Reviewed by Erica Hoffmeister
How To Be Another
by Susan Lewis
Cervena Barva Press
January 15, 2014, ISBN-13: 978-0991009107, Paperback: 81 pages
In How to be Another, Susan Lewis pieces together fragments of the human conscious, using bold and beautiful language to seek answers of imagination, memory, human discontent and our natural sense of wonder. The narrative in this collection exists in that there is no narrative; we find ourselves instead in the pairing of clashing words that, like a musical score, creates not an arch, but rather the opening of a flower. Each prose poem is handled with delicate care, and yet, Lewis is able to formulate each in a sense of divine carelessness. She redesigns familiar clichés into new architecture, allowing a close proximity to the reader throughout each section. It is this use of precise, unexpected language, in an otherwise repetitively consistent form, How to be Another exhibits eloquence and approachable, yet perfectly executed poetry.
Susan Lewis’ musicality sings throughout How to be Another, not in flowery poetics, but instead by playing with language. Several lines are familiar phrases—clichés—that are often placed back-to-back at length in many of the poems. However, what makes this work is how she chooses to arrange each composure. What we end up with is not an overused corny rendition of a common idea, but instead a recycled and refurbished image that brings the familiar to an otherwise fragmented thought. In “Introduction to Appreciation,” we are immediately bombarded with simple cliché phrases such as, “tears to your blinding eyes,” “Take A for Effort,” “Take Practice What You Preach,” all opening the poem and sequenced one right after the other (p. 48). What Lewis is doing here is very intentional— she is drawing the reader in to think on a subject, a mindset, a grounding of idea, so she can then rip up the reality created in continuous fragments and phrases throughout the rest of the poem. And, as a dramatic decrescendo, another familiar phrase, “Lead with your silver spoon” is tossed in the middle (p. 48). We see this kind of drawing and pulling, then pushing and mulling the reader in and out through her language and phrasing, specifically the use of clichés as well in “Kin,” “Then Again,” and others. She executes this well in the imitation of our realistic thought processes. We are led through flashes of idea in directions where she skillfully wants us to, like an older sister taking our hand in leading us through the woods, and pointing out familiarity on the way to ease us through the journey.
Susan Lewis’ phrasing cannot be credited without admiring the form in which she accomplishes her prose. Each poem is aesthetically similar in not only paragraph form, but also length, sentence structure, and choices such as italics and her use of the ampersand consistently throughout. There are, however, some variations that allow some difference and mystery to include themselves. By sectioning the collection, Lewis provides coherence in form. In the first section, the title of each poem is also the first line. The last section entitled “viz.” implies exactly what it states: these poems are “as follows.” These last remaining poems are personal, almost serving a testament with lines such as “Now for my laundry list of fears,” and “For now, it’s best to draw your own conclusion. Mine follows” (p. 81). The tone of this last section is in contrast, unlike those that were placed in the second section, “e.g.” This section, perhaps the most sentimental, houses vignettes of memory and story, exhibiting the wonder of human interaction. Among my favorites in the book are here, including “The Kiss,” which tells the tale of a snowflake’s role in a young girl’s first kiss. This play on molecular structure and the bigger picture of life in general is displayed here, in a normal moment among many. While some poems are stark and confusing, some even so simple to be forgotten, it is the juxtaposition of those with poems like “The Kiss,” that create the ebbing and flowing composition Lewis directs.
Perhaps the most enjoyable facet of How to be Another, is simply the unique and bold-brassy style in each of the poems. Fragments that become quick bullets such as, “You always wanted to have sex with everybody,” surprise the reader in the poem, “Some Things I Know,” which also gift the saucy phrases, “I don’t know how to love anymore gadgets. No one knows why we put up with this. It’s best to resist the urge to sum up” (p. 57). Perhaps Lewis’ greatest strength is her resistance to the typical complex, overly flowery and sentimental poetic style so easy for prose poetry to subscribe to. Instead, her poetics are found in these quips—these fishhooks—to our cognitive sensory. The bubbling use of alliteration, for example, still design a musicality to her simplicity. “Who longs for these loopy logical gaps? What of the fleet flashes archived by our ailing axions despite the absence of the most rudimentary recognition?” in the poem, “Forgive Me,” is perfectly placed far from the prose-heavy narratives of “Commodity Fetishism,” and “The Deal.” It is Lewis’ talent for placement, and knowledge of when to say what where, that truly gels all 80 poems into a solid collection.
How to be Another is simply put, a beautifully accessible, yet impressive collection of poetry that can only be told in the unexpected, sewn-together prose poems by which Susan Lewis provides. In an almost cut-and-paste fashion, the reader is flash-bombed with serious conscious questions and thoughts, yet in an articulate, stunning, and punctuated talent. We begin, and finally are left, with a subtle thought of the wonder of the world and human existence, ever so presented by the poet’s light hand: “I say let’s accelerate until the clocks burst, then compare your time with mine, for a laugh” (p. 77).
About the reviewer: Erica Hoffmeister is a currently candidate for both an M.F.A. in creative writing with a focus in poetry, as well as an M.A. in English from Chapman University. She has been published in Split Lip Magazine, and received an honorary mention for the 2014 Lorian Hemingway Prize in short fiction.