“from yours truly”
Lewis Warsh’s Elixir in conversation with Lisa Rogal
Me: I’m going to review Elixir – what do you think of that?
Lewis: “There are many things to do – at any given moment there are many things to do – and it’s important not to forget any of them”
Me: Yes, true. Maybe “review” is the wrong word. I’d like to talk to you about Elixir. I should have talked to you more, Lewis.
Lewis: “Write down the words you won’t get a second chance”
Me: Okay, I’m doing it then, alright? You always knew how to motivate me. That urgency – your anxious tendency. Yet you knew how to protract the moment. Understood the simple profundity of every moment.
how long anything lasts, a moment”
Me: Yes. As if it’s all a collection of moments, accumulated, then arranged just so. You had a knack for arrangement.
Lewis: “pieces of a body fall from the sky to create a new person”
Me: Were you making collages all along?
You’re using all your Lewis forms in this book: long poems with numbered-sections, shorter ones with bite-size stanzas, the sentence poems, that tight enjambment you do. Yet throughout, there is precise arrangement of disparate parts to create the whole. You collect the pieces – little scraps of personality (tears in the cashier’s eye), phrases, lists, songs – so many songs – quiet moments – then you assemble them, just so. One could consume it all in a sitting, propelled by anticipation – or luxuriate in it, traipse beside your flaneur of longing.
Lewis: “The impulse to continue (what will happen next?) – the impulse to end (how will it end?)”
Me: I know the feeling – wanting it both ways.
Lewis: “…everything happening in its
own time, if only for a moment”
Me: You do this thing with time in your poems. It’s perfectly malleable. Also, you move forward and back effortlessly. Or sideways even.
Lewis: “Backwards, up or down,
straight forward: these
are the ways to go”
Me: I can’t figure out how you create that movement, smooth as though one moment washes into the next.
Lewis: “Time is like a river, no, shit, it’s like
Me: Well, they each have a flow – an intuitive, internal logic all their own. When we step into the river, the song, we can’t predict where we’ll end up – yet arrival is inevitable.
Lewis: “you took
a step backwards into the past
and saw it differently
each time around”
Me: Maybe that’s it – you are cycling through, again and again to make sense of it all.
Lewis: “the theory
of cycles, the eternal recurrence,
paradise lost and found and then
lost again, all in one breath.”
Me: In the first poem, “Night Sky”, it’s easier to see how you move – the night-life refrain lets you travel through space and time. Scenes of a life flash before your eyes on a lonely night in the country. I imagine you out there – remembering all the night times you’ve had. Each scene – a stanza – tinged with that special, mortal kind of longing.
Lewis: “a 3-legged dog…a dead carnation…a bullet-proof vest…no where to go”.
Me: Exactly. From the start you seem to say, get ready for heartbreak. There’s humor, of course, because it’s you.
Lewis: “No one asked but
I know a modestly priced
Barber named Steve…
His partner is also named Steve”
Me: Haha, good one. You even slip in some shameless humor. “Silence of the Yams”!
Me: But these are just moments. Usually, the humor is in your timing, your line breaks, as well as your honesty about the indignities of being human. “Night Insects in the Trees” starts with a crime scene.
Lewis: “no one could tinker with
Me: A brilliant beat created by the stanza break.
Lewis: “except me”
Me: Mostly, the poems are beautiful, heartbreaking, love poems to life as it’s leaving. It’s so you, Lewis, but distilled – this little bottle of elixir, your parting gift. Take it and come for a ride, you seem to say.
Lewis: “You can’t stand around and not do anything”
Me: You could – but one is never disappointed when they choose to follow you. I can fall through these poems and know that you’ll place me where I need to be. The elixir flows like heavy sunshine – works from inside. And as you turn on the music and float away –
Lewis: “Do I hold
on for a moment or do
I slip over the edge?”
Me: Hold on! There are secrets waiting – furtive whispers in the night. Remember when you had us all write a poem at 3AM, the loneliest hour – or when you told me that pain is the loneliest experience, the hardest to understand? It is when you are farthest from the other.
Reading Elixir is like being with you again. I feel I’m having a conversation with you.
Lewis: “This is the road where we got lost in the fog”
Me: – I hear your voice, lilting. (We all loved it.) Your large hands floating at the end of long arms as you speak. (We all can see it.) This is nothing you don’t know.
Lewis: “It was all in your mind from start to finish”
Me: You said things simply. You said only what you needed to. You knew how to be quiet when it was needed. There is a lot of silence in your poems. You knew how to give space for things to happen.
