The Unique yet Familiar Female Voices of George Ella Lyon’s Back, the Critical Writing Award Winning Essay by Hannah Jones

            Back is a collection of voices that speak with unique identity. Although these voices are unique, Lyon’s emotional appeal to the reader brings about a universal theme of struggle. Many of these voices are female, and while these female voices may represent a certain ethnicity or nationality, unity builds among the pages constructing the image of womanhood. The world is cruel to more than one group of people, but women especially share suffering. Painted in melancholia or hysteria, fragility or meekness, irrationality or weakness—women are always too much or too little. As Lyon highlights in her female voices, every woman has dealt with the burden of society or tradition.

            Dependent on family traditions, societal expectations, or even personal opinions, womanhood can mean various expectations. Young girls are taught that womanhood is a goal, but once womanhood is achieved it is clear that this goal was never their own. Womanhood becomes more than a girl’s fantasy as a woman’s reality is much darker than the picturesque portrait typically painted. This ideal image depends on the individual, but Lyon gives a voice to the Contemporary, Bead, and French woman to encompass just a fragment of women’s voices.

            George Ella Lyon opens Back with “Morning,” a poem that is assigned the voice of the Contemporary Woman. “Morning” is the idyllic beginning poem as the woman in this story transcends time, giving a preface to the book as a whole and Lyon’s overarching message of female unity. Each voice seemingly transcends the boundaries of the assigned role—connecting and intertwining the hearts and minds of women throughout time. The title itself is symbolic, as not only the morning or beginning of the book, but morning also represents the cycle of womanhood repeating throughout time. Women dying and women breathing life for the first time for centuries creates a cycle that is spinning within the souls of every woman living today. From traditions and expectations, women live in the lives of the women before them and after them.

            In “Morning” Lyon writes, “as if in sleep / I crossed / to where / the soul / knows all / its stories,” to create a message of a generational womanhood, an interconnected web of women who have endured pain and suffering for ages (lines 7-12). Not only is every woman carrying the burden of what a woman should be, but she also carries the urgency for more. Stronger than pain and suffering is the hope that has survived down the generations, only strengthening with each new morning. Women throughout history have sought out justice because of this urgency. Painted in the picture of the patriarchy, women wanted more and still want more today, hence the Contemporary Woman. 

            In the Contemporary Woman’s second poem, “The Baby Bed,” the condition of a woman is explored from the baby bed to the reflection of an older woman with the addition of other perspectives woven in the seams of the story. Lyon crafts a story within the lines of this poem that curates a high emotional caliber, ranging from the psychological state of a young child to an adult. The voice of the child wants what the body wants—the absence of hunger and safety from the calamity. Lyon’s ability to present a child’s voice locks the reader in, only to be jolted out of this perspective once the narrator is brought back to the present in an older female perspective. 

            Once the narrator is in the present, she reflects on the past, particularly conversing with the memory of her father, a ghost that she has held onto. Lyon appeals to the empathy of the reader with this image as the narrator reveals, “My heart hurts” (49). The narrator speaks to the ghost of her father, confessing what she felt as a young child. His absence still affects her in the present, lingering on her vulnerability as she reconnects with the imagined memory of her father. Not only belonging to women, the expectation to move forward is a societal pressure that restricts the emotions of every man and woman today. Society implies that human emotion is incorrect, intolerable, and when grief sets in, it is only allowed to live in the mind for so long before it is too distracting to others. 

            Loneliness is a common condition of a woman, and even in a contemporary setting, this woman feels the absence of what could have been. Lyon also includes the voice of a young boy and a young man in this poem as well, connecting not just the female experience but the human experience. Ending the poem with “More. There is more to be born” Lyon cements the belief that the human experience is a shared one, woven together in the fabric of the current and past existence of humanity, connecting each story to the baby bed (72). The strongest voice in this poem is the Contemporary Woman’s voice, and Lyon utilizes her story to portray an image of connection, of shared fear. 

             The Bead Woman’s story is one of pain. Lyon’s form is instrumental in conveying this pain in “Passage,” creating white space in between words such as “I can’t / see can’t / turn can’t / breathe” to make the reader feel these words within the body, the suffocation living beyond the page (14-17). In this poem, Lyon details the experience of giving birth, as the narrator is under mental and physical duress, the pain and trauma of childbirth. The image of birth reoccurs in Lyon’s works, as now the reader is given an account of the process of bringing life into the world. A much darker, vivid image is painted within the lines of this poem, expounding on the shared pain of women’s experiences. Life begins during this terrifying process, but it takes incredible sacrifice for that life to begin, a sacrifice that women make every day. 

