If the short “post-confessional” lyric poem treats politics, it pokes it in the I. Even the most determinedly “resistant” short lyrics—the ones exploiting chance operations, violated syntax (or no syntax), or graphic impulses—somehow fall back into the net of psyche: somebody feels this; somebody grasps the world this way.
It’s not clear that this self-speaking instinct is so strong in the long poem, which may lean towards essay, drama, narrative, even epic—systems of coherence. But when a deeply subjective poet like Lesle Lewis goes long it’s worth keeping an eye on the trajectory of her characteristic, distinctively lyric, impulses. In the books she’s produced so far (Small Boat, Landscapes I & II, Lie Down Too, and the beautiful chapbook, A Boot’s a Boot) she’s most often worked her many intellectual and emotional concerns through the lyric sifter in ways that precipitate an agon—a contest between subjective voice and “material” that appears sometimes as battle, sometimes as dance (or dance-off). Her gift as a poet has been to keep things balanced without making them tame. Her tensions gesture towards a kind of sense, but remain tensed. She makes this look easy in the short lyric environment, but without an overarching system of coherence, the long poem presents her with a special formal challenge: how to balance (and sustain) the tension given this much extension.
At the greater length of “Two Yeses,” the agon between self and content is still there, but it is expressed more as formal problem than as poetic device. Instead of measured tension, there are excursions, catastrophes, and retractions. She uses the environment less for enunciating a balancing-act and more for divagations and clustering, the temporary emplacements of compact formal units voiced as enigmatic stations among criss-crossing pronouns, agencies, and perspectives. There is no simple core, as there so often is in the short lyric, but incisive stabs here and there, each representing an effort to pin things down, but also an act of dissemination and, perhaps, a fresh start. You might look for an answer of sorts, a bedrock, in “I am that girl.” But that girl is a swirl, changeable as the internet, a “collection pool” with “one hundred and twenty states of consciousness.”
She writes “I want to turn my neediness into greater self-sufficiency,” but that’s not going to happen. The self that says “I get so sad” is actually describing a good thing, a moment of truly embodied experience. When she says “Sometimes I change” she’s claiming to witness a variation in something relatively whole. But most of the world of this poem isn’t like that. Its sense of change and loss projects a greater apparatus whose “single cry is ‘Help.’”
It’s hard to pin down the extent to which Lewis’s poem derives directly from her reading, but it’s worth mentioning some of her sources: Darwin (“There are no frogs on the Canary Islands”) and Derrida, who writes of the yeses in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, and of “the two yeses” or “the ambiguity of the double yes” (in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra) that
one of them comes down to the Christian assumption of one’s burden, the Ja, Ja, of the donkey overloaded as Christ was with memory and responsibility; and the other yes, yes that is light, airy, dancing, solar is also a yes of reaffirmation, of promise, and of oath, a yes to the eternal recurrence.
Probably most pronounced, though—possibly even the principal intellectual motivation for the poem—is Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, from which comes the line, “The causation is viewed as the emergence of the event from the state.” (I’d guess that Lakoff’s work on categorization and clustering in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things is also in play here.) Metaphors We Live By is dedicated to many of the issues Lewis’s poem wrestles with—not only the emergencies of causation, but also agency, subjectivity, objectivity, metaphor, form, and truth. The idea that our experience is everywhere saturated with metaphorical thinking has ceaseless repercussions:
Political and economic ideologies are framed in metaphorical terms. Like all other metaphors, political and economic metaphors can hide aspects of reality. But in the area of politics and economics, metaphors matter more, because they constrain our lives. A metaphor in a political or economic system, by virtue of what it hides can lead to human degradation.
The formal cry of “Two Yeses” is such, with its one-sentence lines of (usually) flat declaration, that its seeding with elements from Lewis’s reading is both a convergent and a divergent exercise. They serve (when they appear to us as “allusion to external material”) as an indication of purposive, coordinated thought; yet they fragment as well, each seeking its own path on a system of coordinates that may or may not prove to be a map of anything at all. Without question the poem says that something is at stake: but sometimes it seems that nothing is bound to that stake.
No surprise, “Two Yeses” is about affirmation, doubly and in doubt (that is, a Nietzschean affirmation). Its beginning, a dangling—a hesitancy even to commit to standing, to taking a stand!—rides off into metaphors and spatial abstractions (what is the thing of which “flatness” speaks?), takes a whimsical byway to nod to the Roches (“Big Nuthin’,” or maybe the association’s all my own), moves on to more (dis-) engagement with a Frostian “something” that seems to appear but not quite—it’s fierce, but how “ox-like” is it, really?—freezes on a realization (the world adjusts me, not the reverse), cries “Help” as if there were someone or something to help, and finally (finally?), squeamishly or bravely, acknowledges that everything this voice has written is so much straw—or, rather, doubt.
