Review: Lyn Lifshin's All the Poets Who Have Touched Me

All the Poets Who Have Touched Me by Lyn Lifshin
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

All the Poets

Lyn Lifshin's latest collection All the Poets Who Have Touched Me is an intimate whirlwind tour through literary history in the company of the perfect confidential guide.  Lifshin, prolific "queen of the small presses" for the last several decades, must have been at least casually acquainted with some of the poets she writes about here, but to what extent only she could tell us, and this isn't a tell-all.  One poem is entitled "The Poets I Know the Best Are the Ones I Could Never Write About" and begins, "It would be betrayal..."

And it would be, wouldn't it?  Any poet, novice or established, tends to feel the necessity of that rule instinctively.  So, having set those parameters, Lifshin puts us at ease that these poems are primarily works of the imagination, with maybe a few smuggled-in details, a few sly observations thrown in here and there.  Many of the poems, like "Eating Chocolate With Edgar Allan Poe," are playful; others are candid, meditative, sensual, melancholy.

As with all of Lifshin's work, these poems are self-revelatory, but they also offer insights into her sources of inspiration, often in stunning imagistic language.  In "New York With Dylan Thomas," she writes:

     ... I hated it waahen he     
     wrote his wife, Caitlin. Though he     
     called her a fishmonger, he still wrote     
     with one arm shadowing the page. Light     
     through jade glass, days burning     
     fireflies in September. I knew they      
     could not stay

In "When Being Awake Seems Agony After Disappointing News," she shares Sylvia Plath's last hours in that cold London flat, where the two of them...

     ... drank hot chocolate with some 
     Sambuca, talked about how the worst time
     of day was 5 am, early morning, the 
     depression time hardest to endure. It seemed
     funny, her daughter’s name, my mother’s, 
     Frieda. On the last day together it was 
     so cold. Even in 3 sweaters I was shaking.
     Maybe I sensed what was ahead though 
     Sylvia chattered, her lips a wild red, 
     her cheeks rose. Maybe it was the fever
     hanging on since December...

Other poems tell of shared moments (often courtesy of time travel) with Byron, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Millay, Sandburg (who got it all wrong about the fog and cats) as well as Sexton, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Kenyon, and the list goes on.

A few sources of inspiration are lesser known, even unknown poets, like an unnamed fan with more than his share of demons, recalled in "He Said He Saw My Picture in a Magazine":  

     ... I never liked his
     poems as much as I pretended, not even
     the ones he stole. But I loved the stories,
     how he made love in coffins, stood on the
     roof of his house screaming at stars. But
     he kept breaking into places. Once I
     held him four hours while he cried.

In the sensual "Sleeping With Lorca," she writes, "There’s/ more you might coax me to say but/ for now, it’s enough I can still smell the/ green wind, that 5 o’clock in the/ afternoon/ that would never be another time".

"There's more you might coax me to say" sums up the charm of this collection.  With all that is revealed of reverie and anecdote, fantasy and (possible) reality, there is always another delicious detail that might have been added, another poet who might have been befriended and revealed.  It's easy to get caught up in the infectious fun as we teleport with Lifshin through pivotal moments in the lives of poets who have touched us as well, imagining with her what well might have been.