Saline by Kimberly Lyons
(Instance Press, Boulder, CO, 2005)
Kimberly Lyons’ Fleeting Continuum
The problem (and pleasure) of reviewing a book of poetry by Kimberly Lyons is that a review needs to generalize to an extent, yet my temptation is to pause at the details in the language, to become wrapped up in close readings of the images that flow in a continually morphing reverie. Nevertheless, in the face of such richness of language, I also find myself searching for strategies that might unlock (to use a recurring image from Saline) “the fuzzy vault / of the radio sphericity / of our signaling thoughts”—or, conversely, searching for Lyon’s semantic strategies encoded in what might at first seem to be a random collage.
Most obviously, Lyons’ poetic language is remarkably sensual: within her hallucinatory succession of images are precisely-described phenomena, as in “a red scarf, thin as water,” “dolorous lilies,” and “rusted lantern.” Details of colour, temperature, shape, position, age, movement, sound, texture, and emotional quality abound. Moreover, the senses are often blended so as to suggest synesthetic experience, as in “orbs of noise” and “orange smell.”
This strong empirical quality of the images invites us to juxtapose sensory experiences that might normally occur in different conceptual realms, to borrow Lakoff and Johnson’s term, and to consider their commonalities. The cognitive process encouraged in the reader is associative and figurative: metaphor and metonym create links among the words of a poem that might otherwise fly apart. To take the example of “Hives”:
Peripheral snaps, like a flyswatter
with no sweat
fits of sound without shape
of September a cellular
from hair, hives
globs of orange smell
the moon’s raincoat &
diaphanous in its costumes
decorated with beads &
words grow inward
edges ephemeral as this page is.
The language of “Hives” produces odd juxtapositions, but the words are generally concrete, sensual: “globs of orange smell / the moon’s raincoat & / newspaper dregs.” The rapid succession of seemingly unrelated images is complicated by the ambiguous syntax: is it the soul or words that are decorated with beads and bottlecaps? Nonetheless, the images are decidedly not random. Metaphorically, the itching of hives might feel like “peripheral snaps,” which in turn suggests a “flyswatter” without the “sweat” that might accompany hives. That sensory experience could be synesthetically described as “fits of sound without shape.” In addition, metonymic threads link “kitchen” to “lab” and “cellular” as well as to “orange,” “globs,” smell,” and “bottlecaps.” “Diaphanous” resonates with “ephemeral,” “soul,” and “inward”; “newspaper” relates to “page.”
The title suggests the centrality of the image of hives, with its pun on colonies of bees (suggesting perhaps the busy-ness of the words whose meanings “ricochet” off each other). The visceral connotations of this word are associated with images from other senses: sight, smell, taste, sound. Thus the centripetal energy in the poem derives from the linking of senses and images; their relatedness gives the poem a kind of musical coherence in its interplay of themes and motifs.
At the end of this poem is a meta-poetic gesture that recurs in several poems in Saline, in this case, linguistic ephemerality. Lyons reminds us that the poem, although evoking sensory images, is composed of words, and these words “grow inward / edges ephemeral as this page is.” One edge of “kitchen” is the idea of mixing edible things: grains, herbs, meats, in a similar way that chemicals are mixed in a laboratory. Another edge of “kitchen” is the sensory images that it invokes, such as “orange smell,” “dregs,” and “bottlecaps.” And these semantic edges growing on the words betray their ephemerality in the shifting transience of meanings, which are as fleeting as the very page on which the words are written.
The flip side of the theme of temporality in Saline is the richness of cognitive and linguistic possibilities. This theme, in fact, informs Lyon’s opening gambit in Saline. The first two poems, after a series of strange juxtapositions, culminate with a self-referential idea of endless creative possibilities. The ending of the first poem suggests that the oceanic range of such strangeness is not only for the dreamer, for “The mind can go anyplace / before sleep, you see.” The second poem echoes that kind of self-referential gesture:
is that possible
the denizens of a poem
coming through the mist whack
a curtain completely uncertain as
to how wavelengths prevail.
The plethora of perceived images paired with the realization of their evanescence is nicely expressed in the “doubted / and crowded” instant in “Red Radio Flyer”:
At the moment,
which is transient, doubted
a tremulous lavender ball
vulnerably rotating in its
cubicle of the cosmos
But within this moment, for all its presentation to consciousness of a myriad of fleeting phenomena, the mind invokes a singular object, a “tremulous lavender ball” that is fragile and vulnerable, yet saliently present to thought, cordoned off from the rest of the universe. Lyon beautifully suggests a moment of quiet focus and reflection on an imagined object, which paradoxically seems more present than the objects that crowd around one, jockeying for attention.
Despite the proliferation and seeming confusion of images in these poems, recurring themes and motifs of traveling, death, liquidity, nothingness, presence and absence, light and dark, and language, as well as Lyons’ attention to the rich interplay of images, give Saline a centripetal energy that counters the centrifugal force of its blooming, buzzing confusion.
Moreover, in poems such as “LUNE,” Lyon demonstrates a more traditionally lyrical consistency through a focused, zen-like meditation on the reflection of the moon in an almost empty bowl of milk:
After the milk
an emergence of
magnolias framed by grooved green
and a silver spoon fits inside a gray
as the moon, of course, hangs
Turn out the light
after eating cereal in the middle of the night
in the kitchen
and suddenly the moon
gray as a flower
at the bottom of a bowl of milk.
Lyon delicately interweaves the image of a magnolia and leaves at the bottom of a bowl of milk, seen with the kitchen light on, with the image of the moon reflected in the shallow leftover milk, seen with the light off. Although this poem is more coherent than many of the others in this collection, it has in common with them the preoccupation with surface image, illusion, and the slipperiness of sensory perception.
Ending the book is Saline’s title prose poem, a tour-de-force of the mind’s intense exploration of the proliferation of real and imagined objects and social interactions, each with its own context and connotative histories, floating in and out of the senses and cognition:
People are realized only partially. Experienced as split forces joined with split forces in my self. From my apartment window, the length of dirty white sill joins to the whitish extended field of snow. These intrusions force a cleavage, splinter elements. Some actions are so drastic and some withdrawals so complete that it’s like a bonfire. The slow accumulation and then sudden disintegration. The blackish pile, hardly differentiated from early winter air, and vestiges of the sun, merge. Body that suddenly houses a smoldering core of feeling.
It’s said, trauma produces snapshots of unlinked memory. So does love.
In this poem, Lyons themes of linkage and dissolution are played out on a social plane, and the result is a beautifully sustained engagement with bewilderment as the thinking subject attempts to make sense of it all.
Kimberly Lyons’ poetry may perplex at first with its plethora of images, but a deeper meaning emerges with close attention to the ideas rebounding within the chaos. Lyons reminds us of the beauty that the reader can create within a myriad of possibilities. And her themes of disintegration and disappearance remind us of the temporality of creation: in short, a memento mori at the heart of the phantasmagorical parade.
Camille Martin, an American-Canadian poet, was born in El Dorado, Arkansas, and was a long-time resident of Louisiana before moving to Toronto. She is the author of Sonnets (Exeter, UK: Shearsman Books, 2010) and Codes of Public Sleep (Toronto: Book Thug, 2007). Her work has been widely and internationally published in journals and translated into Spanish and German. A classical musician from an early age, she earned a Master of Music degree at the Eastman School of Music, an MFA in Poetry at the University of New Orleans, and a PhD in English at Louisiana State University. She teaches at Ryerson University.