical, the collection sustains a building sense of dread. 'Normal Everyday Creatures' is preoccupied with control. The animals will be confined; 'Of course your zoo will have cages!' says the speaker, 'I can tell/ you this because this is my game'. The poem relies on the spooky resonances between what is said by the speaker and felt by the reader; the narration is irreverent and playful, while riddled with references to coercion and control. Here Lewis explores contradictions in romantic relationships, exploring an intensity that is somewhere between devotion and compulsion.

And when the path grows too dark to see even
the bright parts of me, have faith in the sound
of my voice. I’m here. I’m still the one leading.

At first glance this feels like an echo of Matthew Arnold's 'let us be true/ To one another', a young husband's plea to his wife to forge connection despite an indifferent world. Lewis is doing something else, however, with their light/dark imagery. It is not the world that lacking in brightness, but the speaker, who insists on control until the very end, 'I'm still the one leading.' There is a romantic macabre here reminiscent of Emily Berry's work, and tonally Lewis's work feels indebted to transatlantic poetic styles that emerged in the late noughties such as the Stop Sharpening Your Knives crowd (Emily Berry, Jack Underwood, Sam Riviere et al.) and the Gurlesque (whose combination of Riot Grrl, third-wave feminism and burlesque explored the constructedness of gender). While in Lewis's work there is not the same prevalence of camp and excess as we might find in writers who took up the Gurlesque mantel (Hera Linsday Bird for example), there is a kind of sassy deadpan that privileges affect over message.

As with much of this kind of poetry, there is an intensive focus on the self. An interior landscape is realised in painterly detail, and Lewis's precision in weighting lines makes for accomplished poetry. Governed by breath, it is not dissimilar to the swells of spoken word poetry, and something of the emotional/affective intensity of that scene is present here too.

Lewis's work is deft and musical, the majority of the poems are made up of (presumably painstakingly assembled) couplets or tercets. As I move through the collection, however, I begin to wonder if there is something stifling about this choice in form. In “I love those who can walk slow” Lewis writes,

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the built from
the grown. Sometimes it’s our fault. The serinette

was invented to teach canaries how to sing correctly.
When my beloved tells me I’m correct to love him, I

realize the sound isn’t metal at all. It’s not the coins rattling
on concrete, but the fingers scraping to pick them up.

The euphonic drift from 'serinette' to 'correctly' is typical of Lewis's skill, as is the poignant connection between a caged bird taught to sing by a little machine, and a lover being taught to love 'correctly'. For me, however, the poem unravels when we get to 'I / realize the sound isn't metal at all. It's not the coins rattling / on concrete, but the fingers scraping to pick them up.' This 'not X but Y', not 'the coins' but 'the fingers' phrasing recurs in various forms throughout Space Struck. The exploitation of aphoristic structures feels contrived, a naked attempt to harness meaningful resonances which dismantles the tautness in the preceding lines, and I begin to wonder if this study in confinement has become itself confined.

This 'problem' of neatness is clearer in other poems in which Lewis explores themes of sacrifice and holy violence. 'The moment I saw a pelican devour' is one of the more striking poems in the collection, its rolling cadences ripple through illumination and horror. The speaker describes an incident in which they saw a pelican devour

a seagull—wings swallowing wings—I learned
that a miracle is anything that God forgot
   to forbid.

This definition of miracles is striking and original, and the poem develops the idea of the strange or violent being miraculous by describing women in the 1920s employed to paint radium on watch dials:

    They were told it was safe,
told to lick their brushes into sharp points. These
   women painted their nails, their faces,

The poem builds to its inevitable grisly climax:

     The miracle here

is not that these women swallowed light. It’s that,
  when their skin dissolved and their jaws fell off,
   the Radium Corporation claimed they all died

from syphilis. It’s that you’re telling me about
   the dull slivers of dead saints, while these
    women are glowing beneath our feet.

There is a real tension here between the weird, thrilling subject matter and Lewis's practiced writing. As with ‘I love those who can walk slow', this poem delivers its final punch by defining miracles as not women swallowing light but being smeared by a corporation, and this formation (the miracle is not X but Y) once again draws our attention to the mechanics of the poem.

Lewis's imagistic repertoire feels somehow confined. There are glass blowers and zoo animals, arcades and a planetarium. I'm not sure Space Struck’s Gothic resonances are enough to problematise its tasteful imagery; much of the collection feels as though it was lifted from the design for a stylish nursery. I am reminded of Wes Anderson's films; gorgeously realised and shot through with wry humour, but not without an enduring fantasy of class privilege.This is especially clear when, in 'In the Hands of the Borrowers’, the speaker fantasises about a house

with so many rooms
we’ll have to plan where we lie
days in advance. Such joy in naming:

Analemma Room, Room of Caviar
and Unbearable Situations, Room
Where We Spontaneously Combust.

Here we have that old problem of aesthetics and politics. Obviously not everyone has to be Justin Katko (God help us all if that was the case, exciting as it would be) but is it possible for poetry to be too whimsical? Whimsy feels like it should be apolitical, an expression of pure delight, but poems like the one above show that it cannot be removed from material reality. To fantasise about possessing an endless house with rooms designated purely for the consumption of caviar, or to gesture obliquely to collective anxiety and despair without going into specifics is making a political statement of its own kind: one of removal.

There are multiple instances in the collection where Lewis seems to strain language beyond its confines, but stops just short of taking us into the thrilling or distressing centre. The final lines of 'The Terre Haute Planetarium Rejected My Proposal' exemplify this

'Where everyone hurts
and gets hurt, and the hurt can be heard
asking the same question—Why isn’t anybody
stopping this?
And the powerfully worse take
a vote, they elect their answer carefully:
Stopping what?

I find myself asking the same thing. Unnerving and disturbing subject matter surfaces throughout Space Struck, but always within contained parameters; Lewis circles a despair they never name. My hunch is that this has something to do with post-crash poets going through writing programmes rather than being able to bank on book advances (not that pre-crash poets could bank on much either, however.) Poets who found fame in the late '90s and '00s are now teaching at creative writing schools, like Florida State University where Lewis read for their MFA, and the pressures of the publishing market mean that lecturers inadvertently nudge their students towards a kind of house style. A risky marketplace is not conducive to risky poetry.

The best moments in Space Struck are the wildest, Lewis's throbbing resonances take us through various shades of neuroticism, obsession and desire. Their voice is decisive and deliberate, while at times being plaintive and urgent, guiding readers through a somnambulant world somewhere between whimsy and dread.

Frith Taylor is a writer and researcher based in London. She is currently writing a PhD on 18th-century queer domesticity at Queen Mary University of London.