PABLO NERUDA BEGINS HIS POEM Memory with the line, I must remember everything. That sentiment and its urgency could be the motto of Jacqueline Lyons record of her three years in Southern Africa, as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Record, however, is inadequate, as it fails to convey the artistry and shaping intelligence everywhere on display in the books pages.
Part of her strength as a poet resides in her commitment to a broad aesthetic, one that, in the Pound-Williams tradition, allows into the work such things as economic facts (about mining) and passages of prose that include Whitmanesque catalogues of the sights and sounds of her Lesotho world. Her poems eschew the poetic in order to be true to the lived lives of the many people she came to cherish and respect as a Volunteer, yet her love of language its music and formal possibilities always partners in her work with her role as witness.
Her poem Playing Scrabble in Lesotho, for example, is a tour de force of both wordplay and cultural portraiture, the various combinations of letters on the board all mirrors of her environment. Scrabble has never been so seriously evocative. Auden said that a poet is, before anything else, someone passionately in love with language, and Lyons exemplifies that truth, whether shes thrilling to the names of people or places Tele Bridge, Maseru, Wepner, Zastron or, in Speaking the Language, discovering a rhythmical pattern that runs through many multi-syllabic Sesotho words.
Along those lines, Now, Here constitutes a high point of the book. In this five-part poem she investigates the Sesotho words for those of the poems title, as well as there, sensitively and smartly exploring all that a Mosotho (a person from Lesotho) means by them. At the same time, always rooting Lyons linguistic excursions is her focus on the senses; shes learned Wallace Stevens famous lesson, that the greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world, and grounds every poem in such a world. Even when she writes a sestina Sunday Uneven a form notorious for its potential artificiality and preciousness, Lyons turns it into an earthy paean celebrating the spectacle of various Sunday activities in her town.
The book concludes after she has returned to the United States and receives letters from her students and friends, whom she honors by quoting at length in her final poem, I Am Missing Your Voice, which in turn is enriched and validated by their words. The books final chord, including the name of a Lesotho friends newborn, is a poignant mix of pride, loss, connection, and hope.
As a returned Volunteer reading Lyons book, I am painfully aware of all I have forgotten over the years; only a small portion of my experience in Nigeria in the Sixties remains. I envy Lyons her ability to preserve so vividly and effectively her intense and steady engagement with her Volunteers local world. As a writer, Im impressed by her managing the difficult task of meeting the necessarily contradictory demands of her material and her medium. Throughout her book, shes open and receptive while also holding her own as a strong center of individual responsiveness.
Philip Dacey is the author of The Mystery of Max Schmitt: Poems on the Life and Work of Thomas Eakins and seven earlier collections of poetry, including The Deathbed Playboy and Night Shift at the Crucifix Factory. He co-edited Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms with David Jauss.
He recently moved from Minnesota to Manhattan.