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Vivisect

  • Image: Image
  • Book Type: Poetry
  • by: Lisa Lewis
  • Date Published: October 2010
  • ISBN-13: 978-1-930974-92-0
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 95pp
  • Price: $15.00
  • Review by: Sima Rabinowitz

Vivisection—such an evocative word—is experimental surgery performed on animals typically for research purposes, considered unethical by many, and harsh and aggressive as the word itself sounds. I am somewhat surprised at this title, wondering at the poet’s choice of a word with such negative connotations for her book, but the title poem (the final in the collection) demonstrates how poetry can take any term and make it one of great power, salvaged by artistic achievement, prowess, and mastery, rendering it positive on some level. Despite difficult and painful images (or, perhaps, because of them), the title poem reminds us that poetry’s unique power resides in its ability to make every human experience unique (yet universal) and exquisite.

“Vivisect” begins with a line that echoes the title’s sounds, mimics its rhythmic impact, and sets up its thematic objectives:

Invert the starfish.
Its muscular points
Contract to resemble
A nerve-damaged hand.
Workers in the mirror shops
May be thus injured.
But the scars show.
The underside
Of the starfish is
Clear of marks, unless
It comes from ocean
Shores littered
With broken glass.

Vivisect is a metaphor for the times in which we live and which we have, in the last century, lived through. A symbol of how we approach the general sense of unease and disorientation that informs our life and times. The process that enables us to examine daily experience. The act of poetic recreation of the world we explore and bring to life in verse. It is the dissection of language (“Bob wanted to write a fiction, / He had a novel in him.”); the analysis of history (“I tell friends / What I read / About vivisection / In concentration camps / But they already know.”); and, for, Lewis, it is our connection, as well, to popular culture and the “messages” of the moment (Sesame Street, professional conferences, and the DSM). “Vivisect” is Lewis at her best, terse, acerbic, sound-savvy. Pointedly unsentimental, sharp, driven, able to cut (vivisect) to the chase:

The gates
Opened, and
as with war
Crime trials, the criminals
Insisted accusation
Harmed them.
They’d lived
Cheerful lives
Untainted by regret.

Lewis, author of four previous collections of poems, director of the creative writing program at Oklahoma State University, and poetry editor for Cimarron Review, is a master of the pithy remark and its—often understated—rejoinder: “What happens. What happens is all good What / Happens is all bad. I look at it either way.” And “Despite what she said, / I do not resemble an angel.” And “I am going to make myself a little girl / Again.” Is this the linguistic embodiment of vivisection?

These are “tall poems” in a tall book, long lean columns, urgent, relentless, elegant in their desperation, desperately spare. They examine illness, historical atrocities, personal confusion and failings. They are mature poems, almost impossibly adult, even when reflecting on childhood. They are heartbreaking in their emotional precision (“It had been afternoon as long as I could bear.”); credible (“I dreamed about my stepbrother Greg; / Something happened to make him deaf, / And he didn’t take it well, he turned helpless. / He’s a salesman, a good talker. / Whatever it takes for him to get what he wants / Is what he wants.”); and, happily, unpredictable (“Something tumbles through the snowy branches. / Branches near the tops of the pines are sagging: / The bottom limbs have melted clear, and the sky / Shimmers bright tundra. / I didn’t want to get up today.”).

“Only A Little” begins “I hear lots of stories about people who have it rough.” I read lots of poetry, too, about life’s griefs and struggles. Few are as devastating—or as brilliant—as the cautious, painful poems in Vivisect. 

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Review Posted on December 14, 2010
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