Blossom and Bone / by Nicole Lyons
Reviewed by Candice Louisa Daquin
Blossom and Bone (Sudden Denouement Press, 2018) is Lyons’ third collection of poetry and even with the title Lyons has already said a myriad of things which is one of her signature qualities as an author, she can truly ‘say it’ often using very few words thus having a greater impact. By the juxtaposition of blossom (something soft, vulnerable, beautiful, fleeting, fragile) with bone (something more permanent, harder, stronger) as well as the concept of regrowth (bone continues to grow but can be broken, blossoms that die, can return) the title speaks to the endurance and transformation of this author and her understanding of those who experience similar emotions/experiences.
I dislike encapsulating the tenor of an author as most shift in their address to the author but Lyons has an incredible energy in her salutation; she gets to the point, with each and every poem. I would imagine it’s the difference between someone who beats around the bush and someone who is a straight shooter. That lends her work this hypnotic immediacy, you almost feel she is in the room with you, standing there, saying; “I am standing here screaming / I live, I live, I love.” It’s the way she gets to the point immediately, she doesn’t preamble or slowly ease you in, she’s not afraid in other words to just SAY IT and that’s definitely one of her strengths and the reason you will immediately pick out her work from others and know it.
Another quality, Lyons makes me laugh, as much as she makes me cry as much as she hurts she brings humor. The reason for this is her subjects are often hard, she doesn’t shy away from that, and perhaps as solace, she blends a really good balance of beautifully written poetry with the occasional curse word and I love the balance she uses intuitively because it wakes you up and reminds you of the gravity of the subject whilst allowing you to smile at her brazen unapologetic femininity and continue reading. “It never heard the way I hated myself / when dawn hit my window and sliced / its way through the mountains of maybe” (It Never Heard That)
Some poets are scared to write truth, they stick to affirmations, positive vibes, they don’t ‘go there’ and talk about the ugly underbelly of existence and the undeniable pain of existence. Whilst there is far more to Lyons work than sadness, she’s again unafraid to bear her soul and paint universal truths about how we really feel. I find that honesty compelling and addictive in that so often you sense a writer can only be putting their best foot forward, whilst a truly gut-wrenching author will go much, much further and tattoo those truths onto your skin. “This place that once / felt the fire of falling stars / is now cold in my fading light. / So I shall invite you in / and ask you to bring your wishes,” (Bring Your Wishes)
Most of us have mood swings, but how often can we capture that fleeting or mercurial shift in temperament? I for one have never achieved it, whilst Lyons work seems to naturally describe emotions many of us can relate to throughout our lives. And despite her proclaiming that; “I have always loved the cold / dark places where feelings go / to hide, as I have loved something / about the easy way my heart / shatters the second it rubs / up against something warm” (My Easy Heart) there is a genuine awareness that she needs to push past that tendency to hide and not admit how she is feeling and offer it up to the reader as realistically as possible. She does this far more than she may even realize she’s doing it, through sheer guts. But unlike other confessional poets, she doesn’t lament or labor the point, she’s very succinct and sharp in her use of words, she knows exactly how many she needs to make a point and doesn’t use a single unnecessary word, that in of itself is a rare ability as a writer.
I get a sense when I read Nicole Lyons that she inhabits a secret world. I know she is married with children but there’s an entire other universe to her writing, it is surely her very essence and all the history and scars that brought her to this point, and she opens the gates and lets us in, enough that we can hear her thoughts but not fathom all that creates them. This leaves a wonderful teasing, the mystery behind the author, the unknown mind, the commonalities we can relate to, and those things we shall never know. “but the ones who never loved me / have made their home inside my veins.” (Lifetime Lease) Again, it takes a master of words to know how to wield and parlay so deftly with your use of language that you can tempt the reader and draw them in, only to give them what you decide to offer, and absolutely no more. With confessional style poets, the temptation is to say too much, Lyons is a very unique voice in that she has absolute control over what is and is not revealed. It only leaves you wanting more which is surely the greatest lure an author can possess.
I find it hard to explain just how she does this. I imagine it is her ability to self-edit and write as one would speak, with control over the impact that has on the reader. She is clearly aware of her readership, her words are speaking to us, they are definitely not words put underneath a bed and hidden away, they are not shyly proffered, they are bold, unafraid, certain words; “but each time I twist / I come up empty-handed, / and wiping your light / from the corners of my mouth. “ (Wiping Your Light) Something about Lyons endings leaves me breathless, it seems she has just abruptly finished half-way through, you have questions, and yet it’s the perfect closure. I think of Film Noir and how what is not said, and goes unfinished, often leaves the greater impact. In that sense, Lyons work echoes the apparently sparse but really specific dialogue you may think of in classic movies, and it’s that edgy level of suspense and almost quick-tongued drama that I find so compelling, think Barbara Stanwick as a poet.
I mentioned once to Lyon that until I’d read her work I hadn’t been a fan of shorter poetry, the first book I read of Lyons was HUSH which blew me away, for its fierceness and femininity and unapologizing riot of emotion and control, it was like taking a drug and entering another universe, no wonder her books become Amazon Best Sellers she has that draw, it’s the magnetism only truly memorable writers with true craft possess, which is that wonder you find so rarely. “You with the goddess heart / and that cemetery soul, / of course, you are a dragon now.” (Mostly Dead Ones) Not everyone can pull it off, writing with brief intensity the way she does, in some ways she’s capable of creating symbols with her words, slogans, sayings, they’re more than poems, they’re things to live by, to follow, to adhere to, to consider when you can’t sleep at night. They are at the same time blunt and gorgeous, which I find an oxymoron that I cannot readily explain.
