Not Lost Anymore: A Review of Pilot by Danika Stegeman LeMay

By Aza Pace

Danika Stegeman LeMay, Pilot. Spork Press, 2020, 64 pages $18.00

From its opening lines, Danika LeMay’s cinematic collection, Pilot, blurs the human and the machine: “Open with the still-moving engine, shredded / spine where all the nerves come together.” The collection underscores its own artificiality as a crafted thing, a kind of well-tuned linguistic machine, while also taking on weighty questions about what it means to be human together, to be lost, and to be rescued. 

In these poems, LeMay borrows language from transcriptions of the popular TV show Lost, cutting the words together for a new kind of erasure poetry. For the most part, each poem corresponds to a single episode of Lost, while a series of “interlude” poems spaced throughout the collection frame LeMay’s project both in terms of the world inside the show and the world outside the show, where viewers connect by investing in the lives of fictional characters. The title Pilot embodies this double-lens: it suggests the operator of an airplane, but also the first, often experimental episode of a TV series. Appropriately, the poems in this collection explore the experience and ethics of watching and being watched. They ask us to consider the strange intimacy of a fandom, the power of storytelling to connect people, and what happens if we acknowledge our responsibility to care for one another. 

Pilot opens with a dramatic, fractured account of the plane crash, in which the “camera pans forward // for a close-up. Bodies.” Like viewers of Lost, we are thrown directly into the action. LeMay, however, quickly breaks away from her source narrative by zooming out to consider the real people watching TV. In the poem “Interlude: Setting,” many of the collection’s central curiosities emerge, including the effects of watching television with other people, or watching alone but with an awareness that millions of other people are watching the same thing: “We cried / at the same time in the dark. We laughed with / and without each other.” The poem makes an argument for connecting with others through stories, and invites the reader into that intimacy:

Come be my witness, my other. Remember / how we loved some strangers for a while / because we could relate with the idea of being lost, / but mostly because we could relate with the desire / to be rescued.

In fact, one of the collection’s most compelling moves is to cast all of the action in terms of an intimate yet undefined “you” and “I.” The pronouns are unstable and various, adopting perspectives both inside and outside of the TV show frame. Often, the “you” seems to be a character in the poem, but it also frequently pulls the reader into the story as an addressee. For example, the poem “Walkabout” moves through the urgency of strangers thrust together on a deserted island, but also confronts larger questions about compassion. The “I” reaches outward,” saying, “I don’t know what’s wrong. I mean maybe / you should save me.” Maybe, the poem suggests, the only rescue is one another, our willingness to care.

Nevertheless, LeMay’s poems are not naïve on the subject of compassion. They offer no blithe rewriting of Lost as a utopian chance for human connection. Instead, the poems constantly question the poetic and cinematic structures that both create and temper that sense of shared experience. The artificiality of the TV show keeps intruding with camera shots, subtitles, and disembodied narrator-like voices, as in, “VOICE: Combine the benefits of capture // with instant delivery. Shot of cloudy sky.” This is about watching, and as the speaker pronounces in “Exodus, Part 1,” “Pretty much everybody is watching.” For LeMay, this is not a simple or innocent activity. Watching can veer into obsession, or flatten into idleness. In the same poem, the “you” and the “I” try to find a balance between confronting suffering and recognizing the structures that keep people apart: “Throw back the curtains. Dude, whoa…I made you suffer. I’m going to save you.” As the poems remind us, sometimes the obscuring “curtain” is the medium itself, whether TV show or poetry collection.

The mechanical and the arbitrary aspects of the medium even begin to take on an active role in Pilot. Poems with “MACHINE” in the title reimagine previous poems from a mechanical perspective, adding formatting that resembles prompts in a computer’s text terminal:

…My you, my / >: sleeper, my anyone, remember / >: me here. A machine, / >: a rotating god.  

The machine is depicted as reaching out toward a “you,” longing for connection. Interestingly, this “you” could be anyone, just another watcher. Yet the form of this poem emphasizes that all the human interaction depicted in Pilot is mediated by something: a script, a camera lens, borrowed language, or computer code. “Interlude: Machine 1” goes the furthest with this logic, taking the form of a simple computer program intended to rearrange words based on random input from a user. In other words, it resembles the machine version of what LeMay herself has done by repurposing the Lost episode transcriptions for her poetry.

Ultimately, the poems in Pilot establish the feeling of being lost and the longing for rescue as poignant aspects of our shared humanity. LeMay embraces the strange, sometimes dizzying effects of using borrowed language through erasure, and the results are strikingly lyrical poems and a poetic voice that feels at once genuine, witty, and open. Instead of trying to smooth away the artifice of their pop culture source material or of poetic language itself, these poems push that very constructed-ness center stage to reveal a flash of optimism about humans’ ability to connect with one another through storytelling. As LeMay puts it, “You can’t love other people / and just live your own life.” These poems do not offer an easy escape or simple fix for human longing, but they do suggest that somewhere between watching and invention, we may be able to find each other. As one of LeMay’s speakers whispers from the page, “Can I tell you a secret? I’m not / lost anymore.”

Pilot, published by Spork Press, is Danika Stegeman LeMay’s first full-length book of poems. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Aaron, and their daughter, Vera. Together they run Frontrunner Screen Printing in White Bear Lake, MN. Danika has an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University. Her work has appeared in Alice Blue Review, Cimarron Review, CutBank Literary Journal, Denver Quarterly, Forklift, OH, Juked, Lo-Ball, NOÖ Journal, Poetry City, USA, Sporklet, and Word for/ Word,among other places.

Aza Pace’s poems appear or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, Copper Nickel, Mudlark, New Ohio Review, and elsewhere. She is the winner of a university Academy of American Poets Prize and an
Inprint Donald Barthelme Prize in Poetry. She holds an MFA from the University of Houston and is currently pursuing her PhD at the University of North Texas.

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