Every now and then I pick up a book of poetry. I have a degree in English, so I’m not unfamiliar with poems, but here in the wild I don’t stumble across them with great frequency. I appreciate the occasionally well-crafted song lyric, and enjoy the effect when somebody like Tolkien throws a poem into his prose. Poetry works like a packet of seasoning in the middle of a plate of good but otherwise homogeneous food. A poem forces you to slow down and let the gears of your mind start spinning. If you charge right through, the effect is akin to running a marathon at the Louvre. Poems work a lot better when you read them out loud, and sometimes you can change a room by shouting words into it. ‘Gaslit By A Madman: Illuminated Poems’ by Max J. Lewy is a book of poetry that is much closer to Kurt Cobain than William Wordsworth, and I don’t mean that as an insult. There is a legitimate chaos in this book that is quite compelling, and the poems are all included as text and as a component of colorful collages like you’d see on a lamp post in a foreign country. In the introduction, Lewy gives some tantalizing details about his history of mental illness. The short version is that he was “[v]eritably knocked off his horse by two out-of-control, gaslighting shrinks at the tender age of 23.” More than a decade later, the unfortunate ruling was overturned. Mental health terrifies everyone simply because nobody, not even the experts, seems to know how it works. However, that doesn’t stop them from making life altering decisions. The poems that fill the pages of ‘Gaslit By A Madman: Illuminated Poems’ have a certain raw power and indisputable affiliation with chaos. As I read the collection, I found myself comparing the experience to watching a bird making a nest out of the colorful pages of a magazine. As you sit there, you observe the colors it collects and puts together. At first it seems like chaos, then you start to recognize an underlying symmetry. However, you never know for sure if there is a common understanding within your mind and that of the bird, or if there are just moments of random alignment. The first poem didn’t impress me. It’s short and not very complex with a repetitive and simple rhyme scheme. It’s not an offensive poem, and retroactively I see that it serves as an appropriate warm-up for the rest of the collection. But as I read it, I was concerned that it represented the level of complexity that would be common in the volume. It does not. It doesn’t take very long for Lewy to flex his muscles and show off some very nice wordplay. This book isn’t overly refined, but I believe that helps add to its authenticity. There are some line choices I disagree with, but overall there’s indisputable evidence of talent and purpose in this collection. Consider these lines from ‘Lobotomized the Beast.’ They have even lobotomized The Beast. Theirs is a religion stunted of both notion and emotion, Its charisma is like a poorly made wax-work dummy, Gauche and deathly cold, yet smooth in all its juvenile simplicity. It would make you too into a mannequin, An exemplary ticklist of outer inconsequentialities to set beside every barren, burning soul. For they care about only what they see, they see nothing important, And all they do is smoke and mirrors. They never awoke. Because, Wherever there is a soul burning, most people only see the smoke! Occasionally, in my travels, I’ve stumbled into a tiny restaurant in some distant corner of a Spanish speaking country. When you’re tired from the road and surrounded by all that is new and strange, your mind reaches out for words in English. Sometimes you’ll find poetry written in those places and it truly does have the power of spell casting. I think the words in Max Lewy’s book are legitimate. If you happened to stumble across them in the right context, they could completely knock you out. Here’s what I think people should do: they should get a copy of this guy’s book, and then travel through South America plastering the pages on the walls in distant cafes. That, to me, seems like a wholly worthy quest. Lewy could do it alone, but wouldn’t it be better if it happened organically? Imagine the army of chuckling travelers toting copies of a ripped and tattered collection of poetry through the jungles and the deserts. What a great legacy for words and writer both! Anyway, I sincerely suggest you check this book out. There’s some remarkable writing in it, even though it’s sometimes like discovering a vein of precious metal still encased in the stone of a mountain.
(Walter Rhein is a frequent, high caliber contributor on Medium.)