I often think that I would rather be a painter, but I am not. Among those poets working today, Jane Lewty is one who possesses qualities usually ascribed to visual artists. Her debut volume of poetry, Bravura Cool, imports the movements of the gestural into a textual space, and in doing so, reinvents the age-old dictum that there can be “no ideas but in things.”
The things of Lewty’s poetry are things in motion, and like humans themselves, they are best judged by their actions. That is, Lewty’s work is one of Newtonian inertia, but of the active rather than sedentary variety. Unlike the objects of Stein’s Tender Buttons, whose power relied on the force of their presence, Lewty redirects our attention toward the agency of things, how they not only populate but move through the world.
Like certain subatomic particles, Lewty’s nouns are perceptible only by the trails they leave. She writes, “star moment of someone else, a man’s hour, a man too remote to be arrived at," touching on the complicated nature of epistemology and indicating that we are estranged from others in much the same way that we are estranged from ourselves. In Judith Butler's words, “I am other to myself precisely at the place where I expect to be myself.” The personae of Lewty’s poems are, in the end, no more stable than the poems' other objects: all are in perpetual motion and never quite locatable.
One compelling aspect of Lewty’s work is its tendency to reclaim poetic elements that have fallen into disrepair and to locate in them in new and innovative possibilities. As the book progresses, I notice Lewty's use of the first person, which recent vanguard literature has largely eschewed in favor of modes of address that estrange the reader and create distance between author, text, and reader. But Lewty’s use of the first person preserves the best aspects of the critical gaze, which the poet never hesitates to turn on her narrator.
It calls for blood, the calls are blood. It was around
this time I started codifying and couldn’t stop. Wickerwork everything.
Got all razorous. Namely I’d have died if someone hadn’t turned me over.
The “I,” when it appears in the text, is one of accountability rather than the first-person vanity of the confessional. The provisional selves that appear in Lewty’s work are absorbed into the “wickerwork everything,” which makes the self a fluid thing, subject to and even in need of revision.
The phrase "you search for a home but you have one" is always never quite
right to be written, and it’s not about this anyway.
Unlike so much poetry that investigates the notion of place—whether that place is the idea of home or the concept of community—Lewty correctly locates home within the confines of the body itself. Home is more a feeling than a place, more a way of moving through the world than locating a specific place within it.
While Lewty appeals to the affective, the emotions of Bravura Cool allow us, as Marina Abramović says of her performance project The Artist is Present, “no story to tell, no objects to hide behind,” because the plots and objects of Bravura Cool are inherently unstable, and the authorial personae is no exception. In Lewty’s world, the self is simply one object among many, rather than a privileged and impenetrable battlement from which authoritative viewpoints are dispensed. When Lewty writes, “stemming out & back / to a limit or lim / that’s how I value it,” she exceeds the limit, only to step back over the boundary again, as if a boundary can only be known by being transgressed. The self’s primary responsibility, Lewty implies, is to remain in motion; in short, authorial instability is a matter of ethical necessity, lest the poems lapse into aphorism, calcify into received wisdom, and adopt the prescriptive tone of “no ideas but in things.”
Perhaps the most marvelous thing about Bravura Cool is its admission of brokenness: Lewty’s narrator is in perpetual motion, an unredeemed and unredeemable body that offers up pieces of itself, because a fragmented self is the only truly authentic one. And motion, the body’s movement through the world, incomplete and provisional as it may be, is the very thing that ensures “all freeways are white and all tollbooths are home.” In this sense, Bravura Cool succeeds where lesser books fail: it joins two practices, poetry and ethics, and makes clear that both a poetics and a system of ethics can only be built though entropy, through a constant cycle of assembly and disassembly. And, for Lewty, that process never ceases.
in right & left swing of a needle—
scratch you write you restore
in person that person
the larynx will only
admit the frequency escaped from it.
It says “not here”
If poetry gives us examples of how to live, then Lewty takes a page from Nietzsche’s playbook by emphasizing the practical importance of umwertung aller werte (Ger. “the revaluation of all values”). The poems of Bravura Cool strike a difficult balance: they link the rigors of uncertainty with “the damp, stale odor of flesh made happy” (Georges Bataille). If the reader is able to enter into uncertainty and risk alongside her, Lewty offers the possibility of that same incomparable joy.
Chris Pusateri is the author of ten books and chapbooks of poetry, most recently Common Time (Steerage Press, 2012), which was shortlisted for the Colorado Book Award. He currently lives in Denver, where he works as an outreach librarian.
1913 Press, April 2013
$15 paperback, ISBN: 9780984029747