Review: Lisa Coffman's Likely by Brad Bostian


Likely, by Lisa Coffman. Kent State UP, 1996.


            I like Likely. Lisa Coffman’s book Likely was chosen by Alicia Suskin Ostriker for a 1995 Wick Poetry First Book Series prize. It is dedicated to her mother and four aunts, Lois, Missy, Lorellen, Una and Sherry Wright, but Coffman’s poetry contains another Wright relationship, James, who is an obvious influence. These relations can at times represent two burdens for Coffman: first, the rescue of bygone days and plainer ways; second, the work she does with Wrightlike impossible leaps of imagery.

            In the first case, Coffman gives us poems about the working class life, Appalachia, the mills, slaughterhouses, logging roads, graves moved, Indian beads, small towns, the “Damn Heat.” In handing us these gifts, she sometimes falls to the position of being a mere observer of the past, and of the working class. While these renderings could to future historians serve as a chronicle of earlier times, it is here that Coffman’s poetry becomes the most prosaic, when the story gains in importance and the language shrinks. Much of today’s poetry does read too much like broken prose anyway, so it’s not something to mess with, poets placing logic over language, but Coffman doesn’t fall to that level. Still, to rescue gone days and past faces, however worthwhile, is not the first issue in making good poetry–which is the magical creation of unique experience through language that is itself as magical an art. One such Coffman poem, “Glenmary, 1990,” begins:

                        No one of us can ever be alone–

                        the Cincinnati line stopped here

                        some fifty years, then left for good–

                        there’s a trailer hooked into grandmother’s yard,

                        the great house itself sits in weeds

                        and hay baled for the horse tied to the porch:

                        the once-town’s shrunk to Route 27.


            I like that easy tone, the firm, sure lines, and where the poem goes, like a poet on a back porch, eyes unfocused by the practiced recitation of memory. I like these poems of a harder, plainer life, but they aren’t the ones I like best.

            I also don’t most favor those Wrightlike leaps, where Coffman sometimes falls into that chasm of meaning that often widens for mortal poets between two beautiful images. James Wright can go from a soundless owl poised on a grave, to Judas walking alone and alone / And alone and alone, and communicate directly to the reader on a level that can’t ever be explained. It’s an unfair comparison. Wright can go from anything to anything and keep the same gravity. For Coffman, the movement contains more jump than flight, as in “The Cicadas:”

                        [ . . . ] Hear the pattern to the confusion:

                        something fumbled for, and dropped, and fumbled for,

                        the right bead slipped on a string. A thread apparent,

                        a limb. The summer night is always dimmed


                        by the woman in her slip at the window,

                        car headlights on the dark stain of the river


            I feel this jumping’s joyful embrace, and the roving of the true poetic eye, but not always the connection underneath. It’s another way of telling, a singing almost with the heart alone. It works best in the third type of poetry Coffman creates in this collection. What this poet does best, and what I like best, are those sensual affairs, complete unbroken lyrics which may or may not be stretched like fabric across a frame of story, because the story would only be a frame, and the leaps they make from color to color are only texture. What really matters is the “horizontal lightning.”

            Consider the sestina “Dog Days.” Except for the forcing of the first line, I love the first stanza, which wings along the way it should:

                        I mind I’ve been an hour beside shut books,

                        or more. The wind moves almost nothing

                        in trees that move like a heavy woman

                        I once saw blowing kisses. All work

                        suspends: tomatoes shine on the wiped table

                        from noon gardens. Grain stands in the fields.


            The seemingly wayward images soon make a wholeness in a unique scene, of women at a table in summer, dreaming of books in a female world. In “Rapture,” Coffman asks, “What is the gear that turns this world?” “. . . it must be very basic, / we must turn of a piece, or the turning is no good.” “. . . but there is nothing so good / as the rows of furrows cut in the earth, / as the gold block of cheese on the dark shelf.” Intended or not, I read those passages this way: to write the truest poem there must be a singleness, and a fluidity. One purpose, which is a turning, like the dance of one in rapture. But the dance turns by a working gear from a block and tackle world, not airy or mythical. It is realistic, relying on this earth of humble objects, of furrows cut and cheese in blocks. Likely also shows Coffman’s tender and solicitous touch with her female subjects. In “Girl/Spit:”

                        It’s the hook-thinness of her smile

                        that draws something like the beaded

                        metallic chain of a lamp

                        down my spine and stomach, toward the pucker

                        her smile has pushed to its corner–


            So, these are poems both frankly real and dreamily sensual, like a tomboy climbing a tree to cut a magnolia blossom to let it float “all night in a glass.”


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