By Abriana Jetté, Ph.D.
Sayreville, NJ, USA

Like a kaleidoscope, the content of Field Light, the latest collection by Owen Lewis, changes with each viewing. The prismatic collection reads as a part mythos, part narrative, and part archival research as it recounts inherited familial traumas and traditions. Though the book contains interjections from Carl Jung, W.E. Dubois, the speaker’s ex-wife, his children, and others, each voice derives from a connection to the speaker’s family home in the Berkshires.

The cover photo of Field Light offers a glimpse into that home, a photograph whose contents are described in the poem “(porch photo, The Dormouse)”. Of the photograph, readers know that it is a late summer day in 1922. Peggy Cresson, “daughter of / Daniel Chester French - sculptor of public monuments”, like the Lincoln Memorial, both full-time residents of the Berkshires, is described first. The speaker moves along the frame to introduce “Hilda Beecher Stowe, “granddaughter-in-law of the / late Harriet Beecher Stowe, / and her sister, / Miss Gertrude Robinson Smith.” Together, these three women sit at a “rough farm table” with William Penn Cresson, Peggy’s “much older” husband. Credited to “Doctor Walter Lambert, country / physician”, the Dr., also the photographer, remains outside the frame.

Throughout decades, it is to this historical, hidden mountain house that the speaker will wearily drive, from Hudson to Housatonic River, each mile with the children yapping in the backseat another marker of madness.

It is on that rough farm table that the speaker and his family (and the speaker on his own) will wake up Sunday mornings to drink coffee and eat breakfast.

And, it is Dr. Walter Lambert, left out of the frame, with whom our speaker will identify. Reflecting on a lifetime of feeling left out – left out of achieving happiness, as documented in the crumbling marriage, and left out of opportunity, of history, and of tradition because of the rampant anti-Semitism found in the history of the medical field – our speaker turns to history to weave his way into being. In moments where he does not physical appear, he uses knowledge as his presence.

Perhaps one poem that encapsulates all of these themes at once is “(1991: State Office of Mental Health down-sizes asylums. Inmates wander off.)”. Footnotes in the back of the book describe the history of housing “chronically ill psychiatric patients” in negligent and abusive facilities, along with a quick summary of the disintegration of such institutions. In the poem, readers are situated in the confines of speaker’s New York office. His “then wife” calls in panic.

Our speaker, both Dr. and poet, recalls how he fought for “the Physician’s petition”, which “lobbied Albany for a plan to free / the state patients.” Freed from their castigating living environments as they may have been, after the asylums closed, the patients had nowhere to go. Most went for the streets.

In a children’s playground where his wife visits, a former patient “shits / and grunts then paws at it like a cat.” “Who are these people?” she bombasts him over the phone. Our speaker does not answer. However, he recognizes then that “he feels criminal”, unable to make anyone happy. The poem reveals for readers that when the speaker tries “to keep everyone happy” he means maintaining his own unhappiness.

Though they function as individual poems, Field Light carries a Jungian stream-of-consciousness narrative that links decades in moments, leaping from 1781 to 2018 in the matter of a comma. In the memory “(mind wanders to freshmen year, 1969, Ghana to Gullah)”, we are transported to the speaker’s freshman year at Columbia University, and the brief months he spent dorming with an African American roommate from the South. When the roommate’s brother advises him that he will learn better if he lives alone, our speaker is left wondering if he was “seeking too eagerly acceptance.” After weeks of studying together and swapping phrases in different languages, the idea of getting up and leaving it all behind sits tensely in the speaker’s stomach.

Readers are able to understand this feeling deeper as we begin the next poem, which begins:

                                    “needing company. Needing
                                      company. All day Rising Dale Café.”

Just shy of fifty years later, the speaker has come to recognize his downfall: the need to be accepted, to feel loved. The desire not to be left alone.

What do we hold on to and how does it hold on to us? In this sense, whose stories have we claimed, and whose stories have claimed us? Field Light wants us to sit with these questions.

Owen Lewis

Because “it is a poem with history in it”, Lynn Emanuel dubs Field Light an epic. What’s significant to note by this categorization is that in the epic, the hero suffers. Field Light’s speaker pain is heard loudest in his ex-wife’s unsung songs. Her voice, dark, warm, and supernatural in the sense that readers never actually hear it (just of it), balances the many loud, logic-driven conversations throughout the book. Her voice, and her presence, function as the ultimate reminder of how easy it is to fade away.

Reading the collection, readers may feel as if they’ve been granted access into a collection of private journals. Each poem a page pulled. Each poem an attempt to teach readers that even the most mundane drive on the West Side Highway up to a country home in the Berkshires can offer crucial philosophical and psychological insight if noted and then considered in retrospect.

Field Light also calls attention to the impact individual decisions have on the spaces we occupy. Specifically, the speaker prompts us to consider our relationship to the land in “(1992: Glendale, telling a story to the children)”, which recalls how he would teach the myths and histories of Massachusetts and New York’s indigenous tribes to his children as bedtime stories.

Field Light contains as much as its title’s image allows. Its focus flickers between glimpses of history, self-reflection, and socio-cultural considerations. Lewis plays with dialects and shape, blurring boundaries between states, the past, and the present. Unbound by the expectations of traditional form, Field Light opens up the conversation about what a collection of poetry might include.


Owen Lewis is the author of two other collections, Marriage Map and Sometimes Full of Drought, also published by Dos Madres press. His chapbook, best man, was reviewed in Stay Thirsty Magazine. He is a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City where he teaches in the Department of Medical Humanities and Ethics.



Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Abriana Jetté is the editor of the anthology series Stay Thirsty Poets, as well as a poet, essayist, and educator. Her work has appeared in The Seneca Review, Plume Poetry Journal, Poetry New Zealand, River Teeth, among others. Her research interests include creative writing studies and alternative pedagogies. She currently teaches at Kean University and is a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.