Issue 76 |

rev. of The Way Out by Lisa Sewell


The Way Out 
Poems by Lisa Sewell. Alice James Books, $9.95 paper. Reviewed by David Daniel.

Lisa Sewell's first collection of poems,
The Way Out, explores territory that's not fit for the timid; whether she's writing about the body's generation or its decay, or of love, or sex, or of abortions, she does so with a precise, lidless eye. One welcomes her careful charting of the fleshy world and all of its difficulties when so many poets, upon surveying this type of terrain, seem eager to escape into shadowy metaphysics or soft-focused romance. In "Two Lessons in the Sacred," a poem that, among other things, discusses various funereal rites, Sewell writes of the people of Benares: "The poorer families must tend to their own pyres, / keeping watch until the skull explodes." Such attention to the physics of our bodies -- and this is just one instance of many -- may or may not make for good poetry, but it certainly shocks and challenges the reader, responses which are made interestingly complex because Sewell's images are often quite gracefully rendered. "Two Lessons" ends with these lovely lines: "There is nothing to take away from that
place / except the burning that stays in your clothes / and the long memory of the journey." The poet's subtle transference of "long" from its predictable home next to "journey" to its brilliant new one alongside "memory" gives the poem and its ordinary sentiments a memorable body.

While Sewell's acuity and tenacity, to this point, are the most distinctive aspects of her poems, her voice and its philosophical foundation are less consistent. Her voice, at its best an appealing mixture of rhetorical elegance and mundane anecdote, sometimes wavers in and out of awkwardness, though it steadies as the book progresses, and culminates in a fine poem, "Human Nature," that begins, "When someone presses his mouth to mine, I don't hesitate, / I open my lips." Such wit, such pluck, is endearing, and it is also indicative of the book's greatest merits: the poet embraces her own vulnerability with enough charm and confidence that the poems, at least, no longer seem vulnerable. The voice at these moments becomes buoyant and rangy, and, consequently, the matter of the poem more fully flowers. Too often, though, the poems seem philosophically underdeveloped, sprinkled, for instance, with allusions -- to Dante, to classical and Judeo-Christian mythology, to Nietzsche -- that appear more to support the
poems than to enrich them; the allusions' complexities and ironies, and hence the poems', are at times left rather frustratingly unexplored. It's as if Sewell is at a crossroads: one road leads to the irresolvable ironies of our greatest ironists; the other tries to eliminate that complexity and create a world without irony, or one in which, when irony is discovered, the discoverer feels triumphant over it rather than awed by it. It is to Sewell's credit that she's flirting with the great path, the one that will do justice to her unusually penetrating eye. This is a first book that's worth reading.