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Woman at the Loom of Language

Deborah Fries reviews The Errant Thread, poems by Elline Lipkin

Errant Thread, poems by Elline Lipkin.Strong as hemp, iridescent as the wings of a blue morpho, strands of memory and myth weave their way through the 48 poems in Elline Lipkin’s first book, The Errant Thread. Her poems are richly crafted—with light, with music, with metaphor and meaning—all layering and building an elegant, shimmering texture.

Working at her loom of language, Lipkin shuttles us through family fable and fairy tale, through favorite places and repeated glances in the mirror. Following the tinseled thread of memory, we learn how her parents met and married; how her father lay helpless in the hospital; how her family drank limoncello in a back yard in Belgium; how her grandfather released a canary into a winter sky.

We travel with her as she weaves her way through dusty rooms and dun-colored light to Paris, Brussels, Kigali and Seattle, lingering in cafes and galleries. We agree to observe the seasons with her as she illuminates the uphill climb of October, a New England morning’s mullioned sky, the emergence of a spring bulb in the city.

Lipkin is mastering a decorative art in which ordinary experience is embellished with myth. Her diction is crisp and capable of lacing together memory, myth and place with precision. In this collection, she crafts lyric narrative tapestries that depict timeless crimes and longing, epiphanies, elegies and lamentations. Entering an illusory world where she summons up angels and cupbearers to the gods, it is sometimes easy to forget that she is a post-doctoral scholar at Berkeley, anchored by contemporary life. There is a feminine, Pre-Raphaelite beauty in these poems that is both unsettling and engaging.

Itinerant, omniscient, the errant threads of her poems wind their way through time and invention, with equal empathy. In "Three of Cups," one of my favorite poems in the book, she takes us from a formal tearoom of the present tense to an evoked past:

When the first teak clippers returned to Britain
each captain was weary and tearful to again see
the fog drift over London. They pried open
wood crates for custom officials and let out
the dense smell of the far lands they’d left.
They weighed the crushed leaves workers
had plucked, hands reaching low for weeks
in the sun before scattering each heap to dry
across the weave of a talipot basket, then
rolled under native feet to stamp the earth’s taste
into the leaves’ released oil. The merchants argued
grams and calibration, distilled their travels
to the brewed taste in each cup: China, Ceylon,
the far coasts of India rose in each scent like
the porous relief of a map. They waited for customers
to become drugged on the flavor of a tropical fever
they’d never else know.

In her debut, Lipkin evokes dead merchants of other centuries, ancestors, Fates, gods, the girl she used to be. She summons guardian spirits, literary characters, dead poets, a vision of her father saying Kaddish for his father, and her own, personal Morpheus.

It is fitting that Lipkin, who honors the powerful resonance of myth in women’s lives, would find a publisher in Kore Press. Since 1993, the Tucson feminist literary arts press, named for the myth of Persephone, has brought over 40 creative works by established and new voices into print. The Errant Thread was selected by Eavan Boland as the winner of the 2004 Kore Press First Book Award. Through a series of competitions begun in 2002, Kore has been encouraging emerging women poets and short fiction writers with not only the reward of publication, but also of being in good company.

Elline Lipkin is the third recipient of the Kore Press first book competition. Jennifer Barber was the first. I was the second. Sandra Lim is the fourth. When I finished The Errant Thread, I looked at its affecting purple cover and thought of all of us artisans in a room together, at our looms, with our different voices and ages and experiences, treadles and heddles clacking, and images piling up into poems and books of poems. Each of us believing in the myth of transformation that publication offers. Each of us given that chance, and, like Lipkin, unafraid of Procne's revenge.


Deborah Fries was the 2003 recepient of the Kore Press First Book Award. Her manuscript, Various Modes of Departure, was selected for publication in 2004 by Carolyn Forché.
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The Errant Thread

By Elline Lipkin

   Kore Press
   ISBN 1888553197


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