In I Won’t Always Be Me, Lyons writes; “I won’t always speak kindly. / Sometimes I will spit, / and I will scream, / and the venom from my tongue / will poison the oceans of love” She possesses an immediacy of intoxicate boldness and it is this I believe is the core reason she has such a following because it’s at once incredibly feminine but also quite unlike what you think of when you consider what is traditionally feminine. She is a writer of the now. She is a woman of the now. Her pulse can be heard in every syllable. In Chicken Dinner Lyons captures the muted grief of childhood so precisely it made the hair on my neck stand up; “next to an alcoholic / control freak who called me stepdaughter / and walked upon me to seal it / like the gummy flap of an envelope / stuffed with unloved letters, / and a mother who wore exhaustion / hidden inside her navy pumps.” There is a kindling rage in her words, a don’t-you-dare-turn-away quality to the exorcism of her truths, she stares into places others skip over, she disgorges the dirt like an excavator of pain, and presents it as you would a film, blinking in front of you, refusing to let you ignore it.
We can point to many poets who are courageous and brave to share their suffering with us, bring some wisdom and truth to a sometimes artificial stage but the voice behind the words doesn’t always stay long afterward, it doesn’t infuse us with a disquieting sense of wanting to reveal the spite beneath our veneer, the cruelty humans are capable of, the quixotic humor of childhood that is both tragic and hilarious, Lyons balances that picture in our heads perfectly. “I taste shame when I look / upon this table of cheaters / and whores, no better than me. / But I am the sheep / that wears the dirtiest cloak.” (Twisted Sins)
In Robbing Air Lyons describes dissatisfaction uncannily; “You are deep hues and an ugly reminder / of small towns and smaller minds, / stroked once and cut twice / from a life, we are all running from.” For so many, there will be a nodding even if their experience differed (small town/big city/male/female) she has a universal whisper, a place at the table, where she provides us with knowledge we have turned away from, perhaps thinking ourselves ‘over it’ and at the same time, reenacting our scars. There are gut-punching reminders of this in poems like I Told Him No, which simply take your breath away in their visceral confession and horror. What I adore is how no matter how badly damaged, the female survivor, her voice is never extinguished, if anything after such evil, she comes back stronger, and that is as redemptive and real as it gets.
Lyons work won’t lull you to sleep at night or fill you with peace, it’ll actually do the opposite and that’s no bad thing; “When I told you that / I had been broken / before; it wasn’t / a fucking challenge.” (Misunderstood) Women’s voices are stronger than ever, but we still have a long way to go, the only way to achieve a lasting voice of equality is to force through the barrier both of ourselves and our histories. Lyons voice is especially potent, she literally takes no prisoners, she won’t back down, she can be caustic, in-your-face and aggressive and those aren’t negatives, because she’s pushing back, against the cacophony of violence and oppression committed against herself and women en mass, who inherit the grief of their forbearers. She does so in such a poignant way I feel she has a lot in common with African American authors like Toni Morrison for their uncanny handling of the extreme ugliness of life and what people are capable of, with an undiminished candor and survival instinct. “I have never felt a smooth landing / beneath my feet, nor have I ever / been lucky enough to tuck one under / my wing and breathe great gusts / of relief as if I had been saved.” (Under My Wing)
Nicole Lyons is already an undeniable force, and I predict she will only grow in strength and those who appreciate her increase. In her words, she evokes a woman whom many of us can relate to in one form or another, a woman who we can share parts of, who doesn’t shun us or other women. Surely this is why we read certain types of poetry where the author can reveal to us our own feelings in their reflections and from this, evoke responses we didn’t think we needed to have (but did). Surely such poetry has a lasting place in our lives and for those who have experienced mental illness or abuse, there is an especial value in Lyons willingness to reach out and share her own; “You call me crazy / because I feel everything, / but I feel sorry for you / because you don’t.” (Of Maniacs and Manics) As a voice for those who cannot put words to what they endure, Lyons stands out with compassion and insight and best of all, an awareness you need not be diminished by any label.
To say of another writer, they are almost uncannily clever, may sound overdone or insincere, but it’s absolutely my final word on Nicole Lyons. “Don’t tell them how I lived / between the darkness and the light, / just tell them I lived with poetry / tucked beneath my skin.” (It’s Only Poetry) It’s always those who can state it succinctly with the foresight few of us possess that hold us in their thrall. Nicole Lyons has long enthralled me, both as a lover of poetry, and because I find her achingly necessary in this world, and she never lets me down, she only frustrates me because so often I don’t know how the hell she does it so well. This is an exquisite collection of writings from an indescribably talented woman; the best you can do is buy everything she’s written and turn your phone off.
“She is but once in a lifetime / and far too many times before. / She is something that just happens, / and she is everything worth waiting for.” (Luna’s Daughter)
Her gorgeous book of poetry, Pinch The Lock is available for purchase here