Lewis: “anything could happen”
Me: It could. And this last book of your poems is no exception. You re-create the world for us, but it is a world with new rules –
Lewis: “You can park in front of the hydrant and no one will write you a ticket”
Me: – fantasy may be truth. Two things may be true at once – or more. It is a world of possibility, with familiar surprises throughout. One could breeze through, but it’s good to read this book slowly, to sink inside. It’s nice to live in your world for a bit. And now that you’re gone from this world, it’s bittersweet.
Lewis: “If you go too fast you might mis-
read the sign and think that
you’re somewhere else, which often
happens in the course of life”
Me: Right. The danger of the enjambment is disorientation. Like running down a flight of stairs, one could fall. But I never do in your poems, because each step is placed just so – so I continue – noticing changes to the landscape, surprises, what I’ve mis-read, what I’ve assumed. I end up where you intended all along, which may be someplace else, or not.
Lewis: “step off the curb
into the abyss”
Me: The abyss makes several appearances in these poems.
Lewis: “The abyss needs some attention as
well as the void”
Me: Yes, attention must be paid.
Lewis: “You can’t survive without paying attention to everything”
Me: How could you possibly pay attention to everything? It’s a nice idea. But now that I think of it – how could you possibly survive? No one does, I guess. For a while, we try.
Lewis: “Pay attention to all the details
of writing. Sentence structure, for
instance, and the use of commas.”
Me: Okay. Your commas are interesting. Especially in poems like “Intermission” where you use them to create a long sentence that seems to go on forever. Clause after clause builds up and when the sentence ends, it’s nearly a shock. There is anticipation, you draw out the breath, keep the audience on the edge of their seat, then float to the next thing which becomes a story or a meandering mind – a mind that can slip past the boundaries of the other and into their mind – and back again without violation. Or maybe it is a violation, but it doesn’t matter because it is so human – ghostly and human – forgivable and interesting and in love with being human.
Lewis: “the triangle of thoughts
in which one idea bleeds into
another and another replaces
the one that was left behind”
Me: Like the Ouroboros, there is no real end. You liked the idea of continuance – endurance. You always told us to “write 100 pages” of it, see what it is. You believed one had to keep going to get anywhere good.
Lewis: “It takes awhile for the truth to sink in”
Me: I believe that’s true. Something sunk into me when I read this book – was it truth? You don’t shy away from anything. It’s a bold book. For instance, your shoulders - when you’re sick in “Elixir” – and as a child in “Rapid Response” – both times a woman covers you. What I’m trying to say is, there is vulnerability. You certainly had that ability, that openness. You knew you were sick – dying. I can’t get over how beautifully you wrote it.
Lewis: “There were little things that mattered”
Me: Yes, they always do. The neglected everyday. I’ve always seen it in your writing: the moment. (I loved Henri Cartier-Bresson when I was a kid. My mom gave me a book of his photographs. The decisive moment, he called it, but it would’ve been nothing really, except that he’d seen it – he’d taken the shot.)
Lewis: “The defining moment
of my life came and went, and no one noticed”
Me: Haha, oh Lewis. “Notoriously overlooked” someone once wrote about you. It was part of your charm. Still, it bothered me tremendously. It bothers me still – the overlooked.
Lewis: “I’ll go on record and say
everything twice, in case no one hears”
Me: But I think there’s something important to being overlooked. Maybe it must be overlooked – the defining moment – that is its nature. It’s romantic, anyway. The things that go unseen. Small but potent. Like poetry. Nights in the hospital. “Ships in the night.”
Lewis: “the back burner
…where everything happens,
where we all live and die”
Me: Yes! Somehow, all the important things take place off screen. Is that what your silences are about? The place between the lines. The moments before and after the event. What I learned from you is it’s important what you put in, but also what you leave out. What you leave room for.
Speaking of which, your “E” collage on the cover (“La Disparition” – ala Perec) was always my favorite. Fitting too – since you’ve gone (a void). But here are all those E’s – they’re not gone after all. Just reappeared someplace else.
Lewis: “It’s not that interesting to contemplate
the afterlife, but might be something
you do in your spare time, just for fun”
Me: Why not? Do you mean heaven & hell? Heaven & hell are not that interesting. Perfection is not interesting. Especially for you, because you loved humans, taboo, the thrill of it all. And you were in love with the past – like me. It’s a troubling thing but feels too good – a drug – floating in the Salton Sea.
But what is it like Lewis, really?
Lewis: “Like a period
at the end of a sentence & when you erased
the period the words continued.”
Me: Oh, I see – now that you’re dead you have to be mysterious. But that sounds pretty good, actually.
