(REVIEW) Miscellaneous by Julia Rose Lewis
In this review, Maria Sledmere visits the verdant isle of Julia Rose Lewis’ pamphlet Miscellaneous (Sampson Low, 2019), and engages chaotically with its shape-shifting poetics of ecstasy, digression and slippery things.
> Miscellaneous: of various kinds; elements of different kinds. A little green book full of miscellany. The work of Julia Rose Lewis has been dealing in miscellany (let me say it as much I can, it’s a lovely word) for a while now. Lewis’ collection Phenomenology of the Feral (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2017) was a veritable assemblage of household objects, clothing items, all things edible (from oranges to gummy bears), tools, chemicals and other substances. Words had a Steinian tendency to slip, where a ‘pear’ becomes ‘peer’ and sugar becomes sand. The whole book teems with a delicious excess of things and their zoomed-in, jostling, merging and almost psychedelic relation (I mean just consider the multicoloured octopus-bunny hybrids on the cover). Her recent pamphlet, Miscellaneous (2019), a slender offering from chapbook series Sampson Low, edited by fellow dealer in poetic animalia, SJ Fowler, continues this playful approach to disordering objects, experience and relation.
> Explicitly ‘inspired’ by Green Eggs and Ham, a classic children’s book by Dr. Seuss, Miscellaneous works with its foodstuffs in a fractal and kind of ecstatic way. Ecstasy meaning rapture or transport; Miscellaneous as a little island of strong emotion. I want to say island, but I could just as easily say green tomato. It’s difficult to resist the seduction of island metaphors during quarantine, and besides, Lewis herself spent time as a child in Nantucket Island. According to the publisher, Miscellaneous ‘asks if it is possible to have a mutually healthy relationship between a human and an island’. In an interview from 2016 with Katy Lewis Hood, Lewis says, ‘I use writing about the place I’m longing for as an antidote; I see islands as stories and stories as islands’. Staying with that chiasmus, might we see Miscellaneous itself as a kind of place? The scales upended sufficient to slip into our pocket, a zoomy island remainder? A dinky little 12-page island you could circle on foot and do it again and again — for this is a book that loves repetition, a veritable jaunt on the anaphora express, a 5-7 syllabic ride on the waves. But it’s difficult to know what constitutes the very land you walk or ride on:
A mane! A terrain! A mane is a terrain through and through and should you be guarding the herd inside the river valley? You hold this territory? Not harnessed! Not in a horse-less carriage!
Lewis plays deliciously with the fact of metaphor as a transport, a vehicle, while thrashing around in the joy of assonance and sound as forces of meaning and meaning’s disruption. What’s more, the repeated invocation of the ‘you’ means I’m forever hailed back to the scene; I can’t leave the island utterly behind, can’t glide drone-like over its landscapes. Besides, maybe it’s more like an archipelago? Terrain is a region of land, a system of rocks or geological formations, a standing-ground or position. Lewis teases us with the ever resolving, dissolving, negating terrains of lyric. Those exclamation marks are surely provocations to the reader, as much as the swept up proclamation of revelling in words themselves (thinking of the upward-looking heart emoji, reacting to a message). Her ‘I’ (perhaps riffing off the O’Haran tradition of I do this I do that poems, via Colin Herd’s I like this I like that variation) is quite demanding, precise, has an eye for arrangement (‘The musk ox is not in the / ocean’), identification, variation, placement (‘They disappear’). As with the effect of haiku (a kind of ‘cut’ of images), she challenges ‘nature’/object relations by similarity and contrast:
I would not like that morose woman faraway, that maiden hair tree. I am that old ginkgo tree.
What is the connection between the morose woman and the maiden hair? Does the fact of the speaker being the ‘old ginkgo’ explain her conditional dislike of the woman? And is the maiden hair tree the same as the woman? With its short, invitational lyrics, Miscellaneous gives you time to wander around the ideas of things, ideas in things. Maybe it’s telling the story of an island which is really a metaphor for Earth: its ‘holding pattern[s]’, its ‘there or anywhere’, its snowy territories, its ‘dry grasses / and mosses’ (v. Eliotic, ‘The Dry Salvages’ of Four Quartets?), its ‘skyhook’, its ‘living fossil leaf’ with ‘many millions of years’ inside it. Crudely speaking, ecopoetry often tries so hard to seem either objective (ecomimesis) or explicitly subjective (Romantic); the speaker of these poems insists on a kind of declarative, shape-shifting reality, whose run-on code requires the user command of something more than human. ‘You hold all the weeks / would you tote the boulders here?’ The labour of bringing the world to life in poetry is more than just reading; you have to really consider toting the boulders of words around. There’s a weird hospitality to this, a gesture of extending the voice: ‘So I / say try the bloom of mold!’. Maybe as a reader I’d speak better the world with the mold in my throat. It’s these kinds of special conditions Miscellaneous gets at so well. What the chapbook gives is a portable miscellany, a set of questions, a dicey and moreish feast of seeing the world anew — at all scales and dwellings, from a ‘ptarmigan nest’ to the air itself. Better eat up.
