by Nancy Takacs
I am drawn to these truthful, soulful poems in Flicker. They are natural in their telling, in a voice that trusts itself, and is wise, although it doesn’t mean to be. The poet tries to transcend grief through repentance, to know what will work, searching for a way, here on the cusp of accepting her two lives: “the tranquil one and the conflagration.”
In Jane Hirshfield’s mind, poetry that is alive has “the ability to include more and more shadows, colors and possibilities inside any moment’s meeting of self and world.” Bickmore’s deftly made poems have shadows and possibilities that flicker as our lives do, here between ashes and fire.
Her shadows include the aftermath of a long-ago divorce, the illness of a son, the loss of a girl she is close to gone to a town in some unknown place, perhaps a daughter or niece, a “flame-colored cat” she has named Lorca, and a god she offers prayers to because she feels responsible, whose voice she thought she heard, but is unsure she does.
What also makes these poems so good, and memorable, are how the book’s losses are ignited with her love of this world and its earthy textures: light in her Utah garden, passionate moments with a lover, the many birds she watches as they fly in, make nests, and surround her, the green scent of rosebuds, a meal she makes of red potatoes, asparagus, and a red pepper, for her children “to eat and grow strong,” and her dog’s need to bay in the garden’s lemon verbena each night, “unveil[ing]/from his blankets the dog-and-a-half/of his body into the dark rapt air.”
She looks to the passion in music and song in other poems, which she naturally develops into metaphor. In “Occasional Music” she is lying in bed with her boy, looking at the slim moon, and thinks of the oncoming storm, both a literal one, and a portent in her life as “furioso, appassionata.”
She muses about the relationship between June Carter and Johnny Cash in “Ring of Fire,” and questions “…Was she still married at the time/Was he? Everything ends, country songs, marriages…” The poet runs her poem, and her past, over their heated love affair, wondering how June, who grew up on folk music, had fallen into that fire, even though the end of the poem suggests June’s voice in her own alto version of the song was still passionate, though a bit rueful.
“Hymn” is the poet’s own song that is to a male muse who has loved her for her own voice and whom she has not had to court, like a god.
The above poems take a different turn from “Station,” where she seems to look for meaning, a place to speak, and be spoken to, finding herself in a church. However, there is a kind of song by the end of the poem.
She is kneeling in a cathedral hearing a penitent whispering “a way back to God,” and examining the details of angels in tableaus, represented in the Catholic Church in contrast to what she remembers from her early Mormon faith: their wings are “peridot, pycantha berry.” Or “shed[ding] yods of flame” as:
bright beatitude, leaves from a fiery tree.
In my native religion, angels do not
have wings in color, nor wings at all,
I learned such attributes as pagan embroideries.
Angels do not cross species, are not fantastic
like griffins or unicorns. They are men and women,
as you and I, but with no blood,
In her comparison between the two, and even though she finds solace in the Catholic angels, with their colors, connections to the nature images she loves, she is eventually drawn back to what wings nature itself offers: an “iridescent pigeon” the wings of a “little blackbird with a red eye” or the “whir of hummingbirds” where she finally hears a voice that calls her name “into stillness.” I feel the poet’s gift, in choosing symbols of flight, yes, but also of humble uniqueness, their beauty in variance that perhaps allows her to accept the variances in herself.
While voice is so important for the poet, the real voice, the natural voice, as well as looking to nature for some voice to help her, it is the poet’s own nature she frets about, heartbreaking guilt over a human need for love and passion she has found. Encounters with a lover in a variety of places are beautifully written with an undercurrent of unhappiness for these times.
For example, in “Limit” she says, “It is the afternoon after” while she is at a pool where some children, strangers, are playing, and she watches a “glissandi of water/lift and fall, hang in the air, circulate/through the grass, over bare skin.” Here inside this image of lightness that screens the circular movement of her thoughts, the speaker tries to understand her vulnerability, needs, as well as limits:
Then I wouldn’t say, trying for dispassion,
this is something resembling heartbreak.
I’d know how to read the languages of birds
crossing my path. For the last three days,
they’ve come near, two hummingbirds,
fawn-colored hoverers, one in the canyon,
another by the stream; then a bluejay
diving across the road. Wholly in the flesh,
or nearly, I’d let their flight brush my skin,
The body, the body: I say it as if
it were the name of a deliverer,
some new things from which to learn
the hard lesson of limits, when
I am spent and still full of longing:
what takes me, then says, here – no further.
And in “The Blade” she speaks of a ghost-like child, a waif, she imagines as a watcher, and wants to write to him, as if he is her son:
I’ve never dreamed, never written, this child:
or have always drawn the curtain, as I do now,
against him, against his feet in the gutter water,
against the heedless water rushing. Wake and write,
wake and write, now shut out the daylight
pressing against the curtain, against the child’s eyes’
squint: he can’t see us, nor into our solitary locked empire,
but sees instead the nothing we leave behind,
since we dream away in a room where we reign and reign.
This connects with the following poem, “I am driving home from the hospital,” where her son is, and
the dark god,
the one whose name is on the altar, the one
who demands sacrifice, broken hearts, contrition.
that god of this world seizes me
in a cold grip, and says to me,
you believed that you could have
whatever it was you wanted, you believed
like a fool in the inhabited moment,
in the full days and nights of desire,…
And in the final lines of this poem, the dark god says:
Tonight it is your blond boy on the altar.
He says to me, you have stopped listening
to the voice of justice, you’ve been a thief
in my house, and you will pay. But,
he says, not from your own
pocket. Take the coin from the boy.
The poet comes back to the body, weighing appetite and pleasure, suggesting the illness of the son is somehow related to pleasure as well, and that is why her guilt is hard to lose.
In the final poem, “Medicine Mountain,” she visits a medicine wheel built of stones, where Native American ceremonies and healings take place, the wheel’s rope fence weighted with bundles and kerchiefs others have left behind. She looks for solace here in this sacred place, in the wilderness:
I looked west
into some far nation, the whole mountain floor
descending away, rolling, submerged in an ocean of air.
So old – at least centuries – I wondered I’d not heard of it,
and upon inquiry its secrets still held: who made it
is long dead, and who still visits it for purposes
barely written and uncirculated is not saying:
I heard of a man once there, witness to the ceremony,
who found himself floating above the ground.
I heard it might be the lodge where spirits reside,
I heard it might be where the dead are:
Flicker parts a moving veil where loss must somehow become a strength, passion become a transformation. Lost loved ones, still on the poet’s shoulders, can never be left in the past, but will feel lighter in time.
I am struck by the originality of these poems, by how they lead us to surprising places in the poet’s consciousness, dipping along with her between this world and the worlds of the past, and how through their writing and tender shaping show us how they might be the only peaceful way we have to reconcile the worlds we make.
These are poems that readers will want to savor for their astonishing craft, their truth and humility. As Yeats has said of memorable poetry: “Take some line that is quite simple, that gets its beauty from its place in a story, and see how it flickers with the light of the many symbols that have given the story its beauty…”
Lisa Bickmore’s poems and video work have appeared in a number of publications, including Quarterly West, Tar River Poetry, Caketrain, Sugarhouse Review, The Moth, Terrain, Mapping Salt Lake City, and Southword. Among her honors is the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize for 2015. She is an Associate Professor of English at Salt Lake Community College, where she is also one of the founders of its Publication Center.