Owen Lewis’ first book of poems, Sometimes Full of Daylight, has a vocabulary of boundaries. His characters realize the restrictions of their careers; their physical bodies; the conducted movements of their conversations. They seem to fear having lived too quickly and too blindly, so when the walls close in around them, they flatten their hands out and push.
Lewis, a child psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, fills his book with many faces—a father who has lost his daughter, a man being taxied to an old home, others who blur across the sidewalk on their way to work. They are people we know well and with whom we can identify; they seem calm with themselves and perhaps even a little numb. Lewis makes it clear, though, that they carry with them a private self-awareness. He takes these people, who we can too-often and too-easily label as “everyday,” and burrows himself among them, catching them at their most conscious moments.
These conscious moments come about in Sometimes just as they would in real life—buried in the trivial, the ordinary. The man in “Death Belongs to the Sidewalk,” for example, looks down one day and notices the tight (and trained) bind of his shoes over his feet. Others recognize the way their legs and hips move their bodies out the door. Another tells himself, bluntly, “I am disappearing, a ripple / across the thresholds of what was to be.” Lewis’ careful crafting of legitimate people in familiar worlds brings us to realize our own mechanics; how it is each of us creates our own quiet “everyday.” We wonder, as his characters do, what’s been overlooked.
In his opening poem, “The Walls,” Lewis writes,
I think the walls want to fall in. I mean, they’ve told me they do. They’ve told me a lot of things about standing straight and getting their cracks retaped and repainted.
[ . . . ]
I like those storms when the walls puff out. They are getting indignant. Each time they never quite go back aligned, like making a room becomes odd for them.
Here, the responsibilities of the “walls” are clear and simple—they must stand straight and rigid, hold their weight (and that of the roof), and mostly, just remain unmoved. These are their jobs. This is what they have been built to do. Lewis suggests in Sometimes that, occasionally, even these walls—with their plain responsibilities—bellow out, and often permanently so. When this happens, the walls no longer accept how they’ve been defined; they no longer follow the rules they’ve been taught to follow. They bend, like all of us, and it is tremendous when they allow themselves to do so. Lewis ends the poem with the lines, “It’s time / [the walls] fall in, and they will fly out— / turn blue and slip into sky.” This slipping—and the comparative slipping of you, and I, and all the other blurry faces on the sidewalk—sets the trajectory for the rest of the book.
I realize that saying this book has a trajectory—that the other poems are framed by this first one—seems like a way of binding them; of giving them expectations and doing exactly what Lewis is advocating against. This contradiction is no accident, though, and it becomes one of Sometimes Full of Daylight’s most important realizations. No matter how hard we try to be unpredictable or unframed—as much as we try to swell out like those walls—we often need our rules and restrictions to get by. The forms and the boundaries Lewis suggest we let “fly into the sun” are the same ones on which we end up relying. As Lewis brings up, in “Rendition,”
The cows have eaten their fences
And canter before they collapse, stomachs torn.
They are lost without their fences.
The fences, like the walls, confine and protect whatever is within them. Without the fences, these cows are left free, yes, but also vulnerable. Lewis uses Sometimes Full of Daylight to better explore this and to try and figure how best to use the few years we have.
If at this point Sometimes Full of Daylight seems to be a book about cows, or walls, or fences, then I’ve failed and misled you. What this book provides, far better than I can, is context and perspective. Lewis takes his time. He builds each poem into its own definite place; its own “falling nest”; its own “hawk [to] stitch the sky.” He reaches, somehow, for both the comfort of a home and for everything “home” will never be. With its disciplined, genuine, and openly fleeting voices, Lewis’ first book is well-worth your first—and second—readings.
ALEX GUARCO works in publishing and is an assistant editor for The Adirondack Review. His writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in DIALOGIST, The Siren Journal, The Bakery, and Niche.