> Lewis’ smart and choppy lines remind me of the best chefs at the restaurant where I used to work, who would dice veg or make meat cuts with a certain deftness, all the while engaging in dishevelled conversation. I would ask, from which precise bay are the oysters sourced, and the chef would lecture me on the valiance of a 2Pac album. We would swerve from one topic to another by the time of the bell: language defined by the beat and demand of cooking. It was good to feel enslaved to the temporality of the microwave, the rising of bread, the petulant delay on the part of a chicken. And you might say, O maria what does this have to do with Julia Rose Lewis’ new book? And I would say, well, it’s all about iteration, digression, perversion of recipe. The poetic line as the flick of sweaty chef hair, the child’s demanding inquisition, the special way of dodging the question. But don’t let me fill you up with nonsense.
> There’s this weird piece in The Guardian that totally disses Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, which I’ll admit I haven’t read this side of puberty. The author, Emma Brockes, is pretty damning: ‘two-thirds of the words feel like filler’, ‘the rhyme scheme [...] is like something a kid would throw at a homework assignment so he could finish and run out to play’, ‘[Seuss’] books are creepy, empty, over-long, cheap, twee writing posing as whimsy’. Maybe I don’t have a striped ankle to stand on here, but I can’t help but think Brocke is missing a point somewhere. What’s wrong with poetry that wants to fly through itself quickly, all the better for the writer to go out and play? I’m thinking of something Jack Spicer writes in one of his letters to Lorca, describing how there are times in a poet’s life where ‘the objects change’ when ‘someone intrudes into the poet’s life’ so a certain balance is lost. ‘The seagulls, the greenness of the ocean, the fish—they become things to be traded for a smile or the sound of conversation—counters rather than objects’. You sort of get the feeling Brocke got tired of this (too many counters, too much supposed impeachable brilliance) and upended the board, sending everything scattering to miscellany. Maybe that was the appropriate reaction. I’d like my poetry to have that effect sometimes. And then I’d quite like to run out and play, or fall in love (if we were not in lockdown), or otherwise just write you a blowsy prosy letter.
> There’s this idea of Green Eggs and Ham as a childhood exercise in epistemological questioning. Asking you to think about how experience establishes beliefs about the world. Miscellaneous quite obviously trades in the empirical possibilities of knowing, experimenting in what happens when certain patterns or conditions are put into play (it’s worth noting that Julia Rose Lewis is also a scientist by training). I think of a child stuffing sand in its mouth, learning about size, scale, texture, taste. A child that learns a tomato is good when ripe and sweet. I also think of judging when I might cross the road, or a chemist inching just a *wee* bit more of X in the formula (is that how it works? is it like choosing to add another comma to a poem - what exactly is the risk of explosion?). Every day of our lives we are hedging, testing. ‘If you will then I will try / rain on rain on rain’; how I learn from you, a fashionable imitation in the wearable weather/whether. Things pile up, acquire elemental charge; the poems are teasingly object-oriented; the ‘I’ is an iterative effect of desires, repulsions and relations. Substances effect themselves into life and I think of Francis Ponge and the orange. Expression is something to be ‘endured’. How does an object hold itself in a poem, without being overly squeezed into miscellany, matter? Lewis uses the singsong effects of poetry (repetition, rhyme), to play with causality and intention. In the final poem, for example, is the ‘gold’ ‘old’ and what temporality is ‘golden’; is it the ‘spring /green’ or the speaker who is ‘cold’?
> Miscellaneous in general describes a kind of extra or supplementary category, that which escapes the normative set. Perhaps there is then a case for this being a kind of queer object-oriented poetics. Things are slippery and hungry and irresistibly insistent. They become the book itself, the little object in your hand, tomato green as ‘the spring / green tomatoes in sea salt’, sprinkled with salty little words. This is a case for frivolity and filler and whimsy in poetry, for appetite and affect, salty wit, the necessity of dancing around sentiment, excess, sweetness and swerve. ‘I will eat the spring / fruit upside down’; the fruit of the book you peel again.
Miscellaneous is out now and available from Sampson Low.
Text and image: Maria Sledmere