I write this in praise, not in blame. You don’t go to Lesle Lewis for a smartypants lecture steered by her certainties or ideological convictions. From Small Boat onward she’s been adrift, more or less, looking for moorings but not finding any that were quite acceptable. Her last book, A Boot’s a Boot, makes a joke even of such experiential tautology. (I can’t help but think of Beckett: “There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the fault of his feet.”) In such an environment (i.e., the world), what would “yes” mean? Your “yes”? Mine?
But there’s another instinct at work here, that “ten pages of what I’d call [doubtfully?] ‘doubt’” is a long stretch of anatomizing uncertainty—though tell that to Heisenberg. This isn’t a scientific, but an ethical principle, as well as an emotional one, and a metapoetic one. For the poem’s repeated inturning projects its uncertainty most decisively (if such a word can make any sense) onto what it means to put the best words in the best order. From its most subjective moment (“I don’t know what . . .”) to its questioning of tricks of troping (“Where is there pleasure in turning around? / It’s all light green damp woods, all yellow star flowers”) to its descent into the abyss of readership (“the first person says . . . the second person . . . the third . . . the fourth”) the poem declares itself disabled: “We’re stuck awake.” The fact and the word dismiss each other: “The rain is no argument for rain.”
It’s not hard to figure out where doubt comes from—and more pertinent to calculate to what it is applied. In one framework doubt is simply the epistemological wreckage left over when the machine of faith breaks down. In another (more “progressive”) it is not only an attitude set against faith as such, but also a replacement for faith in the greater scope of our behavior—in politics, in science, in philosophy, in social and intimate relations. And which of these is it, doubt or faith—this isn’t a rhetorical question, I’d really like to have a satisfying answer—that leads us to suspect that these are all, ultimately, something like versions of the same thing?
That’s what the strange configurations of Lewis’s forms seem to indicate. When she interrogates a philosophical precision (“that a general freedom is equally important to a freedom from suffering”) she first undercuts it with adjectives and then steers it toward a metaphor for her own formal play: “The intersection which is the word ‘intersection.’” Wisely, she tells us to “look both ways.” Her poetic crossings are dangerous. Similarly the question of “uncategorized information” vs. “categorized” is troped towards a fruity intimacy: “Let us love and to mate, oh!” (Sometimes only a pun—here a double-banger—pulls mighty opposites together.) This grappling with logical niceties (“the emergence of the event from the state”) leads to the observation that even our breathing is “complicated”: everything seems to emerge in human experience already a mess of motives.
As with most good poems (I believe), such patterns establish and reinforce possibilities for us without determining an undoubtable conclusion. The voices here, moving through agitation, conviction, acceptance, and their repudiations, don’t settle down, but do hold out the sense—the form itself holds out the sense—that they desperately want to affirm affirmation. It isn’t affirmation that they finally affirm, however, but rather the wanting and the desperation.
“Two Yeses” keeps opening for me, like nearly all the poems I really like, towards more and more questions. The more personal, lyrical dimensions of its inquiry into intimacy, for instance, I haven’t even touched. I can’t (wouldn’t if I could) simply solve that, but I can approach it through its duplicity: the sense that affirmation is never simple or singular, but always complicated. What’s at issue is plural, but instead of using that to solidify or validate affirmation, the yes doubled cuts it in half. Somehow the poem wants to make its case about what truly belongs to two, possibly conflicting yeses.
For the fact of affirmation, the poem and the world tell us, is an act of faith of some sort—faith in whatever grounds us among things, people, and ideas so that we feel we can say meaningful things despite the ubiquity of metaphoricity. That affirmations clash is obvious. What motivates my yes may conflict with, even discredit, what motivates yours. And there is no reason, as the poem demonstrates, to suppose that, in any circumstance, we should regard ourselves as limited to merely two motivations (however conflictual) for our yeses. These may be myriad, though the poem chooses to deploy the simplest case.
Here’s what this means to me (the poem itself is a kind of argument that it must mean differently to you--whatever our determinations, what underlies these will always vary): while the world often seems constituted in mere opposition, the yeses against the nos, there is a more hidden set of complications attaching to the different motives that underlie our apparent agreements. Ideology (a dogmatic sensibility paddling in a sea of faith) may lead us all to speak the same yes. But underneath that is a constant turmoil of conflictual motives. Another way to put this (in fact, the way the poem puts it) is the question: Where does your “Yes” come from? And how can you say yes to that yes?
Jerry McGuire's most recent book of poems is Venus Transit (Outriders Poetry Project, 2013). He is Co-Director of Creative Writing (with Skip Fox) at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.