Edited by Julie R. Enszer
Sinister Wisdom ($25.95)
A prolific poet of the San Francisco small press scene from the 1960s onwards, Lynn Lonidier (1937-1993) is virtually unknown today. No doubt this is due in part to the fact that she didn’t belong to any particular coterie. Even among lesbian poets, the crowd with whom she might most generally be associated, she always went her own way. As Fire-Rimmed Eden: Selected Poems testifies, her work is invariably unique, and all the more valuable for it, as it realizes an idiosyncratic sensibility.
Take the opening of “Sailorjig to Seapatchwoman” from A Lesbian Estate (Manroot Press, 1979):
Down the briny paths of rime,
I join hands with an encrusted lion.
Transpose a lion on a whale and have upheaval to the last
tumescence of seadrop (water-holding speck of life) I am
Mid-Forty Woman Deep tonnage tensor of wisdom Weedpatch woman
with brio-bulge crop mat carpet island Thicket fishhooks
monster bites Slew of parasites hang loose in the gold lion’s
mane Hoar nest Primeval catch SeaROAR cRest sWell Woeforth
/PROMISE: Green land grows on your bullback wending invisible
harpoons R uddy mantle of rush in Green Sea Contest
The jamming together of words here, along with the erratic spacing, spelling, and capitalization, achieve a dizzying yet effective presentation. There’s a clear sense that Lonidier writes the lines as she feels them arising within her, inflecting them with distinct emotive force; indeed, it reads irresistably like a performance script. While she may have had precursors from Dada to punk influencing her, her experimentation feels rooted in her own impulses.
Lonidier’s initial artistic inclination was musical in nature; she studied the cello before breaking away to poetry. Upon moving to the Bay Area, she became an early romantic partner of the experimental composer Pauline Oliveros, and the pair moved to San Diego in the ’60s before splitting up. They were immersed in the local arts scene, collaborating on several musical and art projects both together and with friends. Lonidier’s brother, the feted photographic artist Fred Lonidier, lived locally as well at the time (there are several terrific photos included in Fire-Rimmed Eden).
Lonidier lived elsewhere for periods of time, but she always returned to San Francisco. She was a founding member of the Women’s Building in the Mission District, where she also lived and worked as a public-school teacher, and the city’s environs continually triggered her imagination, as they have countless others over the years—as can be seen in this passage from “Bernal Hill,” originally contained in The Rhyme of the Ag-ed Mariness (Station Hill Press, 2001):
A tree-laced road leads to radar
screens overlying the Mission,
Morning sun timbres the bay—
Oakland— Berkeley— Mt. Tam—
in by breathtaking eye.
Fire-Rimmed Eden contains the vast majority of Lonidier’s poetry. There are selections from her earliest collections, Po Tree and The Female Freeway, and the substantial A Lesbian Estate is presented in full—as is the last collection she assembled in her lifetime, Clitoris Lost, along with excerpts from her Mayan travelogue Woman Explorer. Selections from the posthumous The Rhyme Of The Ag-Ed Mariness, assembled by her friend Janine Canan, round out the rest.
Lonidier’s earliest work features an insistence upon freely, and often wildly, wielding language in an unexpected, eyebrow raising manner. Her first collection, Po Tree (Berkeley Free Press, 1967), is more artist-zine than poetry book; between saddle-stapled covers, Lonider’s poems appear intermixed and superimposed among collages and drawings by sisters Betty and Shirley Wong (while the artwork is not reproduced here, notes at the bottom of relevant pages offer descriptions); the poems themselves are Dada-like in their playful stridency. Several are list-poems of unusual word-matches given in full capitals: “CONFETTI NIPPLE / HISHERS / MIND BLINDER / VENETIAN TUBE ROOM / GONDOLA GONADS / AUTOBLOMB / POOM /MOM HARASS HEROOT / GERMAN VICTROLA HOAR CAUSE / CHARTREUSE COMB JUICE.”
Among the central concerns of Lonidier’s poetry are gender, sexuality, and power. She avoids being overtly political or banner waving, however, keeping the focus on her direct experience. She writes what she knows:
In drive-ins movie foyers men’s magazines they comment on my body
as though they owned me are as familiar with my buttbreastthighs
as they are with rings on their fingers It’s not rape that they
heighten their bodies by removing mind earsmindfeelings tossing
away the body they’ve mass-raped Because I’m their perogrative
to imagine their penises are rolled-up dollar bills in my
(from “The Boys At The Beach”)
In short, Lonidier doesn’t hold back. Her work has rough edges and non sequitur ruptures, which can leave readers hanging as to where she was headed; nevertheless, with every poem the impression remains that she has managed somehow to achieve her exact desired result. These are the poems as she would have them—no regrets and nothing vital left unsaid.
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