Marriage Map by Owen Lewis
reviewed by ALEX GUARCO

Dos Madres Press, 2017

The owl is a contradiction . . . we think of it as wise simply because of its superficial resemblance to us. It is this humanoid stare that makes us feel we know the owl.
—Desmond Morris, Owl, 2009

It would be easy to call Owen Lewis’ Marriage Map a simple journey through the territory of marriage. While this is in some ways true, I don’t think any poetry collection pivoting around something as broad as marriage can be anything close to simple. Marriage Map recognizes and explores marriage as a complex vocabulary, a cyclical (though sometimes not) journey, a held breath, a “clutch [and release] of balloons,” a shared and personal campaign, an owl above, and, when it is over, all / the chimneys and all the roofs / and all the trees and shrubs / [ . . . ] finally cut in half.” In its honest admittance of breadth, Marriage Map does not disappoint.

Almost immediately, the speaker takes a candid (flawed, multi-dimensional, sincere) attempt to navigate the marriage territory. The first words of the book are “The day I met you / a crane fell, smashing cars, slicing six / stories of corners off a building.” Romantic? Not quite, and with this poem, Lewis maps out the rest of the collection.

Lewis shows us marriage as an all-consuming vacuum and, in the case of “Thaw,” something bombarded and challenged from the outside. Through his poems, Lewis captures the absolute thrill of love—the blinding joy of two bodies “turned into light” and lost in the “sash of words,” but then turns on his heel to show how quickly it all is sometimes lost. Marriage Map is a place where everything moves in brilliant and surprising ways.

But sure, marriage has its ups and downs—we have all heard or known this before. What makes this collection different or remarkable? The best way I know to say it is that it stands out for its realism. I don’t care how much of the poems are based in reality; the facts don't matter because the voices and the paths they take feel as real as anything. When these poems in fall in love, I too fall; when they are at their lowest, I am there with them.

The particular details of each moment help bring Marriage Map into reality. These are the moments and images to which the characters cling; Lewis navigates the territory of specifics with an expert hand, writing of an “embrace, / under a tent of skin, a knocking of bones” and of a loved one’s “face / running off your cheeks, in rivulets.” In the vast fields of marriage, love, and divorce, these details keep the poems grounded and close.

Lewis' writing is finely tuned, but it does not shy away from candor when it is most appropriate. In “Aftermath,” the speaker comes to terms with the end of a marriage. At first, he speaks through metaphor, saying “The nails that held us together pierce our hands, our feet; the vista of the picture window.” These are charged lines, though by the poem’s end, even metaphor fails to deliver the message, and so he says:

          I leave her.
          I leave her a picture. I leave
          a whole lover.

This conclusion is simple and real and all that needs to be said. It is here where Marriage Map caught me off guard and where I put my trust in Lewis and his collection.

The characters struggle with the vocabulary of the marriage/divorce territory; it isn’t until they own the vocabulary of a situation that they are able to absorb and overcome it. In “Enough,” the narrator speaks to this, saying “I am caught by a line / that leads only to confusion. ‘Enough.’ In whose vocabulary? ‘Enough?’ I say again and again, the word echoing a corridor of years until I understand the word is emphatically mine—Enough!” And later, in “The Gett,” the speaker mimics (with tongue in cheek), the legal jargon of divorce: “Do you recall ever saying to anyone / whosoever that you were feeling forced / and if a whatsoever word was heard / by a whosoever . . .”

Because of its tightly crafted lines, some of the most striking moments come when the poems fail to “own” a specific vocabulary. In “Gutter Spill,” for example, this measured language goes under attack. Lewis’ lines are fragmented, their clauses broken so that their whole chemical makeup is changed. I refuse to alienate this poem by carving out a stanza to show you, but when Lewis writes, “The sky so hungry it eats its own rising / sun,” I believe in it.

The final poem asks us, after love is born and burned and born again, “What have we done to each other, and what / will we do? We will go, and we still stay.” In this ending, Lewis shows us a man now closely familiar with the marriage territory. His view is perhaps slighted, perhaps bleak, but it is said with an intense and earned conviction. I imagine Marriage Map ending on an exhale, and I can’t help but do the same.

ALEX GUARCO lives near Worcester, MA. His writing can be found in Juked, BOXCAR Poetry Review, and elsewhere.

The Adirondack Review