A Review of Amy Lemmon’s “Saint Nobody”

Saint Nobody Very few of us are sitting in an ivy-covered tower when we settle down to enjoy a new collection of poems. More likely, we’re on a rattling subway train, sitting in a rainsoaked ferry line, or stealing a few minutes at a corporate office. (I know, I know, nobody ever does that.)

Poet Amy Lemmon, whose just-released collection “Saint Nobody” is now available from Red Hen Press, understands—as did Whitman and Eliot, not to mention Tu Fu and Li Po—the pace of her contemporary readers’ worlds, and she opens the collection with a poem, “Disclaimer”, that is half corporate-speak, half a turn toward the moon.

After all, language (now, as always), is big business, used for company policies, blockbuster tag lines, advertisting jingles, and political-speak. To write poetry, therefore, is to reclaim our own tongues toward the meanings of the heart, the lungs, the body. The opening of “Disclaimer,” in what in the text are double-spaced lines, invites the reader to leave purchased language for language that is soaked in the body and the earth:

If you are reading this
it is due to an error,
an oversight, or some otherwise
unprecedented act on the part
of the Management.

The poem continues  corporate language on the left side, while on the right the words begin to bleed: a birth, the moon, “embarrassing nipples,” blood, apologies.

Lemmon (pictured right) offers us as her readers a choice at the very beginning—we can turn from the un-comfortable, un-

Amy Lemmonsanitized language and return to “regularly scheduled programming”, or we can follow the white rabbit, the screaming, narrative-driven, in-pain poetic voice that offers an extended hand “to follow me away” and

 …watch the white disk turn two-thirds
mottled sepia, then charcoal, then black
and shyly bare her sharp white face entire.

We are watching not only a literal birth, in the opening poem, but a metaphorical birth, as well, a birth into the world of poetry, a birth into what we sometimes think of as “other.” Those readers that continue, however, who “follow me away”, will discover rich pleasures in this collection, praised by Kim Addonizio as “equally concerned with the language of the body and the body of language…Amy Lemmon’s poems map the territory of female experience, of loss and clear-sighted grappling with a life’s challenges”.

Like Marvin Bell’s “Dead Man” poems, the call-and-response catechisms in the “Saint Nobody” poem search for meaning. Like Bell, what is missing is used to talk about what is.

She chose you, the midwife told us
But the choice was ours.

I couldn’t have the test, we could’ve known
but we chose ignorance, had faith…

There are no easy answers drawn, neither in this poem, nor throughout the collection. Faith and communion and no-faith and no-communion, neither can change or reduce the inescapable trueness of the world. If there is a conclusion that is drawn, at the final, it is a selfless togetherness, although, as the narrator notes: “I am no saint.”  

Who’s there?
Nobody here but us—

Amy Lemmon 3 Lemmon (pictured with her daughter, whose birth is the one narrated) “produces that rarity,” writes Molly Peacock, “a page-turner book of poetry we dive into not because of the child, not because of the craft, but because of the body-intelligence in the dance between the two.”

This collection is derived, is built, in part, from Amy Lemmon’s original chapbook “Fine Motor.” As in that chapbook, the second poem of this collection is the title poem, “Saint Nobody,” which ushers us from the whiteness of the moon and the crowning baby’s head, born with Down Syndrome—“The word retarded,” the narrator says, in section four of the poem, “tossed from a dear friend’s mouth, feels sharp as swords or stones”—into a blank landscape, a tabula rasa upon which the narrator contemplates her new life as a mother caring for the other, for this new daughter, and builds a new life.

Denise Duhamel writes that Lemmon’s “enormous capacity for empthy, her dizzyingly precise imagery, and her pitch-perfect storytelling all mark this marvelous debut.” Those of readers who have read “Fine Motor” will find that the contents of that chapbook remain, although the order has been shuffled, slightly, like a card game on the picnic table re-arranged by the wind.

In “Scar”, the daughter’s voice begins—no longer being an object but an active voice, the daughter “must be heard”, and nurses close to her mother, who is “mindful/of your mended-china ribcage.”

It is the power of language and speech, Lemmon seems to be saying, that creates the world: it is language that makes us human, that allows us locate ourselves in reference to one another, that gives us the words to love one another, and tell a daughter, this “tiny warrior,” that you have a “great heart.” 

