review by Cindy Hochman

This review runs in Pedestal Magazine issue of June 21, 2011.

In “All the Poets Who Have Touched Me,” Lyn Lifshin, mistress of the skinny poem, dishes up the skinny on a plethora of poets from Emily Dickinson, to Walt Whitman, to Dylan Thomas, to a coterie of characters whose identities are left a tantalizing mystery.  While the concept of fantasizing about cavorting with one’s favorite poet is hardly novel (see “A Supermarket in California” by Allen Ginsberg), Lyn Lifshin, with her hypnotic, playful, and vibrant voice, ramps it up a few notches, culminating in an irresistible collection that you can truly lose yourself in.  Making like the proverbial fly on the wall (albeit, a very proactive one), Lifshin infuses herself into a scintillating set of scenarios — some zany, some heartbreaking, some sweet — and invites us to join her in a veritable orgy of literary mayhem. And like the rich chocolate that Lifshin swears killed off Edgar Allan Poe, these poems feel like sinful indulgence.

Somewhere between meeting with, reading with, partying with, and sleeping with this wily band of wordsmiths, Lifshin found time to perfect her own craft —  while channeling her fellow poets with great aplomb, she always maintains her signature voice:  sensual, slithering, sly, and slinky.  A captivating craftswoman of images that jar the senses, when you read a Lifshin poem, you can see the “clots of snow” and smell the nutmeg, the oranges, and the perfume.  And you can also smell the sadness – underneath their whimsical veneer, these poems contain savvy observations of loss, rejection, death – and, of course, the madness that is poetry.

The book opens in New York, spotlight on Dylan Thomas in a haze of blue - - blue as in “bruise-blue cotton, a paler blue than veins in my wrists.”  Using the colorful, teasing language that is her raison d’etre, Lifshin conjoins her own blues to what she surmises is Dylan Thomas’s.   Capturing a wholly realistic sense of time and place, scenes that couldn’t possibly have happened are the ones that ring the most true.

                        He wasn’t loud, he wasn’t his voice,
                        wasn’t that poet booming on records,
                        all Swansea and raging.
                        There was no wild dying of the light.
                        We stopped for egg creams.  He loved
                        them better than the cream of a woman’s
                        thighs he collapsed in

Remnants of blue also permeate the poems in which Lifshin plays dress-up with the Belle of Amherst, but it is in a different context: female bonding.  These charming and funny adventures with Emily, without being overtly feminist, possess overtones of female camaraderie and strength, and more to the point, an acknowledgment of their status as poets.

                        We had dresses in every
                        shade of blue, blue for the

                        Cobalt, azure, sapphire
                        cotton.  I turned away
                        from wool.  Emily gave me
                        her topaz silk.  Our fingers
                        were always blue from ink.
For all the poets Lyn Lifshin never met, there is a very famous one whom she did, and who has become inextricably linked to the Lifshin lore. Robert Frost had been a customer of her father’s and, recognizing a blossoming talent in young Lyn, he encouraged her with the comment:  “Very good images sayeth Robert Frost, bring me more.”  In “Robert Frost’s Pants,” this bit of history is recounted, along with the humorous anecdote that:

. . . Often with Frost’s green
pants, always the same cotton
medium green, baggy with so
many pockets I used to wonder
what on earth he used them for.
That’s when I first got the
idea I will get into Robert
Frost’s pants.  Don’t be silly,
he was a grumpy old man with
about as much sex appeal as
a potato.  But those pockets
were deep and I quickly copied
every poem I had.

But her pride and excitement over Frost giving her early poems the thumbs-up is overshadowed by the somber fact of her true connection to him - - the curmudgeonly poet, in temperament, was remarkably similar to Lifshin’s aloof father (“two cold, pondering, dark, lonely men, stingy with love and money”), giving “Robert Frost’s Pants,” like many of these poems, a poignant spin.

Indeed, let’s not be fooled by all the merrymaking here — the dark side is never very far away in Lifshin’s work, and it is no accident that the poets who are her kindreds are the ones whose lives bore the stain of melancholia.  One gets the sense that by singling out Jane Kenyon, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, she is, in fact, keeping her own demons at bay, or perhaps finding comfort in the adage that “misery loves company.”  The sex-addled wildness she revels in with Edna St. Vincent Millay is only half the story  —  the parallels of their family dynamics are even more compelling:

                        And yet, tho we had no father there
                        for us, it was the ones we couldn’t
                        have we lusted for. 

                        We became more tired than merry,
                        never could resign ourselves
                        to the shutting away of loving hearts
                        in the hard ground.  We each fought

You will learn a lot about our rich poetic canon in this memoir-cum-tribute, but mostly you will learn about Lyn Lifshin as she reveals herself, piece by piece, through these tales of intrigue, and uncovers the creative forces that drive her.  Whether she’s proving to Carl Sandburg that cats are hardly as quiet as fog, sharing her passion for horses with Plath, or claiming that it was she, not Millay, who wrote the line:  “what lips my lips have kissed,” or when she’s poking fun at herself with titles like “I Know It’s Been Rumored But I Have to Admit I’m Not Really a Poet,” you will get a vivid sense of what moves her: cats, ballet, horses, a penchant for men, and beautiful things and tragic things, and a willingness to wrap it all up in a velvet bow and present it, in all its messy splendor, to the world.

There is a bonus section of poems entitled “Desire,” which, at first glance, seems superfluous, but is ultimately a summing up of Lifshin’s life in the poetry world, a full-circle homecoming, ending on a fitting and tender note with the poem “The Night Robert Frost Died”:

                        Was it Cows in Apple Time,
                        the cider syrup,
                        the sweet fruit after blossoms,
                        or the fruit rotting,
                        the darkness,
                        the ache,
                        the ice,
                        the snow,
                        and the snow in each kiss,
                        or lip,
                        or finger
                        that hooked me?

A delicate feather graces the elegant periwinkle cover of this juicy whodunit of a book.  One might opine that it denotes the fragility of the poems inside, but it could well be the feather in Lyn Lifshin’s prolific cap.  After reading “All the Poets Who Have Touched Me,” I guarantee you will want to write some odes of your own to the poets who have touched you, either literally or figuratively.  I’ve already started on mine:  “Hobnobbing with Lyn Lifshin After Reading Her Amazing and Powerful Book.”  (Hey, I can dream too, can’t I?)