Intimations of the Focal Plane
by Dan Lewis
By the time I finished Dan Lewis’s collection Intimations of the Focal Plane many sections of my journal were scribbled over with citations of snippets from the tome. His words, blazed and blazoned on my pages, had magically transformed each into a focal plane of its own. Looking them over, I felt compelled to bring this book to your attention. For the lenses he asks us to look through burnish the world of perception into one of resilience, optimism and poetry with a flabbergasting perspicacity.
Given the title of the volume, it is fitting that Lewis expounds on a greenhouse. After all, its glass planes admit light and capture whatever heat there is to foment life itself:
there is, is filtered
through time. Make
the edges true. Join
the panes with great care. Etch
the joints with your tears. (p. 38)
With joints etched instead of mullioned, and with tears instead of mortar, this greenhouse becomes as metaphysical as it is physical, as metaphorical as literal, as magical as practical. The next page reaffirms this view with “There is nothing/ that is not metaphor.”
“Panes,” above, suggests a homophonic pun, made explicit in “A Catalog of Pains” which takes us from “the ball of the foot” through “the gut” to “the top of the skull” but culminates at the mind:
the pain that catches the breath, remembering what should not have
the pain that constricts the chest when something cannot be
the pain that blots out sense when something is remembered too
The point throughout though is that in spite of such pains we persist and “[greet] the greasy dawn” (83): “The tumbrel/ is rolling; nothing remains/ but the ride” (71); “Head in any direction./ There are no/ alternatives” (70); “Let whatever will dissolve/ do so. Then there’s what’s/ left” (48); and even more brazenly:
God nods his head, puts his hands
in his pockets, moves on. (76)
The poet seems to be telling even Him: “If you pass this/ point, everything will/ change.” (84)
What comes through these panes and pains, then, is both the light of sight and that of insight. And the images it casts on these pages (making focal planes of them) intimate that something greater is going on in this “greenhouse” than a lot of lovely lyrics. Something like a miracle. Like life.
Life, that is, that brandishes a feisty fist, then waves a magic wand, at the elusiveness—and illusoriness—of existence: “We live here only/ by assembling, again and again,/ illusion.” (6) “But,” Lewis waxes in a poem of the same name: “if you were really/ here. You know, like/ now, each breath/ weighted with knowing…. Oh and/ these few falling/ words.” (28) These words might fall as soldiers, slain or wounded while fighting for some modicum of meaning to existence, or as rain, restoring a drought-ridden land to fecundity much the way that a greenhouse ekes out a verdant winter if only within the confines of its glass walls.
Two recurring motifs, in fact, are light and water: and these poems flow like the latter as they shed the former from page to page. Lewis also brings up weight (and its homophone) and breath throughout the book, as yardsticks of the physical and the metaphysical, climaxing with the fireworks of “July 4, 2013”: “Too much measurement in it, this weighted/ life.” (118) Note how the line ending gives particular weight to life.
In other words, Lewis deploys the metaphysical tradition from Donne to Dickinson, with its use of miracle as metaphor—and vice versa—to combat the existential one, with its void. But he not only dowses our souls in the torrents of his words, but thrills with intermittent bolts of literary lightning, as sudden as abracadabras, lighting the way under darkened skies. Lightening. Enlightening.
As focal planes these poems, then, act as crystal, conjuring us to see in new ways, to imagine, to feel, to connect, and to create other planes of existence. In one such plane, he’s “been leaving/ small bits of my brain like/ breadcrumbs”: How else could you describe dementia, aging, or even creativity so as “to mark the way back”? (54) In another, “Pieces of sky/ have fallen/ to earth. Shards everywhere.”
Nevertheless: “There is/ no other place/ to begin.” (35) In a third, getting “your/ mind back” may be like a movie where “maybe you/ are in the credits—in tiny print/ near the end, where it/ only plays/ to an empty house.” Lewis’s literary landscape is not merely existential, then: he trail-blazes a new terrain we might call “magical existentialism.”
And this magician’s patter betrays a cosmic humility that entertains and amazes as easily as his feats of conjuring. With self-effacing wonder, he riffs about what not being “here” will be like: “a lot, in fact,/ like not being in Des Moines,/ Iowa” and waxes from the humble to the humorous:
for days and days and days,
I have given no thought at all
to Des Moines, Iowa. Yes.
