Paul Scott Stanfield reviews Lisa Wells’s first full-length collection of poetry.
Lisa Wells, The Fix (University of Iowa Press, 2018), 70pp.
Winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, The Fix is Lisa Wells’s first full-length collection. The poems are predominantly in the first person, often drawing on memories from childhood, adolescence, and youth. They seem set somewhere in the vast western half of the United States, though the setting is conveyed less by place-names than by details: the state fairs, the “development / where a wayward Ruffles bag / wefts desiccated grass,” the “rider mowers going and the men / astride their machines,” the Travel Center with its “wall of shotguns / and plasticized bass.”
The book’s title nods towards drug slang, and the often disappointed hope that the drug will repair whatever lack or ailment or hunger afflicts the user. Self-medications of many kinds occur in the poems—over-the-counter kinds (“moist towel of Dramamine / girdling my brain”), inexpensive kinds (“Mickey’s Fine / lukewarm malt liquor”), homemade kinds (“the wine’s a risk / I’ll have to take”), improvised kinds (“We circled in the bedroom of the trailer / and passed a can of Spring Rain Glade”), and whatever kind it was that led to the moments recalled in “We Must Be Coming Down.”
The thing that needs fixing seems to lie somewhere beyond the reach of the pharmaceutical, however. “The fix will not get in me,” says the book’s title poem, but the need for it and the search for it continues: “If I could just retrace / my steps and / find the fix. / Knock it in me.” The search takes the volume’s speaker to some unlikely places (“I’ve come to kneel / on the filthy kitchen floor / of the punk squat”) and across the paths of some unlikely people (“A man lies awake in a bitter bed / spending, in his mind, his tardy MacArthur”). The retracing of steps gives us poems like “1989,” the speaker juxtaposing a childhood memory of placing her head between the bars of the lion enclosure (“the pride stirred, rose upon their haunches”) with a later one of staring down a subway tunnel as “the bad star advances in the channel” and a desperate resolution half-forms, along with the realization that “no one is coming / to slather my head in margarine / and slip me back to my keeper’s hands.”
Even when the search becomes wrenchingly painful—as in the book’s last poem, “’Poetry Man’”—the voice manages to remain strong, drily witty, and observant. It becomes clear, too, that the hunger that needs fixing is among other things a spiritual one. Two different poems get titled “Revelations” and two others “Resurrections.” “Oh me // of little faith,” the speaker declares at one point, and most of the solace she finds proves fragile and temporary, but hope does not entirely vanish: “A seed sleeps till you put it in the ground. / A seed is a box water opens.”
Paul Scott Stanfield was educated at Grinnell College and Northwestern University, and has been a member of the English Department at Nebraska Wesleyan University since 1989. He is the author of Yeats and Politics in the 1930s and of articles on Yeats, other Irish poets, and Wyndham Lewis.