We all learn things from our parents: how to ride a bike, tie our hair in a braid, brush our teeth, even sharpen a knife or use a screwdriver. It’s a bit more obscure, and in a way somewhat precious, to learn of a father who lobs poetic verse to his daughter over the badminton net of childhood and plays name-that-poet or poem games while trying to get her to sleep, to comfort her after a surgery, to help fertilize her mind with the beauty and delicacy of words and wordsmithing.
But this is how Elizabeth Bayou-Grace grew up on Coffee Lane in New Paltz, the youngest of seven children and the daughter of Steve Lewis, a poet and writer. She remembers learning about the poet Sharon Olds from a poster in her father’s office in the family’s attic or Emily Dickinson from a collection of poetry that mysteriously appeared on the pillow of her bed one day, and “James Wright while driving across the Wallkill, heading home.”
Bayou-Grace traveled to Texas, where her narrative voice found its own texture and shape and grew big enough to try to encompass the endless Texan sky and sharp enough to decipher each splinter a shattered heart could hold.
The wilderness of the sky in Texas
is deafening. The clouds tremble at/against the hours.
to find some wet.
the total sun could drive a girl mad.
Here. Here, here
Outside the sky, there is only more space. Whole rooms of nothing.
– Bayou-Grace Deafsky
The two of them orbited around each other, volleying ideas and stanzas, helping to trim and prune the words when they became too weedy, too thick or too thin. They even talked about publishing a book of poetry together someday. The two poets were constantly reflecting back at one another, whether they were a coast apart or a few hours’ drive. Just before the pandemic hit, Bayou-Grace, newly married, moved from the Lone Star State back to the East Coast, where she began to delve into her work from their new home in Massachusetts.
Soon after her father was hospitalized with COVID-19 in a hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina, hovering on that slippery rail between life and death, Bayou-Grace said that she began to “understand how important it was to share our voices in the same collection, to be read together. To not only write him into the room, but to explicitly invite him in. To make something beautiful out of our conversation. To suffer together. To learn together. To dream of a better world.”
That was how Paradise in Fire was born: a collection of poems by Lewis and Bayou-Grace. Their two voices, however bound to each other they are, exist like separate stars in the same galaxy, shining and dimming and shooting their words in a spectacular show of what it is to be human and to hurt and to love and to marvel at this tender, frail and fraught journey.
Lewis, who has written nonfiction for various publications including The New York Times and has published several works of fiction and poetry to critical acclaim, continues to gain texture to his voice, depth to his writing and home in on that sense of place where all time and space becomes rooted beneath the floorboards of a sagging porch.
Time to step into the light again.
Time to leave this warm yellow house ringed with porches
like a moat. Time to bike out of the deep green woods,
to wander up Main Street as before, grab a burger at P&G’s,
find a shady, lonely spot on the rail trail, lower the bandanna,
and then, finally, finally time to bite into juicy life once more
– Steve Lewis, “Time to Step into the Light Again”
All of the poems in this collection were written within a year – “a very productive year,” said Lewis, “after I spent a harrowing week in the Beaufort Memorial Hospital ICU with severe COVID-19.” Beyond the words that continue to be tossed like a fishing line into a river that is constantly recharging, Lewis is humbled by his youngest daughter’s talent. Asked what it has been like to publish alongside her, he said, “Beyond the fatherly pride and the joy of having a child that shares your passion, there is something akin to what Richard Wright wrote about the ‘echo.’ ‘I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.’” For Lewis, he hears a father/daughter echo that resonates behind each word in this collection.
Bayou-Grace is an altogether different poet from her father, which makes the collection that much more dazzling – both of them dancing under the same stars, with different tempos and beats and moments of silence, sudden silhouettes cast against a shared landscape.
Both have such reverence for the other’s work that they were hard-pressed to pick their “favorite.” For Lewis, it was Bayou-Grace’s “John Prine and I Sat Down in My Closet with All My Overalls,” mostly because “she finds the sweet spot between the sacred and the profane – and brings me to a momentary understanding of how interchangeable the two can be.”
“That’s a tricky question,” said Bayou-Grace. “They all have this depth and weight that makes the reader feel the poems in the body.” She settled on “Ode to this Frail Body,” because it’s “doing all of the work I’m talking about: It both exists in this physical world and simultaneously someplace much more ethereal. The beauty and the truth of this poem are that my father won’t be celebrated for not dying, as none of us are, but that there is meaning even in the shallowest breaths, the smallest victories, the ones we often fail to notice.”
Where Lewis’ poetry is both retrospective and urgent at the same time, Bayou-Grace’s poetry is like opening up a tin box full of treasures or opening a window to let hot, stale air out. It is refreshing and vibrant and makes you squint a bit from the sunlight.
Asked what it means to be a poet in today’s world, Lewis said, “It means that you believe in the beauty of truth. In a country – a world – where truth is under assault every single day, there is a sacred obligation among poets today to unearth the most fundamental truths, sacred and profane, about what it means to be human. I’m not sure it was any different in previous eras, but I do remember a time when the worst thing you could say about anyone was, they were liars. These days we revere liars, we elect them president, we follow them into our own Hell. The poet may be the only one to save the soul of this country.”
Fire in Paradise will certainly ignite the soul. The world tour begins after Labor Day, but Lewis and Bayou-Grace noted that people can order from their local bookstore or directly from the publisher at www.codhill.com.
“Elizabeth and I,” mused Lewis, “vagabonds at heart, want people to know that we are available for any and all living-room salons, pop-up porch events, book clubs, picnics, discussion groups, sewing circles, classes, workshops, as well as traditional bookstore signings and readings. And we promise to do our best to be charming, to answer allquestions – the more impertinent the better – and, above all, guarantee not to be boring.” For more of his work, visit www.poemsfromthecrag.com.