Dividing a book of poems into sections titled after the seasons can be hit-or-miss. It works because it allows the poet to—let’s be banal—group poems based on their subject matter or theme or even mood; on the other hand, some readers may find such design too prescriptive and suggestive of how the poems should be read. Truth be told, I miss volumes that came unpunctuated with section headings or roman numerals. Nowadays, it seems, most poetry books are not only colossal in length, hence the need to break them up into sections, but also armed with conceptual underpinnings. Nevertheless, there’s plenty to admire in Jacqueline Lyons’s second full-length collection. It both wears its Classical pedigree—the seasons!—lightly and manages to be utterly disruptive of our formal preconceptions, not unlike a modern airport that tracks our movements, thoughts, and feelings while simultaneously welcoming and letting us go.
The volume ends on a section entitled “Varied Fall,” with a poem called “You Are Here,” a mixture of statements reflective of the speaker’s channeling external stimuli and her ensuing thoughts. Thanks to the poet’s deft use of physical details, as when she writes, “Where I am right now are the Sierras, mosquitos, and / susurrations of Mammoth Creek,” we get our bearings and begin to participate in the process of self-analysis along with the speaker. “I hardly recognize myself, transported by the rock / and soil beneath my sandals,” the poet writes toward the end of the poem, and reading those lines we too feel both grounded and afloat. A kind of ‘bearable lightness of being’ sets in, and, to quote from the blurb by Sarah Vap, “we are able to look at this world while it has been momentarily stopped . . . in order to think harder about what it means to be here.”
Of course, the poet never ceases to question what it means to be—here or there. If Elizabeth Bishop’s prismatic gaze allowed her to see beneath the surface of things and herself, Lyon’s peeling back of strata occurs by way of formal vivisections of her past. In the section “Short Springtime,” we come across “Lineage,” a poetic tour de force of nine numbered sections spanning ten pages. Like many “I Remember” poems, Lyons’s piece employs time embodied in language—the majority of short stanzas begin with the word “Before,” some with “When,” and a handful with “After”—to weave a magnificent tapestry of her parents and, ultimately, herself (a “sister” makes a brief cameo as well). Here are a few examples of each:
Before I was born my mother curled her straight hair and
pretended she belonged to someone else
When my father tries to remember one true thing he looks
down at the ground
After I was born my mother tried to remember what might
Choosing the matter-of-fact tone over a more incendiary delivery, the poet signals her desire to come to terms with who she is and where she comes from. This isn’t to suggest that she is satisfied with the fleeting answers echoing around the poem as she goes deeper into the past, which is why the “Before” parts outnumber all others as we approach the end. When the end finally comes, it is punctuated with two “When” couplets:
When I was born my mother murmured and bequeathed me
her slender hands for now
When I was born my father closed his mouth and wrote me a
recipe for callous marked To Be Delivered Every Year.
Ultimately, we are left with an existence, the poet seems to suggest, that hovers between the present moment and the promise—or disappointment, depending on one’s perspective—of perpetual return, if not quite renewal. We ask but don’t always receive. The fabric of our life remains as porous as the white space on the page. To construe the narrative of oneself is a process both maddening and necessary—and never-ending, despite the poet’s deliberate placing of the period at the end.
Jacqueline Lyons reminds us that no journey comes with a promise of arrival, regardless of how complacent we’ve become in our automated moving from A to B. The volume’s opening poem, called “Adorable Airport (once upon)”—a prelude of sorts, as it precedes the first section—encapsulates the speaker’s desire “to be better at living,” which, inevitable, consists of negotiating “uncertain beginnings” and “unbelievable endings.” The poem works like a fable of oneself that’s stuck on repeat. It is equally inventive and rife with stock phrases, because we hear what we want to hear while all along struggling to keep ourselves in check. Our hopes and desires and the noise of the world—all of it necessarily fragmented—is the matter that Lyons names and renames to the benefit of all of us, her fellow passengers.
About the Reviewer
Piotr Florczyk writes poems and essays, and translates contemporary Polish poetry. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is a doctoral candidate in USC’s PhD in Literature and Creative Writing Program. More info: www.piotrflorczyk.com