We don’t move backwards in time in this collection of poems as much as we move away from the birth into the rest of the earth. A world of  “Shushes of cars, whine of semis from the interstate,/the rare train horn though the track’s long turned/to bike path.”

The second section begins with the narrator moving from her daughter to her mother in “Coke Bottle”, a poem that locates us with the house’s “red formica counters,” and relationships with unspoken fault lines reflected only through “stolen sips” of Coca-Cola, “this potion sweet and sharp/this liquid hers, left just within reach.”

Kenneth Rexroth once wondered how children who grew up with air-raid drills to protect them against the coming atomic war could ever find solace with Coke. Lemmon poses the same questions. In the poems following “Coke Bottle,” the simple pleasures—and, by extension, simple answers—of soda pop and family life is shown in all of its complicated nuances. “Sometimes,” the narrator says, “it all comes down to an empty beer bottle.” Characters become initials: B., and K.. Greek mythology intensifies—the narrator as immortal. A female Icarus before she flew too close to the sun. A she-Achilles with an iron heel, “primed by drink.” (“Daze of 1987.”)

We are introduced to a junkie character with the parenthetical adjective description that it’s “pre-restraining order”—and through the heights, the wax wings stay strong. The sky “solid gray,” buses “spitting in the wet street”, and we find, in these middle poems, the origin of the corporate-speak from the opening as the narrator enters a world of reception desks, “clatter” of good-morning greetings, the “chilly bleat of telephones”, and through it all the narrator yearns for art, for music:

 …You think that if you sit
there long enough, flip pages, jot, peer
through stained glass in the hallways, you can carve
a small compartment for the frozen stream
of Beauty, Joy, some wild abstract
you know exists but need
to be reminded of.

Lemmon seems to be in agreement with Gregory Orr, and “no other world but this one,” with its river, and willows, and black smokestacks. As in the first, in the second section of the book it is language that cracks through the daily rut of the necessity of money into what is real; it is language that connects humans into what lasts.

It is no accident that the first poem of the third section is entitled “Kindred”. Attempts to find connection in physical contact becomes attempts to find connection in verbal contact. In “The Secret Spilled,” the narrator says:

 Our language is newborn, and we’re translating
without a dictionary. How naturally
we share a tongue—la langue—not just
the fleshy morsel that forms our sounds,
but the beloved words we mouth in dreams.

Voice becomes seduction, voice becomes connection, voice gives birth to the world through speech, notes, phone calls. This reader kept coming back to the poems that leap from the outer world to the inner on the most subtle hinge of a turned phrase, like the closing stanza of a different poem:

Now I keep to back roads on the country,
avoiding pile-ups on the widening interstate. My body,
for its part, remembers little of its budding-time,
flat chest and flatter belly.
It’s been decades since I learned
somehow to look men in the eye, to answer questions
with a smile that gives to signal, to quiet the old alarm.

There are many more multiple layers of poems in this collection—the colors and turgid pressure of “Still Life With Fire Escape”, the Munrovian self-awareness of “Autumn Remonstration”, and the all-American pleasures of “Friday Afternoon.”

Medieval and classical influences echo throughout the collection. In “In-patients,” the narrator locates the underworld—like Orpheus, she has descended into Hades to recover a loved one—in the blinking sterility of a hospital, the “ghoulish…gleam/of the place, even at three a.m.” And in later poems, we watch the narrator rise, Icarus-like, above the earth, for a glimpse, only to come, ultimately, back down into the world.

The final poem, “Strangely Tender”, strikes an ending chord. After the thick pages soaked in the details of the world, this poem concludes with a plane’s-eye view of the “sweet, gun-checked” world below, tugging all of the poems together in a final farewell—but a farewell in which the effect upon this reader, at least, suggests one of re-entry: while the earth looks beautiful from above, every plane must land, and the world must be lived at ground level.

Amy Lemmon was a 2008 Resident at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. The Conference’s Residency-Only option gives you the time and space you need to complete new work–or revise existing work–while enjoying the richness of the Conference experience, including the readings and lectures, and the optional afternoon workshops.

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