Book Reviews | Literary Arts

“Simulacrum of a home”: Lisa Bickmore’s Ephemerist

Lisa Bickmore’s new poetry collection begins with a lament for the lost art of penmanship: “I tap the letters out in fluent clicks,” she writes, “What corsair has made off with my lovely pen?”

The Frenchified word “corsair” belongs in a bodice-ripper! If only the act of writing were more aesthetic, more romantic than it actually is. And really, why not buy a new fountain pen? I get it, though. Writing has an undeserved reputation for being fun, a glamorous form of self-expression, even though it’s actually obsessive-compulsive work that can result in the painful dredging of emotional sediment.

In one of the most memorable poems, “Dust,” the accumulation of emotional debris is represented literally as dirt swept under the rug which has been pulled up for a remodeling project revealing “years of waste, subfloor with a we / of money and safety pins, dog hair, / cat dander.”  No sooner is the shabby old carpet replaced with pristine bamboo flooring than the depositional process starts all over.

..because it was new, we buffed it
weekly, saw the gradual patterns of our living
engrave themselves upon its sheen,
hair of dog of cat, of ourselves, small clouds
of dust along the walls, and nebulae
of dust forming systems of weather
under the bed, and gradually we inured
ourselves to it

And by the end the floor has again become too dusty to invite over any guests except for unwanted mice.

Despite the mice and the housework, “Dust” avoids cute Erma Bombeck-styled self-deprecation and taps into an authentic sense of overwhelmingness familiar to any working woman trying to pull off a second-shift of housework and caretaking. Many of the other poems also react to cultural expectations of female self-erasure. In “All Saints,” Bickmore writes, “I’ve ground/ the coffee wrong again, but I drink it anyway/ like taking a little earth into my mouth;” “Bonnet” finds Bickmore struggling against a machine, “sewing Easter clothes for my children,/ the needle sped ahead of my control./ I peered at the stitches, the seam ripper in hand;” and in “On the Skids,” it has all become too much, “as I find myself crying in the car again/ I imagine little else but the grief, destiny of everything.”

Why is she doing this to herself? Who worries about grinding coffee wrong? Who feels pressured to dress the kids in handmade Easter outfits? It’s no wonder that in “Amulets’” Bickmore imagines making some kind of charm bracelet to ward off pre-determination,

…I have longed
for a different antiquity in my own origins.
Better these forms and ornaments on loan
than my own etiology of farmers and Mormons.

Having rejected one mythology, Bickmore’s frustrated spiritual search becomes another prominent theme. Sometimes the seeker loses her way, as in “Shrine” which describes getting lost on the way to Watts Towers in Los Angeles; sometimes she encounters empty space where a spiritual image should be as in “Seven Clouds,” which describes a vacant Japanese shrine where the resident god has been removed for a ceremony; often the search is tied to musical expression, as in “Sakura,” when a boyfriend ruins the poet’s earnest performance of a song by playing a jazzed-up version on his guitar, or in “Heavy Metal,” when the unbearable noise of thrash-metal leaking from a young man’s headphones in church turns into a literal car wreck.

“Eidolon,” perhaps the strongest poem in the collection, won the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize in 2015. The title comes from ancient Greek and refers to a spirit image of a person who may be living or dead, or to an idealized image of a person. This eidolon is the poet’s son who phones from abroad where it seems he is serving a Mormon mission since he rides a bicycle and speaks a new language, but also because his voice reminds Bickmore of her own crisis of faith: “I collect photographs of altars although I kneel at none. / The church on the corner hides an empty nave where the icon should go.”  

If I had written these poems, I might have titled the whole collection “Eidolon” after this bereaved and lonesome poem, but Bickmore chose the title “Ephemerist” from a poem about work by the artist Andy Goldsworthy composed of “four walls made of slates retrieved from houses demolished in Edinburgh.” (The sculpture is “Enclosure” [2000] at the National Museum of Scotland). Goldsworthy is known for making fleeting artworks out of natural materials and letting them decay back into the landscape. These particular rocks have been taken into a museum as an artistic editorial on archaeology and then re-constructed into a “simulacrum of a home do not touch or it will come apart.”

After starting with a jab at writing, Bickmore demonstrates exactly how to use that keyboard as a tool to dig deeply into personal obsessions.

 

#

Dust

what we found when we pulled the carpets

                  could have made a small industry,

pennies prettying the sifted and settled

                  years of waste, subfloor with a web

of money and safety pins, dog hair,

cat dander, and we swept, the broom

by the end deeply familiar with every inch,

we swept and prised up staples, and

washed the floorboards until they resumed

their color, aged and nicked:

then the bamboo, engineered, panels

dovetailing and malleted so as to lock:

the week it was installed, we kept the dog

outside or downstairs, an injustice by his lights,

but if a foretaste of the dustlessness

we aimed for, foolish, for when it was complete,

the rooms blonde, gleaming, and we’d paid

our final fortune, we brought it all back,

our lives’ furnishings, the settees,

shelves, beds, all with small felt shields

wherever a foot or leg touched the floor,

and the dog came back too, roared around,

his toenails a click and groove,

and because it was new, we buffed it

weekly, saw the gradual patterns of our living

engrave themselves upon its sheen,

hair of dog, of cat, of ourselves, small clouds

of dust along the walls and nebulae

of dust forming systems of weather

under the bed, and gradually we inured

ourselves to it, we built our nest from it,

harvested it with the vacuum

the dog tried to bite as we steered it

into corners and under sofas, with the duster

inherited from a many years gone mother,

pulled puffs together with our fingers:

it was us, we knew, it was a sloughing

of the skin, of hair, it came from sex,

from long summers, too much sun,

roughhousing with the dog, stroking the cat,

from the chafe and shrug of work,

from turning again and again in sleep:

and from the back field creatures arrived,

and would not be gathered nor swept,

and disappeared at the peripheries of sight,

behind chairs, under bureaus, interlopers

who made us see it, the dust that had become

our atmosphere: as they invited

themselves to the brink of the little box

in the hall, its baiting of saltine,

fragrant with peanut butter crumbling

over time, but they did not enter,

and asked voicelessly: what of your guests?

And we knew then no guest should be made

to live here: we wished for our guests

a house built in a volcano’s remains,

or sited among beech and birch,

a house in early spring, a cold house,

a house through which ice had moved,

carrying with it all our leavings and losses:

for the guests, it should be a house without

our gross dismantling selves, a house

without the small specter of mice

skittering down the hall—or was it

a gust, a breath of wind, moving dust as if

it were mice, toward our little human trap?

 

Ephemerist
Lisa Bickmore
Red Mountain Press
2017
74p.
$18.95

 

Lisa Bickmore is a Professor of English at Salt Lake Community College where she has served as SLCC poet laureate since 2015 and where she is one of the founders of the Publication Center.  She holds an BA and MA in English from BYU.  Previous books of poetry include Flicker (2016) and Haste (1994).

Lisa Bickmore will appear during the Utah Humanities Book Festival Oct. 26 at the Westminster Anne Newman Sutton Weeks Poetry series, with poet/essayist Lia Purpura (7 pm, Gore School of Business Auditorium)

 

Amy Brunvand is an award-winning poet and an associate librarian at the Marriott Library at the University of Utah.

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