Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Many Storied House

In Many-Storied House, George Ella Lyon's latest poetry collection from University Press of Kentucky, the poet uses her own "floor plan" prompt as the organizing device for this volume of inviting poems. The effect is magical. Poet, Naomi Shihab Nye agrees, as she offers this praise for the back cover, "George Ella Lyon writes the most transporting, intuitive, inviting poems, their doors feel wide open." And North Carolina's Poet Laureate, Joseph Bathanti offers his tribute to Lyon's craft with this comment, "Each room, each curio, each haunted nail and joist is cataloged, named and invested with chiseled language."

George Ella Lyon, is an award-winning author of books for readers of all ages. I first became acquainted with her work when I taught high school English and my friend Lee Howard came to do a writing residency with my sophomores. She shared with me a prompt from George Ella that began with "I am from…"  For the first time, my students were able to produce stories about themselves rich in personal memories of place. In subsequent writing workshops, I ran into other prompts generated by George Ella until I was finally lucky enough to attend a workshop at Grailville taught by the poet herself.

In that workshop, the participants all drew floor plans of a childhood home, labeling the rooms and listing memories of important events that occurred in each room. From one of these diagrams and a later songwriting prompt, I was eventually able to write a song about a family story my Grandma Babe told me about her father. The diagram enabled me to fill the story with sensory details from Grandma's house, including a stern portrait of my grandpa and the praying hands of Jesus, a print my Grandma had encased in a lighted frame over her bed, The portrait and the print became witnesses to Grandma's story.

George Ella Lyon uses the floor plans of Many-Storied House to move the reader through the space by story, metaphorical and actual. We begin our journey at the entry of the first floor, and work our way through the various rooms, basement and garage before confronting a new story entitled "Flood."  From "Flood," the reader moves to "Upstairs,"  to "Yard," and finally to "All of It,"  a section that seems to challenge the poet to stand apart from the house, to take it in as a whole. I really enjoyed meeting the inhabitants of this house through their many stories, out of timeline.  By arranging the poems in the way that memory works--jumping our way through related synapses, following the firing neurons --Lyon brings us into her world. We feel these people and their stories rather than perceive them.

In a poem called "Smithereens,"  Lyon shares her first inkling about the power of the atom to destroy.  The poem is part of the "Upstairs" section, where revelations about life and her family seem to appear to the poet. While watching the president on TV in the library, Lyon recalls a science lesson:

On the dusty blackboard last year
Mr. Smith looped the invisible 
solar system of the atom. "The
energy that holds everything together
can be reversed." he said. "And blow it all

Near the end of the poem, the 8th grader posits her understanding of the way things work:

…This is what 
the world is.  Great forces must stick to
their orbits or unleash the rush that will
blow us all to smithereens.

In another revelation on the upstairs level, a young girl tries to tell her mother that something bad happened to her at the neighbor's house. Her mother continues to sort laundry and responds.

You know that's not true
she says.
These are our neighbors
These are our friends
Nothing happened

The next few poems on that story follow the neural trace of fear for that young girl. Fear of the linen closet, fear of going to the neighbor's again, and fear of the kind of "doll mother" the young girl has become.  Then, the shame of not knowing about menstruation and where that synapse takes her: to her brother's room and the smells of boys and the ways it is off limits.

Because my own memories jump leap frog fashion across lily pads of category, I find Lyon's organization of her amazing collection of poems accessible and completely without judgment. The family in the many-storied house is revealed to us with all its faults.  Human, exposed and loved outright.

In one poem, she wonders how her mother can keep the criticizing image of the poet's grandma so near to her through her life.

Why she faces 
that face
every morning
I cannot comprehend
unless it's to say
Even you
could not
stop me

In a poem entitled "With a Song in His Heart," Lyon pays tribute to her departed father with their shared love of music.  I can barely read this poem without crying, but the final lines say it all:

"O Daddy, I am leaning
on those everlasting arms."

Many-Storied House is a master work from George Ella Lyon.  She wields her own teaching tool of the floor plan with the craft of an architect.

***This review aired on WVXU's Around Cincinnati in October, 2013.  You can listen to it here.

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