Amy Lemmon’s new book of poems, The Miracles, dedicated to her two children—her two miracles—tells the story of a smart, accomplished woman struggling with grief and loss in today’s urbane world. The book is in five sections: Prelude, Fugue, Riff – A, Riff – B, and Coda, terms that imply that music is important to Lemmon’s story. The first section, Prelude, contains one poem, “The Miracles,” which is in three parts, each part recounting a past scene. The first part recalls a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection at the Cloisters. Lemmon was with her musician husband and their infant son. The visit was at Easter, and although the new shoots were pushing up and greening, for Lemmon, Spring is not an unalloyed joy, even with “the world’s best horticultural curators.” She recalls the visit with a cold eye: “something is always growing, / something else dying, and even in growth death / is contained, blah, blah, O the cycle, the DNA, / the damnable incessant blank life force.” The poem’s second part recalls corrective surgery for a congenital heart defect afflicting Lemmon’s nine-month old daughter, the defect underscoring the untrustworthiness of DNA. The third part closes the poem with a description of the two children dancing with Lemmon to classic rock from Newark’s WBGO radio in “this cruddy Queens kitchen”—presenting happiness and the promise of the future wounded by the father/husband’s absence. The poem starts the book with an epigraph from Psalm 31:21: “Blessed be the Lord who worked a miracle of unfailing love for me when I was in sore straits (like a city besieged).” As is proper for a prelude, this poem introduces the main themes and elements that the rest of the book develops.
Fugue, the second section of the book, is a dozen poems that locate Lemmon’s story in the city. The Fugue’s first poem is “M23,” dated 9/11/01. The title refers to the bus route that runs east/west on Manhattan’s 23rd Street. The author, pregnant at the time, is on her way to an East Side deli when the Twin Towers go down on September 11. What an image to capture with subtle understatement; the catastrophe unnamed presages Lemmon’s own future losses.
Over the course of Fugue, Lemmon is pregnant, gives birth, raises the children, confronts her failures with never-ending domestic chores, and the inevitable grief at the absence of the husband/father. Each poem paints the lived experience of external events. The titles of the poems capture the events, hinting at the meaning without giving too much away. For example, “Animal Husbandry,” gives us a glance back at happier times. “Triboro Physical Therapy,” sees the son, now eighteen years old, confronting his looming adulthood. “What to Fix, What to Keep Broken” bears the sad truth that not everything can be kept in working order, ever. “Miracles of Footwear,” makes pairs of shoes carry the image of unreliable chromosomal pairs. And “Pursuit,” proves grief does indeed haunt, and is made all the more bitter when we learn that the father, and still beloved ex-husband, is not only absent but dead. It surely is no coincidence that the name of this section, Fugue, refers equally to a traditional polyphonic musical structure and to the psychiatric state of flight from one’s identity.
The thirteen poems of Riff – A describe Lemmon coming to terms with loss and death, looking back and looking forward, or trying to. Again, urbane life in New York and music are central elements. The poem, “Silver Ring,” an extended trop in the voice of one of Lemmon’s rings, possibly her wedding ring, seems to capture a particularly important turning point in Lemmon’s struggle. The voice of the ring describes its beginning as ore, blasted from rocks, and purified by fire to be shaped and worked into itself. But years later, the ring is accidently stepped on, so it is misshapen and no longer fits: “Later, visiting a friend in the country, / you sleep with her neighbor / who works in metal, / keeps me, coaxes me back / to my original shape, sends / me to you in the city, / parcel post.” Lemmon is returned to herself. The poem, “What the Living Say to the Dead,” closes Riff – A with “the sudden clearing where a lone fawn startles, / then turns to follow the doe it has so recently / emerged from, steaming and bloody and fierce, / hungering for balance, poised for the chase.” Lemmon is emerging from her dark night.
The poem, “New York Nocturne,” begins Riff – B with night becoming day in the city that never sleep. Sun rises over Union Square and the Met. Optimism and romance reappear. Lemmon becomes playful with the given forms of poetry, with an amazingly sexy sestina, and a sonnet re-envisioning Hopkin’s “Carrion Comfort” as a graphic affirmation of erotic pleasure: “(your cock plum … what’s to regret … need numbed you cannot stop … our wrestling wrenched your god.)”
This section also includes a set of four deliciously sensuous sonnets titled “Anatomical Life Drawing for the Illustrator.” Each one of this sonnet quartet builds on the description of drawing classes, quoted from a fashion school’s course catalog. Lemmon, Professor and Chair of English and Communications at the Fashion Institute of Technology, knows about fashion illustrations and drawings, clothing the body with beauty. In the closing couplet of the sequence—“Take my hand now, feel my blood warm your palm / Come, take it. I can’t hold this pose too long”—you can hear her humor as well as the urgency of life in her voice. She has drunk more than enough sorrow to move through her losses.
The last section of the book, Coda, another musical term, is a single poem titled “The Argument,” that balances the single poem of the opening Prelude. This last poem is a retrospective look at the argument of the book, in five small sections, one for each of the book’s named parts. It is a distillation. Lemmon looks back at her passage through the darkness to emerge into the affirmation of life by assimilating and recognizing loss as part of the whole; or, as the Prelude states at the beginning: “something is always growing, / something else dying, and even in growth death / is contained ….”
Buried in the back of the book is the brief note that Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs (1949) inspired the structure of The Miracles. Bernstein’s piece is nine-plus minutes of wonderful, high-energy jazz that draws on traditional classical musical forms and structures. The music, at one point to have been used in the Broadway show, Wonderful Town, is an exuberant affirmation of the joy of life in New York, and is possibly Lemmon’s gesture toward a piece of music that may have become a kind theme song for the lost love this book commemorates.
The Miracles, by Amy Lemmon. C&R Press, March 2019. 82 pages. $16.00, paper.
Leonard A. Temme is a research neuropsychologist in a government research laboratory. He studied writing most extensively with Marie Ponsot, Sue Walker, Josh Davis, and Kristina Marie Darling. In addition to his professional publications, his writing has appeared numerous literary and small presses. He served as Poet Laureate of North West Florida between 1989 and 1992.