Lisa Zimmerman’s The Light at the Edge of Everything

Reviewed by Michelle Cordova



Lisa Zimmerman is a striking imagist poet who explores family and nature using line breaks, images, repetition, and last lines that always leave the reader sighing after reading poems so lovely and heartbreaking.  Her work is both tender and powerful. 


In Zimmerman’s second book of poems The Light at the Edge of Everything, we begin a journey with a poem about a girl who “[a]t seven [has] been sad [her] whole life,” but celebrates the hours spent with a pregnant mare and “the sunlight fringing the crabapple tree.”  Although many of Zimmerman’s poems are filled with heartache, she is able to celebrate and infuse tenderness with quiet and lovely images. 


“After I Buried My Father” is the poem in which we see the speaker taking care of a friend after “the girl calls to say her dog was struck by a fast car.”  The speaker in the poem is “frying small circles of yellow squash in a pan,” and listening to “Sinatra crooning from the other room.”  The girl on the phone is sobbing and the speaker says with tenderness, “go ahead, every tear,” and “you loved him.”  The poem’s title is the only place in which where there is mention that the speaker’s father had just died.  Although her father just died, she is soothing a girl over the death of her dog and watching her own dog lying on the back porch “in a thin river of moonlight.”  This poem is brimming with sadness and tenderness but is crafted in such a powerful way that “[e]ven the moon weeps a path across the lake.”


In another poem about the relationship between father and child entitled “Forgiving My Father,” Zimmerman employs the use of enjambment with such ease and careful craft.  In the final stanza of this poem, the speaker tells us “[w]hile our mother slept in a room with curtains / drawn closed against the day our father took” and ends the line there to say their father was a thief of daylight perhaps; but, the next lines continue, “the sharpened clippers to the garage / and ran them over your head until you looked like him.”  This similar use of enjambment is used in the poem entitled “In the Beginning of Dangerous” as the speaker tells us:


The first time a man put his tongue in my mouth

I was just twelve and he, at nineteen, rode a motorcycle

and smelled like work and dirt and beer and I felt

something fall down or maybe faint inside


This fainting inside could be found in the heart or perhaps the stomach, but we are left to wonder at the end of this line until the poem continues with the next line:


my body somewhere under the breasts


The speaker has now told us the place where this fainting occurs and it is under the breasts, but this image does not stop here as we continue in the poem:


I was imagining into a lacy white bra I might

have one day […]


In the poem’s aching last lines the speaker tells us:


[…] I felt his jeans tight

under my palms, I was rising and falling

and rising and falling and alive and aware

nothing really hard or terrible had happened to me yet.


The repetition of the word “and” as well as of the phrase “rising and falling” gives rise to the powerful last line of the poem and also prepares us for the beautiful final use of enjambment.  As the speaker is experiencing her first sexual encounter she is “rising and falling and alive and aware” and she is also “aware [that] nothing really hard or terrible had happened to [her] yet.”  Zimmerman’s use of enjambment here and elsewhere in this collection is unparalleled to that of any other contemporary poet. 


Throughout this stunning collection of poems we are shown grief and the human heart in it’s rawest forms; however, we are shown this through quiet, tender, and beautiful images as the poet takes us through the death of a friend’s son—his hair graying months afterward, “the tree, the damp persistent wound, / the permanent bold of white in [his] hair, / how it flowers in the dark.”  Or the speaker takes us through her grief with a sense of overcoming: “I did not hate the people who harmed me. / I took that sorrow like grain / and ground it down / under each weighted day / and made a loaf and let if rise / and let it rise / into the heated hours.”  We are also shown the grief and fear of an abused woman in her house that “is a smudge, a dark heartbeat / in the middle of the street, / guns shiny and asleep in the bedroom, / every blinking red light on the tree / a tiny silent ambulance.” 


Readers of these poems will sigh with heartbreak, sigh with relief, sigh with hope.  No matter what the image, or the line, or the emotion, readers will be left grasping for breath.