            With this image, the reader can connect the pain on these pages to the pain of women throughout history. “Morning” cannot happen without the pain and suffering of a woman. Although the Contemporary Woman and the Bead Woman are two separate voices, Lyon builds a bridge between the shared suffering and painful processes that most women endure. In the Bead Woman’s second poem, “Bead,” the suffering does not end. 

            “Bead” details the horrors of the expectations of women entering womanhood. In this story, tradition takes precedence above all else. Even the physical distress and anguish of a young woman cannot stop the cycle that continues to claim each woman of this community. Lyon writes, “We all bear / the pain of marking / for each other” to expound on this horrific truth of expectation (20-23). No matter which community or society a woman belongs to, she bears the burdens of those expectations from the first breath she draws. A distinct parallel exists in this story, as the women living by this tradition are bonded together by trauma, just as woman have bonded over the female experience for generations. No matter what clan or country, women can understand the pain that is present in every society.

            The French Woman’s voice is marked by a sadness that ties together the seams of the stories Lyon has given the reader. Grief, as mentioned previously, is an emotion that is restricted in society. In “Wings,” the narrator is grieving the loss of a child, lost in melancholy, and resisting the truth of her daughter’s death. Once again, the reader is given an example of the lonely female figure, a mother who cannot accept the death of the one she loves most. The man in this poem begs the narrator to return to him, but the French Woman cannot move past her grief (1-15). 

            The French Woman’s melancholy never leaves her in “Apparition,” as she believes she sees her daughter in another town, convinced this phantom is truly her living daughter. Lyon continues to give details as to the relationship between the man and woman after the loss of their child, writing: “He said / Not God but a cliff / and called me / to fill Sarah’s cradle / with an unknown / child” (38-43). From these lines, it is evident that not only was The French Woman not given enough time to grieve, but that she was expected to have another child after the loss of her daughter. Expectations are a plague that rule the minds of humanity, governing the choices of women and men, but once the infection spreads, humanity is gone. The narrator’s mind is in a vulnerable, weakened state because of this plague, finding solace in the ghost of her daughter.

            Lyon’s technique shines in “Wings” and “Apparition” as the emotional appeal moves the reader deeply so that the melancholy of the narrator is felt within the body. Like the voices of the Contemporary Woman and the Bead Woman, the French Woman is a voice that speaks for multiple women. It is through these experiences that women have been connected through time, down generations, starting with “Morning” and ending with “The Baby Bed.” In “‘Pleasure Out of Telling’: Voice Poems in George Ella Lyon’s Fiction for Adults,” Marianne Worthington explains, “Lyon uses these speech patterns as both a literary technique and as a method of revealing larger truth” while discussing the impact of voice poems (101). Larger truths can be implicated with each of the voices that Lyon presents.

            Although the voices that George Ella Lyon has created represent unique individuals, familiarity carries on throughout the lines of each page. While each voice connects to a larger portrait of humanity, Lyon focuses on the narratives of women. Because women have endured the burdens of society for generations, a woven relationship prevails with every individual woman to create a group, a bond that trauma and suffering has constructed. The voices of the Contemporary Woman, the Bead Woman, and the French Woman all represent the female perspective. Lyon has given voice to these women and to all women within the lines of these poems, utilizing emotional appeal to give the words a life outside of the page and inside the heart and mind of the reader. 

Works Cited

Lyon, George Ella. “Apparition.” Back. Wind Publications, 2010, pp. 65–67.

—. “Baby Bed.” Back. Wind Publications, 2010, pp. 87-89.

—. “Bead.” Back. Wind Publications, 2010, pp. 33-35.

—. “Morning.” Back. Wind Publications, 2010, p. 3.

—. “Passage.” Back. Wind Publications, 2010, pp. 31-32.

—. “Wings.” Back. Wind Publications, 2010, pp. 63-64.

Worthington, Marianne. “Pleasure Out of Telling: Voice Poems in George Ella Lyon’s Fiction for Adults.” Appalachian Journal, vol. 32, no. 1, 2004, pp. 100–13. JSTOR, Accessed 1 Mar. 2023.