By: Richard Lyons
Reviewed by: Jim Murphy
The Word Works Press, 2006
At a point approximately midway through Fleur Carnivore, Rich Lyons’ Washington Prize-winning third volume of poetry, an augury emerges, voiced in such a way that both bleakness and hope are held within a single couplet: “The future never is, it dies to arrive. I’m not what you said I’d be, / the future whispers. The future is . . . .” The achievement of tone at a moment like this, simultaneously filled with authority and puzzlement, is pure Lyons. In the same way his beloved twentieth-century jazz titans could turn time signatures inside out and in so doing “[say] there really is no edge and / that time doesn’t end” (“Sitting at a Desk, Listening to Cherry and Shepp”), so do Rich Lyons’ poems both mark and transcend some facts about our earthbound lives. In them, one finds a consciousness keenly, often painfully aware of the limits of humanity, in that loss, frailty, forgetfulness, and death are our inevitable common lot. Yet in the face of these, through art, through memory, through music, and of course through poems, a defiant vitality stakes its claim.
Competing elements of stillness and vigor are found throughout: Ash, snow, and cold, bitter winds counterpoised by blossoming jasmines and cardinals in flight. It’s not coincidental that the scale shifts accordingly between the enormity of atmosphere and the small, clear beauties of petals and birds. Lyons constantly adjusts the “lenses” of his poems to take in both great and small wonders. For instance, this, the second stanza of “Language”: “Along US 82 East, the light off the greenhouses / is like the spume Hart Crane barely teetered above— / an emerald or tourmaline with tints of fire— / before he leapt into the sea, / the salt words choking him, / his eye an anise clove sweetening all it soon couldn’t see.” And Hart Crane is only one of a large roster of troubled modern geniuses who appear within Fleur Carnivore’s pages, among them Francis Bacon, John Coltrane, Lucien Freud, and Man Ray, to name a few. All share in their own work the rigor and intensity that, in an aesthetic and spiritual sense, make them Lyons’ fellow travelers.
The poetic quest enacted in Fleur Carnivore traverses the stark and difficult territory of human consciousness, recognizing that mediated, conditional sense is just about all that can be made of this condition of ours. And yet, far from being a lament for that condition, there is acceptance and a hard-won peace to be attained: “The raven broadcasts its winter surplus with a shrill caw. / So there! On good days, not one monk goes up in orange flames, / t he monks are feasting, the monkeys are fasting, / not a word, not a wind.” (“Natural History”)
Jim Murphy teaches at the University of Montevallo, where he also directs the Montevallo Literary Festival.