Friday, December 01, 2023

'Wisdom As a Kind of Courtesy'

“[A] reverence for the natural world, and a conviction that intelligent sanity is both more difficult than unreflective complacency and more interesting than madness.” 

That’s how the poet Dick Davis characterized the concerns of Janet Lewis and her husband Yvor Winters in his obituary of Lewis. The poets were married for nearly forty-two years, until Winters’ death in 1968. Consider this line from Lewis’ poem “Paho in Walpi” (Poems Old and New 1918-1978, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1981): “The sunlight pours unshaken through the wind.” A paho is a Hopi prayer stick, as the poem suggests with “supplication,” “gratitude,” “entreaty.” Walpi is a pueblo in northeastern Arizona, one of the oldest continuously inhabited villages in the United States. Throughout her life, Lewis remained interested in the culture of Native Americans. Her first collection, The Indians in the Woods, was published in 1922.

Lewis was a good poet but her more acute gift was for fiction. All five of her novels are worth rereading and one of them,
The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), ranks among the best written by an American. After William Maxwell, Lewis is probably the novelist I’ve praised who most often has been happily read by my readers. Here is Dick Davis’ “Janet Lewis, Reading Her Poems” (Devices and Desires, 1989):


“The tape begins. A few pages are shuffled

Then her voice is there -- old now, clear, unruffled,

Unassertive, going again among

Words given order when the heart was young:

The cadences are like that vanished race

They would evoke, leaving almost no trace

On the after air; gentle, evasive,

Too modest to accuse or to forgive,

Declaring simply this was here, and this,

Which is gone now—the bright frail edifice

O summer stripped in time’s storm.

But I share –

As the tape plays – her sense of sunlit air,

Of glades where uncoerced humanity

Knew wisdom as a kind of courtesy.”


Lewis is a poet who can simultaneously think and sing: “wisdom as a kind of courtesy.”  In her fiction and verse she is one of the few essential American writers of the last century, along with Cather, Maxwell, Ellison, Singer, Nabokov, her husband and a few others. Here is Lewis’ “Country Burial”:


“After the words of the magnificence and doom,

After the vision of the splendor and the fear,

They go out slowly into the flowery meadow,

Carrying the casket, and lay it in the earth

By the grave’s edge. The daisies bend and straighten

Under the trailing skirts, and serious faces

Look with faint relief, and briefly smile.

Into this earth the flesh and wood shall melt

And under these familiar common flowers

Flow through the earth they both have understood

By sight and touch and daily sustenance.

And this is comforting;

For heaven is a blinding radiance where

Leaves are no longer green, nor water wet,

Milk white, soot black, nor winter weather cold,

And the eyeless vision of the Almighty Face

Brings numbness to the untranslatable heart.”


Lewis was born on August 17, 1899 and died on this date, December 1, in 1998, thirty years after Winters, at age ninety-nine.

1 comment:

Nige said...

Her poem 'The Insect' is the best butterfly poem I've read, by a considerable margin.