Book Review: Underfoot: Poems and Essays, by Stephen Lewandowski. Mayapple Press, 2014.
So much has been written about the “sense of place” in the literature, that the work itself, the finely honed, grounded, works of place are threatened with the flood of aesthetic posturing. Work of place walks the place, learns from walking, lives there, inhabits and pays attention. The best work of place reminds us to heed the messages of our own particular place, even as it sharpens its focus on its home ground. Stephen Lewandowski’s Under Foot, in fact all of Stephen Lewandowski’s work give us just such reminders, just such focus. Lewandowski, who has worked as an environmental educator and consultant in the western Finger Lakes of upstate New York, is the author of twelve small books of poetry. Under Foot is a beautifully produced volume from Judith Kerman’s Mayapple Press in Woodstock. New York. This volume showcases Lewandowski’s understanding of and sympathy with place which is specific (as it must be), personal, learned, and as Bob Arnold, poet publisher, [and] another place’s voice notes instructively. “sure, durable. and unsentimental”
Flinty, filled with rural characters who refuse to fall into caricature, knowledgeable and clear in his explanations, Lewandowski’s Under Foot is a plea to us to notice, listen, pay heed, understand that what we walk on and over carries the rhythm of forces bigger than us, a rhythm that we can feel walking the land, listening to its voices. How fitting then, that the first poem in the book is “Listening Landscape” which moves from Oscar Peterson’s piano on the jazz station car radio, to the “valley’s silence / most profound where the road / is pinched by the woods / a shade falling from / overhead even at noon.” It is followed by the musings of “My Name” which moves from Lewandowski’s own name to the indigenous names of his upstate.
To say this book is leisurely in its movement across the landscape, is somehow to lose the deliberateness and attentiveness that characterize the work — less a ramble than a meander. but a thorough, intent and content, walk to understand — deliberate as Thoreau’s deliberate.
In the geology of the book, the reading of the landscape, the understanding of the forces which shaped it, in poems like “Glacial Till” and “Bedrock,” Lewandowski’s work, not to be separated from his writing work, as an environmental educator, edges his knowledge of the vast forces at work, in clear speech, and with metaphor — “gobs of sediment adhering / to the glacier’s sole and / scouring the exposed bedrock.” – So the walked on landscape was created under foot of the glacier — we live under foot. “Bedrock” moves across geological time to “a hayfield / where we sit for a music festival” to the creative act of likening a comfortless stone to “the form of a hawk / castle turtle rocket bear.” We will much later in the book, in an essay entitled “Big Stones” return to the evocative rock, to the spirit inhabiting place that informs the poems, with a young Seneca orphan who, sitting to eat in the shadow of a big standing stone, hears it ask, ““Would you like to hear a story?”” — a retelling of a tale, “The Coming of Legends” in Joe Bruchac’s Turkey Brother and Other Stories and traditional among native people of the region.
If it is tempting to think of Hamish Fulton’s long walks in the British Isles, art works of stone and walking, and of John Jerome’s Stonework, and Andy Goldsworthy’s fleeting, naturally transforming and slowly disappearing earth works, it is probably most fitting to recall the singular, quirky, and “regional” work of the painter Charles Burchfield. (Lewandowski’s Inside & Out / The Crossing Press / 1979, has a Burchfield painting, “Pussy Willows” on the cover). Lewandowski’s magic, like Burchfield’s is to help us know the universal and the mythic within the anecdotal and specific.
I lived a city life for many years in the vicinity of Lewandowski’s landscape, and hardly knew it, never walked across the hillsides with him. Thought myself a “poet of place” and tried to understand the city I lived in’ its shape and sound and surrounding world — but cities are harder for that, and sometimes slip toward a generic urban life. I don’t believe that all cities are the same, but the cursory glance, which is the time-frame urban existence favors, would lead you to believe it. It takes John Logan’s masterful “A Trip to Four or Five ” to counter this impression — with its clarity, specificity, and sensory detail. Now I live outside cities, define myself differently. When Lewandowski came to visit me on six acres, rural, south of San Antonio, he was, I think, amused by the slow dawning of the voice of the land itself, within me. He was a good teacher.
And what of the essays. eight of them (nine if one counts “Frugality” as an essay — it walks like one in the sentences of its lines, and it skips or gambols with its shortened segments. I prefer to think of it as eleven short entries in the field guide to making do, and oddly reminiscent of the title story from a collection by one of Lewandowski’s teachers, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William Gass. It would be easy to counterpose the essays with the poems as simply a different way of imparting knowing, looking, understanding. I initially thought it might be best to classify them as somehow underpinning informing, providing foundation on which the poems rest — they’re more than that.
Several of them, “Jeff” and “Casey” are character portraits (they’re more than that too), several stiffen a little into lessons, “Fossil Hunting,” “Soil Scientist Digs a Hole” and “Big Stones.” But they defy easy and singular description. The one function they all seem to have is to slow our steps in this walk across the land. They have a different rhythm, a cadence that prose carries, that stops us from too easily rolling through the poems as some distinct and flinty voice of one place only. They are not little TED talks threaded through the book for information, unless perhaps those Teds are Enslin and Kooser. Yes, they inform and underpin, and yes, they impart a wisdom that is sometimes hard in poems, except that Lewandowski’s poems have never shrunk from those hard truths – “On Bare Hill” (easily his most Burchfield-esque poem), “Homing,” and “Chip, Block” — among them.
Learn from what is around you, treat rock as rock and as information. In “Chip, Block” Lewandowski personifies stone (as he will again in “Big Stones”) or probably better framed in Lewandowski’s universe — is aware of and attentive to the consciousness of stone, its storing of histories, stories, “information.” The poem concludes with this memorable stanza, “The fragment is anxious / to re-attach electronically / to several other libraries / from around the world who / began writing a renga together.” So, in fact the poem itself, and the creating of the poem, are collaborations with place, character, sound, the footfall rhythm and making one’s way.
I haven’t enough expressed the joys of this work. the epiphanies, the clarity of image, the wry characters and the Lewandowski character himself, as he renews his vision of the world each day, out in the field. Nor have I given the physicality of the poems, their due, perfectly wrought as in the short poem. “Gesture”
This is a book to walk with, a book to help you look at your own home ground, and hone your senses to its particular rhythms, its voices, stories, characters, rises, outcroppings, rocks, sand, clay.