I notice you don’t use periods in your sentence poems.
Lewis: “You can begin a sentence with a capital letter and end with a period, or not”
Me: What a Lewis thing to say, Lewis. But you didn’t use the period because these sentences don’t end – they blend. They are distinct – one might be a little poem or story on its own, yet they accumulate to create a longer poem. In “Rapid Response” and “Single Occupancy” you continue this form (ala Origin of the World), in which – as you would say – you’ve figured something out. When the sentence “ends”, there is a beat of silence. Then a continuation. They should be separate thoughts, but the precise arrangement, the nearly invisible thematic threads, make them into a larger whole. The poem – the collage.
Lewis: “I had some thoughts, embedded
inside other thoughts, which took shape
against a background of cloudless
Me: I can see it – this thought collage – shifting in front of my eyes. It can always surprise me. A sentence begins in your poems and may end any number of ways. These sentence poems take me on their wave and lick me to pieces line by line. A line like “I bagged some groceries at the checkout counter of the empty heart and ate a corn muffin in the pouring rain” from “Single Occupancy” – ouch. It’s heartbreaking and funny – the vulnerability and profound humanness. Yet refined – fine-tuned. It's a surprising juxtaposition: that corn muffin, the rain, the phrase “empty heart” igniting the scene – a neon light in a dead town. You seem to be meandering, but it all lands perfectly.
Lewis: “You can start off somewhere and go
somewhere else, in your thoughts, at any
rate, which are your own and no one
else’s, and no one knows, for a second,
what’s going on inside anyone”
Me: But you try to know. You were always noticing people – creating stories in your head. You wanted to know everyone’s secrets. You understood that everyone had them – everyone was very human to you. And as with your sentences, you blend the seemingly disparate consciousnesses of the characters that catch your eye. In “To the Lighthouse”, one pedestrian remark from the cashier at the all-night pharmacy has you launching into various fantasy versions of her intimate daily life. Back and forth you weave between Lilla (the cashier) and the speaker so that we can’t be sure if this is her story or his – or both at once. Her story happening in his head, or a consciousness that can move between people, fluidly.
Lewis: “You must let the other come in, and see what
Me: You let them all in. You are the most welcoming poet. (You put your cell phone number in “Weak in the Knees”! Your real number!)
Lewis: “call me any time”
Me: I wish I could.
Lewis: “don’t take it personally
if I don’t answer”
Me: Right. But there is real care for these “others” you let into your poem, into your world. Even Shelley the night nurse, bringing your meds in “Elixir”, the penultimate poem of the book. There is something full about her. The way you say her name, perhaps. This poem is one of the most stunning things I’ve ever read on death and mortality. Bittersweet because you make it sound romantic – watching the sunrise from your hospital bed while “Shelley the night nurse” brings you a Percocet –
Lewis: “or two”
Me: Once you told me you were a “secret pill head” – I hope you enjoyed yourself a little in those terribly lonely moments which as you say “there’s no one around to witness” – but we are witnessing it, thanks to you. I’m there with you – a fly on your wall – as you share the last time you saw each of your friends. Then you introduce us to “Dr. Newman and his team”, and as I anticipate a little fantasy about them, suddenly there are your scrawny shoulders, the most vulnerable moment, which felt like being smacked. Wow – as you might say.
And just as you end, you begin again, as you often do, with “First Communion”, where anything can happen. You run through a list of possibilities, fantasies, which may or may not occur. And no one cares if they do or don’t. The pressure is off, the day is new. You were all about the possibilities of being alive.
Lewis: “it seems like we’re lying
down on the surface of the body of
water between two hills
on another planet, and no one cares”
Me: Yeah, it does.
Lewis: “if we come or go…”
Lewis: “…if we leave for
a short period of time and return,
if we walk down the road or come back
at our own speed, with the hills in the
distance and the sound of a train...”
Me: Sounds nice
Lewis: “It occurs to me that
the world could end
at any moment”
Me: Yeah. I try not to think about it.
Lewis: “but sometimes I think
it could go on forever
as well. The idea
of the world ending
makes more sense
than imagining some
kind of endless future”
Me: Ending and continuing are both hard. How do you choose? Maybe that’s why you use cycles, circling back. Repeating to create meaning – to change meaning – to see it new.
Lewis: “The truth is
to say something
once and then say it again
in a different way
until it means something else”
Me: Maybe it’s not a circle – it’s a wave – it crashes then recedes and returns – a new wave each time – same ocean.
Lewis: “You can think of anything and it might mean something”