The Lithium Chronicles Volume ll.
What happens to a writer who began to write to make sense of life, as she evolves as a human-being? Does she stay the same? Does her writing change? Add to this, the liquid mercury of emotions that push and pull that writer in myriad directions. How does this reflect upon her, the human? And how does that translate into output? In Burn The Pages, I Dare You, we see Lyons at her best, using emblematic bleeding wordage that outlasts the moment and sears into our brains; “They burn those women into memories, / inside barrels, and outside of libraries. / They write stories about / women like her, the kind / of women in the kind / of stories that make the driest / bones wet and the holiest knees bleed.” Is it any wonder she had literally forged her own fierce brand of warrior chant?
Nicole Lyons can go months where there’s nothing to throw her off-kilter and then, seemingly in that quietude, a raging flashflood comes out of nowhere and she’s upended. She has never had the surety of emotions many take for granted, maybe this is why bipolar writers captivate the rest of the ordinary world, because they are anything but and they’ve had to carry an immense weight their entire lives which can translate into extraordinary creativity. “It is a difﬁcult thing, / the knowing and the not, / and the weight of carrying it all.” (Hard Love).
In God Damn If I Haven’t Learned, Lyon’s posits the question; whether through everything she’s experienced, she’s closer to real understanding. Lyons is a heady mix of self-deprecation and fierce survivalist spunk, she’s got courage and guts and at the same time can sell herself hideously short, this comes out in her poetry and it’s what makes her deeply human. If she were solely an egotist, we’d loathe her, if she were a coward, we couldn’t get behind her. In many ways she’s both, that’s the mercury, the madness and the smooth method of her. The irony of living being, despite it all, we still don’t really learn our lessons, we’re just after all, ragged, imperfect humans. “I ﬁght a war within myself / that I am certain will leave me / with casualties.” (This War).
It is this hypnotic brand of flawed, imperfectness that captivates us most of all. Who would really sit with Lyons if she had all her shit together? Would we find her as fascinating? As compelling, if she knew the answers to everything? Like a best friend, we want Lyons to understand and translate our own fucked-up shit. We want her to be the big sister who can give us sage advice and then party hard with us, but ultimately not have the answers to everything. It’s what makes her real, makes her vulnerable, and likable. That access to the howling inside her, where we don’t just know the pretty surface stuff, but the demons and the hauntings too.
Lyons work distinguishes itself from others of her ilk by her intelligence and depth. I found that out the first time I read more than her shorter memes, widely circulating most social media. She’s actually a damn fine writer, of substance, and it’s the depths of her I find myself returning to far more than the clever one liners. That said, she’s got those too, and they’re wicked smart; “Exhaustion, the kind prescribed by psychiatrists, had found a way inside of me.” (Oblivion). What hangs a powerful piece is the gravitas behind the one liner, you almost need both to succeed. Lyons says one thing but it has an entire book worth of meaning behind it. For every one of us who has seen a psychiatrist and finds medication stealing our truest selves, we can relate to the simplicity of Lyons acute observations.
If you ever wanted to know what it was like to be labeled crazy, to wonder if you were, to feel it sometimes, and to know deep down you were as sane as anyone else, then The Lithium Chronicles ll will lend you the insight necessary to glimpse into that world. You may think in terms of stereotypes, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest kind of ideas of what mental illness feels like, but there is nothing quite like reading the raw words, the quiet observations of someone who has gone through the system, survived it and can look back on it with a degree of distance. Perhaps for some of us that is a morbid voyeuristic taint on our behalf, whilst for others, it’s attempting to understand what someone we loved endured or went through. The value of understanding cannot be diminished, even now, even in nearly 2020 we don’t give nearly enough credence to mental health or the experiences of those going through a largely unregulated system where individuals are truly at the mercy of the medicine machine.
Poems like Fine On The Outside expose the innards of what it is like to suffer with mental torment and yet, still be able to function and appear well. Nobody to talk to, nobody realizing how bad it can get. Lyons writing in this poem is a fine example of how her use of colors, small observations, concise and well grafted word-play, enable her as a poet to describe two things simultaneously; the emotion and the physical expression of the emotion as acted out in say, a yellow table, with a smoky mountain in the background, and crows in her trees. Those kinds of metaphors and images stay. They linger in your mind long after reading, because of the power their grafting into emotions creates. This is poetry at its finest, this is the kind of poetry people remember and quote to one another.
Then there’s just damn irresistible solid writing, the kind of writing capable of elevating an author above nearly all others, despite the competition; “I don’t think you want to know me / like you say you do / I don’t think you want to know how / my hips ache with the weight / of women crumbling / under angry men / and bridges painted whiter/ than any Holy Spirit / asked them to be.” (Karaoke Blues). Poems like this, they remind us why Lyons is forerunner in the poetry world, why her work is Tweeted by Canada (the country) and consistently used as tattoos and motivational prints on people’s walls, why essentially Lyons is indelible. That’s exactly what she is, impossible to forget or rub off. She stays. Her worth is insistent and permanent.
Before I read Lyons, I was a fan of longer poetry, and Lyons can write some amazing longer pieces, more than proving her worth at any poetic form. But as anyone familiar with Lyons range will attest, some of her best work is in the briefness of her statement, how she’s uncannily capable of saying so much with so little. It takes a certain sharp mind to achieve this, to let it sink in with just a few lines. You have to be absolutely fearless, able to speak your truth, and not hold back, and in this emptying, you achieve a purity few people have the guts to offer.