Like that. (17-18)
This poem, still early in the book, seemed small to me at first, adorable, a poet’s “made thing.” But by the middle of the book, I began to grasp the hugeness evoked by here as well as by days and days and days. And by Yes.
The persona of all these poems might be thought of as one soul with one voice on one journey, the same as all of ours, who by page 13 is “no longer certain/ he can distinguish between contentment/ and resignation.” Resignation from what?
In “Checkup” he tells us. The poem begins:
What then is held aloft, weightless
almost, like a smile or a
name. We have come here once again
with hope, and also with
dread— . . .
Note the line endings again, giving special “weight” to almost and name. It is through his name, of course, that a poet might just cheat the Reaper out of His due. Likewise, the fact that our bodies are not weightless, but only almost, empowers us all, once more, to “move on.”
Later in the same poem:
So difficult, to live
in this frail machine that seems possessed of its own
will—able, so easily, to upset
any applecart. But here it is now, held aloft, without
reason, and you are still trapped
in this contraption that stutters & fizzes and will not
Frail machine and stutters & fizzes echo Yeats’s “tattered coat upon a stick” (“Sailing to Byzantium”) and Shakespeare’s “struts and frets” (Macbeth, Act V). But contraption betrays a downright orneriness reminiscent of the greatest applecart-upsetter of them all, Mark Twain. At this point the poems began to break my heart (as Huck Finn still does whenever he looks at the stars) even while restoring my faith—in poetry, in people, in persistence.
Though the voice be humble, the craft here is nothing shy of sensational. Again, look at the line endings immediately above, which also enrich the incipient So, will, any, and reason. Rest gets double emphasis as its own complete line. And with existentialism (magical or otherwise), Rest is, after all, the goal of the journey, the end of the art.
As an example of the poet’s economy, “Parochet” sent me to the dictionary, but that trip was well worthwhile. A parochet is a heavily embroidered tapestry (another planar shape) hung in a synagogue to conceal the Ark from the casual view of passersby. The Ark of the Covenant, that is. Which houses the Ten Commandments, that is: Revelation itself. None of which he mentions in the poem. The one-word title furnishes the poem’s sacred setting and frees the text to take us to the secular temple, the universe, where “Each surface masks creation…. We are blinded/ by the obdurate surface/ of its mirror.” (36)
Elsewhere, Lewis matches Pope’s nonpareil of parallel structure (“Man proposes./ God disposes”) with his own tetrad: “everything overstated/ nothing understood.” (51) Now, a slinger of existential tropes must deploy the e word and n word with caution and selectivity, or his writing will quickly become as void of meaning as his existence. But here Mr. Lewis has slung a beaut.
On the book’s structure: Section headings proceed sequentially and cite a 19th-century Treatise on Optics to hint that title, cover, and design all guide us on our mutual journey. The first section heading features one rectangle; the second, two overlapping ones; the third, three, and so forth, echoing the cover, which sports a photograph by Dorothy Magadieu but a design “by the author.” Each additional overlaid rectangle marks the layering-on of an additional focal plane and with it our growing ability to see clearer, further, deeper, with more acuity, and with more breadth, even while the poet grows more distant from the moments of the life he’s crystallized into verse—and versified into crystal.
In the July 4 poem mentioned above, for instance, he hears fireworks from “across the lake… too tired from the humid blanket of/ the day” to attend in person. The “memory of other years is enough,” he concedes, measuring “our half-century.” It’s a heartrending joy: and yet, he had told us of this resignation way back on page 13. Now, though, “burnished by how little time/ is left,” we cherish with him, to the utmost, “the last echoing booms,/ the unseen exploding/ suns.” (118)
As with Donne and Dickinson, Death is lurking and luring. And we are offered no lament, only a valentine, no elegy but ecstasy, no send-off but celebration.
The last several poems of the book are masterpieces, one right after the other. I can’t open to them without dosing his fallen soldiers with more secretions of my own pane-etchings qua tears, notwithstanding that tears, as water and light combined, do occasionally glisten. I conclude, then, with the poet’s own conclusion:
If there are only
a few days left, I want them all to
shine. Bring me my glockenspiel;
let’s make some noise. (122)
The power of Dan Lewis’s poetic magic may be surpassed only by the resilience of his spirit and the expansiveness of his soul. And his greatest feat may be that we are humbled and, at the same time, heartened, to know the intimations of his pages.