All the Poets Who Have Touched Me
Lyn Lifshin
World Parade Books (2010), 234 pp
ISBN 9780984619856

Review by Alice Pero

Few poets can permeate the heart of things as Lyn Lifshin does. In All the Poets Who Have Touched Me, (World Parade Books, 2010), she enters the souls of poets. Through actual experience and outright audacious imagining, Lifshin weaves herself into these other lives, not as an observer, but as participant, whether lover, friend, confidant or resident spirit. We don’t know how she became part of these poets’ lives; therein lies the beauty and the mystery. Lifshin is sexy and wise, tragic and witty. The poem entitled “Though Many Poems Have Come Out of Dreams” continues “last night, for the first time, Dylan Thomas/walked right out of a poem into/a dream. He was cherubic, a baby face,/ asexual, so it didn’t seem like a pass/when he started nuzzling me like/a cat pressing her nose into my skin,… Everything started melting./I’d loved him for so long on the sheet/of the page but now, to have him/all over me, his verbs and fur and/something I know I didn’t imagine…” With Lifshin, irreverence comes with the territory. Aside from the fact that she can in a poem cause any size, shape, form of a poet to make love to her, she can in a few words evoke the wholeness of a poet. In some cases that poet becomes her double. She says in “Sometimes I Think Edna St. Vincent Millay Was My Doppelganger, My Other,”  “It certainly wasn’t our voices. I had/forgotten how husky and low hers/had been, mine like a breathy/weather reporter. We might have/been rivals, wild to be wild…” 

In each poem she invites herself into that person’s life, becomes part and parcel of his/her existence. Yes, she really was there when “Allen Ginsberg/gave me a rose, a beautiful red one/or was it white?” It doesn’t matter as she says earlier in the poem, “None of this might be true.” It could be any rose that she “pressed…into the heaviest book/in the house, a folio edition of Shakespeare, all petals pressed into William’s words,”  (Allen Ginsberg Gives me a Rose at Art Park…”) 

Lyn Lifshin has mastered the art of time travel. In “The Blues, The Blue Dresses:Amherst with Emily”  “We had dresses in every/shade of blue, blue for the nightmares. Emily and I/had our wild times, picking /roses in blankets that somehow/were never full…” The poet can take reserved, introverted Emily on a romp, an orgy of colors, leaking blues, tempting Orpheus, angering Emily’s father. This is a whole story, a novel condensed into its finest distillation. Later in the book a whole series of poems each entitled “Emily Dickinson,” is entirely in the third person, leaving Dickinson alone in her own perfect universe, the poems capturing a dark serenity. “Only the night leaves/twist and shimmer/over water that/she could imagine/walking out into/over her eyes.” (page 206)  “Emily Dickinson/puts her hand up/to the glass, feels the lilac/branches melt.” (page 209) 

Lifshin’s poets also include Walt Whitman, James Dickey, Jane Kenyon, Sylvia Plath, Carol Sandburg, Robert Bly, Anne Sexton and Robert Frost and some unnamed who may still be living. The book contains many other poems, as well as a selection from “The Ice Maiden’s S.O.S” series, published earlier: the poet’s tribute to the first frozen Incan female mummy; stunning poems that bring life to something that was dead, a life so tragic that Lifshin’s humor and wisdom are life-bringing in themselves. “When you look deeply/into me,/I know that you are looking for yourself. My glass cage reflects/your eyes,/the blue of wet chicory/or glazed mahogany.”  (“The Ice Maiden’s 27th S.O.S.”)

Although this sounds like a cliché, I have to say that this book offers something for everyone. Laced with sexiness and coy wit, Lifshin’s poems strike at the heart of anyone’s sacred literary cow, yet she is deeply in love with all “her” poets and each poem is a kind of tribute, in Lyn’s own way.And in the end she throws into the bag some of the most sublimely delicate lines of this or any century.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

The palest petals
on the apples near the metro,
eight small trees,
the boughs,
floating lace.
I learned from Frost
early one late freeze
what you could swallow.
But for as long as you
hold your breath,
a cloud of milk petals,
so thick you can’t see bark.
A white face
bending into blackness.