On the Train, a Man Snatches My Book, Reads
By Paige Lewis
On the train, a man snatches my book, reads
the last line, and says I completely get you,
you're not that complex. He could be right—lately
all my what ifs are about breath: what if
a glass-blower inhales at the wrong
moment? What if I'm drifting on a sailboat
and the wind stops? If he'd ask me how I'm
feeling, I'd give him the long version—I feel
as if I'm on the moon listening to the air hiss
out of my spacesuit, and I can't find the rip. I'm
the vice president of panic and the president is
missing. Most nights, I calm myself by listing
animals still on the least concern end of the
extinction spectrum: aardvarks and blackbirds
are fine. Minnows thrive—though this brings
me no relief—they can swim through sludge
if they have to. I don't think I've ever written
the word doom, but nothing else fits.
Every experience seems both urgent and
unnatural—like right now, this train
is approaching the station where my lover
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.
This poem was originally published in issue 30.2 of Gulf Coast (Summer / Fall 2018).
In Conversation with the Poet: Paige Lewis
Paige Lewis is the author of Space Struck. Their poems have appeared in prestigious literary journals like Poetry, American Poetry Review and Ploughshares. Paige lives and teaches in Indiana.
SF: I always like hearing about where poems come from. Did you write it all in one sitting? Did you have these ideas separately and then bring them together?
PL: Is it cheating to say it’s a little bit of both? I tend to sit down to write for long stretches of time and, if I’m lucky, I have a poem by the end of that chunk of time. So, in a way, I did write this poem in one sitting, but I also had a lot of the poem’s images already swimming in my brain. I write a lot of little bits of language in my notebook every day—like cool facts I learn about tadpoles, or interesting phrases I hear someone say in passing. That way, when I sit down at my desk to write a poem, I have all of this language to pull from and I’m not as intimidated as I would be staring at a blank page. So, I had a good deal of the fragments when I sat down to write, I just had to find a way to braid them all together.
Fun fact, I wrote this poem in the morning and then my now-husband proposed to me later that same day. I like to think that he liked the poem so much he decided it was time to get married. [Editorial note: 😭]
SF: This poem was published back in 2018, but I’ve seen it popping up all over Twitter in the past few weeks. Some components of the poem seem prescient: “I don’t think I’ve ever written / the word doom, but nothing else fits.” The what ifs about breath, in my mind, link to respiratory anxieties and ventilators. How do you think about this poem’s connection to our present experience? Were you surprised to see it coming back around on Twitter?
PL: Twitter is such a strange place and basically anything that happens on it surprises me. I hadn’t thought about the connection of breath to the current pandemic, thank you for sharing that with me.
There are poems that feel like they were written yesterday, but they were written decades, or even centuries ago. I’m especially interested in poems that examine our role as humans with regard to nature. Poets have been wary of our impact on the planet for a long time—whether that impact be shown on a small individual scale—say, Roethke writing about his own “desecration” of a marsh in his poem “Moss-Gathering”— or on a larger scale—I’m thinking of Lucille Clifton’s “generations” and how the poem calls for all humans to witness their impact and to consider the future generations of other living things.
I’m grateful that my poem has been reaching people, and perhaps it will help others express how they are feeling in the current moment. But I do hope that we are working toward a future where this poem won’t feel prescient.
SF: The idea of memory as something artificially created, or at the very least self-consciously sought out, really resonated with me—especially as it relates to writing and the kinds of scenes we choose to memorialize with poetry. This poem ends in a place of deep ambivalence. I’m trying to turn this into a question but really I’m just thinking about what you wrote. How do you approach “the real” in your work? How do you think about what supposedly lasts (composed memories) versus what doesn’t (extinct animals)?
PL: It’s hard for me to have an experience without thinking “This is going to be a moment worth writing about.” Which means that I’m not fully in the moment, I’m half in the moment and half thinking about how to recreate it on the page. So, I remember the actual moment I experienced picking fruit with my beloved as the sun set and, in that moment, thinking “Oh, I bet I won’t be able to do this in the near future. This will be a good image for a poem.”
I guess this is all to say, nothing feels “real” in the way I’d like it to. Everything feels almost cinematic. I can’t help but thinking about the phenomenon of what has been dubbed Dramatic Window Staring. It’s where you sit on a train or in a car and listen to sad music and it feels like you’re in a movie. It’s difficult to think about approaching what is “real” in my work, when everything feels just a little unreal.
SF: “I’m / the vice president of panic and the president is / missing” is such an incredible one liner. How do you think about humor as a part of poetry, especially as a means of expressing unwieldly emotions like the ones in this poem (foreboding, anxiety, doom)?
PL: I’m a big fan of using humor in poetry! When I first started writing poems, I found that I’d put a lot of distance between myself and the speaker when I was writing about difficult subjects. I didn’t want to be vulnerable. But I’ve found that one way of tricking myself into staying in a poem that makes me uncomfortably vulnerable is to use humor. It puts me at ease long enough to get through what I need to say. It also, hopefully, has a similar effect on the reader.
SF: What’s a good poem you’ve read lately? A book you’d recommend?
PL: Oh, gosh there are so many good poems to list and I just don’t have the space! A book I’d highly recommend is Dispatch by Cameron Awkward-Rich. Here’s a link to hear him read four of his poems from the book.
This conversation took place via email in June 2020.
Paige Lewis, Space Struck, $15.95
"Must-Read Poetry: October 2019," The Millions
“Best of 2019: Poetry & Poetry Collections,” Entropy
“Best Books of 2019,” Book Riot
"Consider this glowing debut from Paige Lewis a menagerie of near-extinction. Space Struck explores the wonders and cruelties occurring within the realms of nature, science, and religion, with the acuity of a sage, the deftness of a hunter, and a hilarious sensibility for the absurd. The universe is seen as an endless arrow “. . . and it asks only one question: How dare you?”" -Sarabande Books, 2019