Liam Ferney Reviews Cassie Lewis

22 March 2017

Home also acts as an anchor against the unending sweep of time, something Lewis refers to repeatedly; both directly as well through frequent references to the natural cycles of days, seasons and tides. Tides, in particular, are ceaseless; high tide obliterates the footsteps of low tide ad infinitum. ‘How the tide repealed law / then erased itself’, she writes in ‘Temple’. This is a slight rewrite. In an earlier version, published in Calyx, the tide repeals us, making the erasure personal rather than social. Poetry, though, with its capacity to decode moments, and to preserve them, is a way of holding ground against the time.

This role falls to poetry because the previously reliable structures for understanding the world have been assailed. God’s multiple appearances in The Blue Decodes are diminished: the afterthought of a prayer to the prosaicness of laundry (“On the bus” 67), it’s riding around in ‘matchbox cars’ (‘Souvenir’) or is a ‘square of linoleum you stare at / until your eyes play tricks’ (‘One a Dime’). Science’s capacity for epistemology is limited; we are better off looking at the natural world: ‘At the centre of maths is a nominal god / but at man’s summit, living things’ (‘Man with Flame Tree’). The living things Lewis is most interested in are not trees and animals but the elements themselves: fire or heat, wind, the sea or water, and the heavy weight of earth. This is the book’s primary subject matter. The substances at the heart of it all. They are both alive and the source of all life. They are eternal and transient. ‘Waves are made of the same tireless water,’ Lewis writes in ‘Bridges’. They can redeem and renew. In ‘Prayer’ she pleads: ‘Let the skies break open / their flask of rain’. The elements functioning as a kind of baptism.

The Blue Decodes are simultaneously the blue decodes and the blue decodes. In the first, the poems are the decodes of the blue – a translation of the elements, represented by the blue of sky and of water. In the second, the blue is the method with which the elements can be decoded – the process by which the inarticulate is made articulate. The riddle and its answer wrapped up together. Remember Lewis, up late, constructing shanties? It is no surprise that when she is ‘dreaming aloud’ the source of inspiration is ‘Something blue and clouded’ that ‘Stirs in the screen before me’. Doubling down on the blue it is revealed to be: ‘the sky in Arizona / That I have not seen’. While that example highlights the relationship between the need to decode the elements and the means by which that is accomplished, its grounding in the imagination is atypical. Lewis’s more often concerned with what is in front of her. ‘High Country’ is more indicative. Waking up, the poet observes earth (‘watchful trees’) and water (‘lake, a toy for wilderness’), then reflects on the scene in front of her:

                                                                                                      Each turn of light, dark,
becomes itself and sleep is just another room.	
Amateur theatrics leap from the cage in my chest
but mountains subtract all parody from us.
So I choose my words, puzzled,
as if they were uneven rocks from the creek near my hands.

There is the dislocation of the recently awakened (another of Lewis’s preoccupations) and then a heart-racing anxiety, before being stopped dead by the power of the mountains. They are no laughing matter. Despite anchoring the poem, the mountain remains unknowable. It leaves the speaker ‘puzzled’, her words ‘uneven’, just as the sky in Arizona is both clouded and immaculate. In ‘Vanguard’, the promise of knowledge disappears like a mark’s promised return on an investment: ‘the stars make a perfect compass / telling the way out to the restless darker ocean’. The writing of poetry continues because it can’t be finished.

Practical is another way of describing Lewis’s poems. They are grounded in, what the reader suspects are, specific moments of joy, uncertainty, loss and dislocation. These are the moments that give structure to a life. Lewis uses poetry to understand them; building shanty’s against life’s ill winds. To this end we get poems about an expat’s deracination: ‘And then I’m on the other side of the planet. Mesmerised by light in the / stucco streets’ (‘Bridges’). About a mother’s love:

But your light is entirely new.
You arrived here from a new charter. Cities so torn
but you were flying, you were running water. Biology is our bedrock.
In labour I woke up, and the nurses brought me you.

I was the door you chose to walk through. (‘Sophie’).

Several poems depict the liminal moments just after farewelling a companion or a lover. One of the book’s most moving poems, ‘Dialects’, begins with a wry observation: ‘You’ll be standing on a bridge in Dublin / in your father’s overcoat, too warm for this country,’ before the realisation that a poem can’t undo the departure, it’s just ‘the closing shot from a steel reel in my head’. Poetry, in these moments makes life liveable.

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