Begin before the beginning. As an epigraph to their recent collection Space Struck, Paige Lewis offers this passage from Book XIV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
So while they journeyed up that sloping road,
the Sibyl told her story to Aeneas;
they exited the underworld at Cumae,
and there Aeneas offered customary
sacrifices, then landed on the shore
that, as yet, did not bear his nurse’s name.
And, not to spoil anything, but there it is: the arc of this collection, with its themes of naming, meaning-making, and arriving home. Lewis takes on the persona of a modern-day Sibyl, a seer, an oracle, and in Space Struck this sibyl tells her story. The reader gets the sense that the narrator’s encounters with God, with St. Francis, with foxes, stars, and spider plants, are not imaginings, but have actually happened. They have something to teach us, some way forward on this sloping road, even if we can’t yet name the place we’re going to. Of course, it frightens us to acknowledge the prophetic, let alone admit that we seek the prophet’s guidance. So, give prophecy line breaks. Call it poetry.
The narrator, sensing our hesitation, offers this assurance in the last lines of the collection’s first poem, “Normal Everyday Creatures”:
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.
But earlier in the poem, she admits to not always feeling so confident. This is no otherworldly being, this prophet. This is a fellow traveler, rooted in this real world:
...I was frightened—
I thought I knew where everything belonged.
We are given a fuller image of this fear in “The Terre Haute Planetarium Rejected My Proposal”:
through life like I’m trying to
avoid a stranger’s vacation photo.
So, in a world where she thought she knew where everything belonged, our seer saw no place for herself. How relatable. And she, like the rest of us, has also experienced betrayal, which she details later in the poem:
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.
There in that last bit, we see another human feature: even in the pain, a self-awareness. A growing understanding of her inner life. An acknowledgement not only that she had named her feeling incorrectly, but that there is, in fact, a correct name for it. The prospect seems to make her giddy. “Such joy in naming,” she declares in “In the Hands of Borrowers, Objects are Twice as Likely to Break.” There is so much we cannot control, but we can control the words we use. In “Turn Me Over, I’m Done on This Side,” she says
...I wonder if we name storms because
naming is the only power we’re left with.
Lucky for us, our namer has a tongue as agile and inventive as that priest-poet Hopkins. In “When They Find the Ark,” she shows us the floors of Noah’s ark, “hay-dappled and wet-warped.” In “Because the Color is Half the Taste,” we feel with her “the sharp / the warm wet” when “a sharp rock / meets the vulnerable plush of my belly.” In “St. Francis Disrobes,” she yearns to find “where the river / quirks....”
If naming is her only power, it may be the only power she needs. In playing with language, our sibyl is beginning to learn what words can mean, and how they can help us know what we know, and bear what we don’t know. Shunning solipsism, her words bind her to her beloved. In the poem, “I Tell My Beloved I Miss the Sun,” she tells us in the first line, “he knows what I really mean....”
Words also connect her with others, seen and unseen. Take, for example, “God Stops By”:
...I ask God if He considers me
a cracked seed of grace. He says,
Yes, dear. I understand. It would be exhausting
to lead a life with careful consideration
for all things...
Even a poet, who has dedicated herself to seeing carefully, must take care sometimes to stop taking care. Must make space for wildness and error. After all, as she admits in “Because the Color is Half the Taste,” “...it’s hard to sleep knowing so little / about everything...”
So don’t always aim for sleep, she seems to say in “When I Tell My Beloved I Miss the Sun”:
...we get so tangled
my beloved grips his own wrist,
certain it’s mine, and kisses it.
In witnessing this passionate moment of mistake and togetherness, we sense we are nearing some shore. We don’t know what to call it, but it seems we’re heading home. With the tenderness we feel for the temporary, our sibyl elaborates in “On the Train, a Man Snatches my Book”:
Every experience seems both urgent and
unnatural—like right now, this train
is approaching the station where my beloved
is waiting to take me to the orchard, so we can
pay for the memory of having once, at dusk,
plucked real apples from real trees.
What will eventually lead us home is not all our knowledge, all our clever words for what we know. No, home is the place where the people we love are with us in all the things that seem uncertain. In “I’ve Been Trying to Feel Bad for Everyone,” our frail prophet prays:
...Lord, teach me patience, for every fruit
I’ve ever picked has been unripe....
But here she seems to catch herself waxing maudlin, and admits:
I know it isn’t all about suffering, so send
us a good flood....
Give us better prayers, she prays, than “Make this mine, Lord. Make this mine.” (“Turn Me Over, I’m Done on this Side”) Give us humor, give us joy. Let us let go of what is no longer serving us: our seriousness, maybe. Our shame. In “Where I’m From, Every House is a House with an Obstructed View,” she reveals:
...Where I’m from, we are practical
and ready to grow our mistakes. We whisper our heaviest
confessions into seed packets and launch them toward
the nearest planet, where they’ll take root in neat rows—flower,
fruit, flower, fruit. This is how we build our new home....
This way of naming, of confessing and releasing, is how we build our new home. It is also, as we learn in “Royal I,” the way to defend our new home from those who would casually destroy it:
...I’ve rid the realm
of rats by reading their tiny diaries out loud
until they ran into the forests, red-cheeked
So it’s not all serious. Our sibyl’s story has plenty of moments of clear-eyed candor and delight. We learn to trust her vision precisely for its idiosyncrasies, its painfully relatable self-awareness. Still, our journey is ending. We have exited the underworld but have only just arrived on some told-of shore. Lest we set off again too hastily, our seer-friend has these words for us, from “You Can Take Off Your Sweater, I’ve Made Today Warm”:
aren’t you known aren’t you
how can you be certain that anywhere else will provide
more pears than you could ever eat
Philip C. Maurer is a poet and essayist who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in The Christian Century and elsewhere.