There’s a visceral raw energy to Lyons work that speaks of magic, nature, humanity and suffering as well as always, hope and beauty. The gift of grafting both extremes may come from her battle with light and darkness. She is a woman who cannot do things in halves. She must either burn out entirely or not at all. There is no fade in this poet, she’s not middling, if you see the trees alight, it’s she who’s torched the forest. And I appreciate deeply the resonance with the natural world and its interweaving with emotions and life, that ties them all together in a way that makes a profound sense. “You wash your sheets / and the guilt from your cock, / you wipe the walls / and your mouth / and drop a clean kiss / on top of the shame / you left at your door.” (The Savage Bits). When a writer is capable of opening her cavities and extracting that kind of electric, pulsating resonance, it’s bigger than mere words, it becomes a testimony.
One might argue there are no boundaries to writing like this, it is completely unapologetic and exposed. But Lyons has the craft of a true writer, she knows how much to say and when to stop, she knows what to reveal and what not to, if you think you’ll know all of her by her writing, you never will. She’s sprinting ahead of us, outpacing our shallow labels, because as well as being able to be out of control she’s very much a creature who has had to understand the nature of control and how to survive. You may think you have her number but she’s already left you behind. That’s because her understanding has been forced from the extremity of her experience and perpetual battle with emotions that many would be drowned by.
Some have likened Lyons to a female Bukowski but I think that’s minimizing her reach; “I am a whore, and I know I am / because I was given that label / by an angry man after I shared / his time and gulped at a sixteen / dollar shot while we laughed.” (WHORE). The important distinction being, Bukowski was a nihilist who thought only of himself and didn’t care whom he ruined in his pursuit of the graphic viscera of life. Talented undoubtedly, his persona was rotten to the core, reflecting his true nature. Lyons may argue she’s no different but I would dispute that. Lyons is a mother, a wife, she’s a friend, a champion, she cares, if you ask her to help you, she will, does that seem like the selfish nihilism of Bukowski? Isn’t it possible, Bukowski took the easy road, parodying with good verbiage, the madness induced in a bottle, whilst Lyons reflects her own battle with darkness, and retains that essential humanity despite it? I know who I’d admire more.
So when we read the surface humor and horror of whoredom, blow-jobs, the seeming pit of despair, we need also to pay attention to the salvation within the little observations, the tender moments woven throughout, that speak of her family, her love for things, her nimble ability to endure and not lose that tender part of her she likes to pretend doesn’t exist. How else could Lyons unravel with such insight, the duplicity of this world, the vanity and the absurdity, and reflect it back to us with an intelligence that belies the idea she’s just a spinning top without connection. She’s very much connected, her womanhood, her femininity, the very core of her, fuses with the natural world and lends her a strength no bottle swilling vagabond can truly attest to.
When I talk of Lyons dexterity with deeper understanding, this comes from her observations, a life time spent watching the outcomes of her own and then others, has attuned her to the minutia and enabled her to consider inside out, what we take for granted; “Perhaps beauty swirls / in the bowl, / mingling with bile / retched out in shame.” (Hiding Beauty). Surely a poet able to wrestle truth from every stereotype is one worth holding onto. For so much in our world is the cliché, the over-used hackneyed phrase. Lyons is a cut above that kind of generalization, perhaps because she knows what its like to be judged herself, she’s the last person to hurl an unwarranted judgement but she’ll not shy away from saying it as it is. Perhaps if she had a typical fat ego, she’d been less approachable, more predictable, maybe she wouldn’t know how to wield magic and make us gape at her insights.
In I Have Fallen, Lyons says; “I have died one hundred deaths / to appease doctors, / and family, and friends, / and I did it all / in the name of sanity.” This is one of many examples where Lyons uncannily hones in on the truth behind diagnosis, illness, judgement, pursuit of perfection. She’s not a cookie cutter idealist seeking 10/10 she’s never had that luxury. Survival is nothing to take for granted when you don’t know how you will feel the next day, the next hour, the next minute. The pursuit of ‘sanity’ as per the medical industry is a subject few elucidate on, almost a dirty little secret. Perhaps by shining a light on the absurdity of such a request, Lyons demonstrates that survival is underappreciated and we’re all buying into a false bill of goods.
Finally, there are poems like To My Best Friend, On the Day Of Her Death, which, if I say anything about them, I would do an injustice. Equally, poems like The Value of a Beautiful Heart, remind me again, that comparing a female poet to a male poet, comparing a like with like or a kind with kind, is an injustice also. Lyons is greater than Bukowski or Baudelaire or Billy Childish, because she’s a mother, so she’s not going to shit on everyone just to have the last say, and she’s not going to not give a damn just because it’s fashionable and will get her notoriety. She may have more regrets than all of them put together, but she possesses a conscience, a will to meaning, a heart. And because of that, I say, Nicole Lyons eclipses those famous names you may wish to compare her to, she outshines them, she’s more real than they ever were, and maybe we need to start re-thinking whom we call heroes and whom we admire and why.
Maybe just maybe it’s possible for a poet to be incredible and still have a conscience, still give a damn, and not just live vacuously and with abandon on the froth of a daydream. Personally, I always preferred non-fiction to fiction, there’s something real there, something beating and insistent, that’s what this kind of poetry is, and within Nicole Lyons I find someone true whom I can admire and yet, relate to, and like, as a human being not a hedonist. Because she’s not just full of piss and vinegar, she’s one of the good ones too. Maybe at times, despite herself.
-Candice Louisa Daquin / Editor of SMITTEN This Is What Love Looks Like, Poetry by Women for Women.
The Lithium Chronicles Volume I is now available.
The Lithium Chronicles Volume II is due for release in December.