FIELD LIGHT, Owen Lewis’ epic proem from Dos Madres, reviewed by Colin Harrington

Field Light​, by Owen Lewis, is a richly captivating collection of prose and poetry that is inspired by the aura of a creative, humanistic, and well-storied past of literature, sociology, psychoanalysis, music, and culture that defines the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. The poetry plays out in an intense narrative reverberating from the quiet isolation of Lewis’ back porch, a focal point of the narrative, and the image featured in a photograph on the cover. The poet had sought refuge there in a time of traumatizing divorce and the towns of Berkshire County yield historic personalities, artists, and social history that connect and weave a tapestry of his own healing. Lewis describes the book as ​“​a collage of the social, cultural, political, and personal history in and of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, a region that has championed the arts and social justice.” In this atmosphere, the poet finds unexpectedly redeeming resolutions that traverse time and space.

Lewis retreats to his country house in the storied hamlet of Glendale. It is tranquil, immersed in nature, and steeped in history. Lewis seems to have discovered this when he needed it most, alone, on “a sort of sabbatical” and can’t help but to go deep into the significance of some of America’s most intriguing people. The characters of history create an interplay both real and imagined in overlapping time frames. The tableau is freeing, illuminating, and instructive for both author and reader. A tone of peace manages to focus his voice in poems where the poet comes to terms with how his own grief and bewilderment are matched and married to the grief and bewilderment of a nation. The recognition of systemic racism, social bigotry, and the crimes against humanity perpetrated by early and contemporary America are portrayed with penetrating insight. The poet varies forms of poetry and prose and even dialogue in play lines gleaned from dreams. In response to one of these dreamscapes involving a chorus of voices a poem emerges in reflection:

(he’s missed…)

asylum words
impatient words

words wanting to
free words wanting to

free worlds
he has crossed

a line
letting a patient’s

rush of syllables become his
crazed words becoming his

in the moment of joining her
and beyond, becoming the poet’s

white coats opening like wings

Lewis reflects on his own life and place in history as he familarizes himself with many interconnected people, places, and things in the Berkshires. The writing forms seamlessly transport us to places of emotion, spirit, and understanding. Much like the best haiku poets, every placement of line synchronizes language as quite genuine. Note the syntactic mastery of tension in these final lines from the poem, “Call Me Whitman,“ referenced in the narrative as (the calling), where Walt Whitman and other Berkshire connected poets seem to call to each other over space and time:

calling     across the field
call me crazed in this need to write
call me
and I beg the word

The style of this language is graceful and beautiful in its forms from the structure of lines that get the portrait just right to the underlying metaphor of the landscapes. References to the train that runs through his Stockbridge town are both romantic and overwhelming to the poet’s sense of being “railroaded” through a crushingly brutal time. The work is in fact reminiscent of the poet Dr. William Carlos Williams, whom the author references, in its use of language to portray ideas in things.

The fascinating photograph of “a late summer day, 1922,” includes four characters sitting on the very porch of Lewis’ home. Peggy Cresson, daughter of Daniel Chester French, who designed the Lincoln Memorial in his studio nearby, her husband, William Penn Cresson, Hilda Beecher Stowe, granddaughter-in-law of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Hilda’s sister, sit in the place where the poet completely embraces the muse to intellectually and seemingly metaphysically get outside himself to explore a new world of psychic transformation.

Adam, a descendant of the Mohican people of the region, and the caretaker of Lewis’ property, becomes a kind of spirit guide. The landscape, the field light of the title draws us into seeing what lies on the edge and in the distance of his fields of view. It is a time of openness and listening to nature and what the ineffable and inexplicable can offer for healing and solace. In the poem referenced (“2018, 1781”) Adam advises:

I always say: cover the weeping bruise,
apply ointment and a bandage.

Adam says: show the bruise,
to air and sun and rain,

air’s the best salve. Adam says:
show the wound. Let it tell.

The volume is as much a dream narrative as it is equally an absorption of rural wisdom in a region of strong, atmospheric, and rich history, of greatness and social change. The poems call on luminaries of Berkshire county history who have made a mark and references them all in his meticulous and fascinating notes at the end of the book. All the characters are connected and most local, such as Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, a former slave who won her freedom in a Berkshire Court in 1781, effectively ending slavery in Massachusets, and W. E.B. Du Bois of Great Barrington, who was awarded the first doctorate by a person of color at Harvard, and was a co-founder of the NAACP. 

Field Light ​is a uniquely personal redemption story that resonates universally through Lewis’ generous grasp of Berkshire inspirations in Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, “nearby Stanley Kunitz,” Chris Gilbert, the artists Daniel Chester French, his daughter Peggy Cresson, Norman Rockwell, the pioneering psychiatrist Dr. Austen Fox Riggs, Theodor Sedgwick who won the 1781 trial to free Mumbet Freeman, and the original civil rights leader and sociologist, W.E.B. Du Bois. More recent legends of Arlo Guthrie and the ​Alice’s Restaurant ​story and Allen Ginsberg in nearby Cherry Valley, New York, completes what is an important Berkshire literary contribution.

Field Light, by Owen Lewis. Loveland, Ohio: Dos Madres, June 2020. 148 pages. $20.00, paper.

Colin Harrington is Events Manager at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox, Massachusetts, and has been a frequent freelance book reviewer for the Berkshire Eagle newspaper.

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