Poems transparent, timeless; Poems Old and New, 1918-1978, by Janet Lewis. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press/ Ohio University Press. $5.95 (paperback).
At a moment in poetic history of notable technical prowess and lamentable poverty of content, a volume containing 60 years of selected Janet Lewis poems shouldn't be overlooked.
Ms. Lewis is probably better known for her four historic novels: "The Invasion," which English critic Donald Davie placed alongside William Carlos williams's "In the American Grain," citing them together as exceptional indigenous American works, and her trilogy, drawn most interestingly from an early 19th-centry legal document called "famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence." But the poems collected here are in no way stepchildren. they are richly and warmly right intheir own uncompetitive light.
Even the earliest of them are admirable and unself-conscious. Mrs Lewis greets up with her teling observations of Objibway Indians, and their unpretentious says. We take our leave, a hundred pages later, as she's speaking of the Hopis and the Navajos. The pages in between concern themselves with goats and lullabies, with pine fish and Mith Cesar Franck, with John Muir and assorted friends.
Her taste, unerring both with words and with acquaintances, is timeless, and her themes so wisely chosen at the start that we find no awkward or abrupt transitions. Decades do not distinguish themselves. The channels of her thought are seamless, deep, and pure. All she chooses to tell us is told so quietly, one marvels at the transparency of her art.
There isn't a single poem of self. Rather, a good many of anhoring comfort, assuring us the sunlight pours unshaken through the wind." The winds of 60 years blow cleanly through these pages, but sunlight penetrates them all. In a poem called "Easter Laudate," she writes:
"LAudete! Laudete! Slowly the morning light Climbs to the roof of the sky. Laudate, laudate, A thousand voices cry, Under the vaulted naves of Christendom, in humble chapels, or in lonely rooms, Where a few are gathered together in His name, Laudate, Praising the love that cannot die, anh hop undying, the rebirth Of beauty to the liv-ing earth. Lo, where the sunlight glows on the new corn. Sunlight transpiercing the young April leaf! Lord, I believe! help Thou my unbelie! 'Mary, ' He said, and she , in wonder, Rabbonu!'"
Yes, wonder indeed. It's a good wqork to describe my response to these poems.