George Ella Lyon
Back to the Light
The University Press of Kentucky / 2021 / 105 pp / $19.95 Paperback
Reviewed by Jimmy Long
The unnamed cover image of George Ella Lyon’s latest poetry collection, Back to the Light, resembles something akin to flames suspended in the black background above the title’s white type. If one were to somehow measure the cover’s murky darkness against the relative amount of brightness in its text font and fire-like image (which may well be one of flowers, given photographer Sam Stapleton’s oeuvre and talent for such effects), the result as to which has the edge, darkness or light, would likely be a toss-up. That our first encounter with Back to the Light has us weighing such an uncertain balance is fitting as the book brings us also into that struggle between darkness and light, manifest in its poems as the struggle of humanity against various forms of oppression. For Lyon, the central struggle seems to be her speaker’s long fight to recover from childhood sexual assault, a fight she later universalizes in a way that invites readers to gain from her strength, even as the book leans at times toward personal narrative. Back to the Light’s sweetest moments lie in those often-breathtaking figurative moves where Lyon turns from that narrative voice with a stylistic flourish, or suddenly drops a stunning metaphor. Those instances lift this book to its place as a rallying cry for human survival.
The poem “Out with It” rather sings than tells the book’s primary tragedy. In Lyon’s invented form where she repeats, through most of the poem, each stanza’s opening three words in its third line, the speaker explains:
He took me in his room
maple bunk bed tomb
He took me, he took me
in his room
He was twelve and I was five
I left my body to survive
He was twelve, he was twelve
I was five
In poems like “Trapdoor,” we see the lasting impact this aggression will have. After the speaker relates an experience of her childhood family going out to dinner, then walking to a defunct miniature golf course near the restaurant’s parking lot, Lyon delivers a poignant, poem-making metaphor. The speaker sees the mini golf course as a “ruin / of play” and “almost remembers / the bunkbed and what / it took to be a Princess for real” and, it seems, faints: “A ground she didn’t know / was there falls away. Inside she // is falling too.” We see how the brutal act of violence haunts the speaker well into adulthood. In “Why I Fell at the Folger Shakespeare Library,” the speaker falls on stage before giving a reading. To her astonishment, the boy who assaulted her turns up at the reception as he has actually moved to the area, was in attendance at the event and entered the venue ostensibly at just the moment she tripped onstage; the author writes “his approach / homing in on the Folger / would fling me to the floor.” Here, Lyon engages the supernatural quite viscerally and, if there is a metaphor at work, we could say this now-grown man represents the force of evil administering a blow to her speaker.
Another thread running through Back to the Light is its engagement with other activists, folk singers, and writers (Lyon, in her work both on and off the page, can be called all of these). She again welcomes the spirit world into the book in “Stone Brought Home from the River Ouse” by summoning Virginia Woolf, imagining she’s found one of the stones which was in her pocket when she drowned herself: “Your words lift / the stone from your pocket. See. I have it here.” The book’s next poem, “March 28, 1941,” a short lyric more pointedly about Woolf’s drowning, fits well as companion to “Stone Brought Home from the River Ouse.” Lyon’s speaker seems to draw strength from such characters, and this is one of the book’s most affirming qualities: how it rallies particularly feminine voices in support of one another.
Reviewer Nikky Finney notes on the book’s back cover that “Back to the Light is a girl’s song, is a big loud woman’s song.” She’s referencing Lyon’s poem “Some Big Loud Woman,” which describes a musical muse whose singing voice becomes a visceral metaphor rousing her body to confront the world:
I need to listen to a big loud woman
Pounding my table
Fire in the hearth
While Back to the Light certainly engages as a feminist text, it ultimately is a book that speaks to all because, as is revealed more and more toward its end, its speaker is grappling with death. In “The Meadow Does Not Know,” which shines as one of the book’s finest poems, Lyon compares the earth with material wealth:
Here God gives of her
extravagance and here, like
flicker, viceroy, dragonfly
we come into our inheritance.
She repudiates wealth (“The Meadow Does Not Know // about the stock market,” the poem begins) in a way that is both triumphant and chilling. She summons perhaps the chill we all feel when confronted with death in “More,” a poem where she imagines hanging out with God and later visiting a dying friend. She writes “God gave me Her hand / and it was more / than I could hold.” Lyon does not shy away from acknowledging art’s shortcomings when confronted with both the power of the physical world and its doom. We see this in the poem “Fallingwater” where she recounts the speaker falling again, this time while trying to compose a metaphor about Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece built into an actual waterfall: “I fell out of art / hard / into my own flesh.”
While the world—its evils, its death—constantly pushes against the speaker and the sisters she’s gathered together in these poems, Lyon ultimately manages an act of self-sustaining transcendence which begins its crescendo with the title poem. In “Back to the Light,” we find the speaker imagining rescuing a young girl from the ruins of what seems to be the family home. We learn the girl is her mother who, we know from other poems, has died. One reading of the poem relies on our knowing the mother may have done something unforgivable, like the speaker’s own mother, who refused to believe she’d been sexually assaulted. This context helps us read the last lines as redemptive metaphor, how an act of forgiveness can serve as path back to the luminous hope of self-love: “a little girl had been trapped there. / And now she walks with me back to the light.” In “World Tree,” the book ends on a final image, a supernatural vision in which the speaker communes with, and gathers strength from, all her dead: “a line of souls / streaming toward me / in armor.” We can envision the speaker, with all that collective power of love, ancestry, and sisterhood, leading us on a charge, back to the light.
Jimmy Long is an MFA candidate in poetry at Spalding’s Naslund-Mann School of Writing. His poems have appeared in Appalachian Review, Still: The Journal, Appalachian Journal, Kestrel, and Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry. Long lives and works in Charleston, West Virginia.