Review of Lyn Lifshin's book


by Victor Schwartzman

All poets write about their lives, mostly, and mostly the poems are either self congratulatory (“I got laid!”) or whiny (“I got laid but it was awful!”)  Lyn Lifshin is the rare poet who writes about herself without it ever being about herself.  Without ever writing as if her real message was ‘Look at me!’ 

While many poets write about themselves, Lifshin uses what at a glance are poems about herself to capture A Bigger Picture.  Which is why her poems are often short stories.   

There are 248 poems in Ballroom.  To pick one:

on my way to ballet,
wild to dance the
voodoo wild blues
out of me while he
dreams of Audrey
Tautou and Javier
Bardem. He is
forgetting my words,
the poems he
remembered longer
than many. What
can you expect from
a man who wanted
to collect stones
and be a zoo keeper,
cage animals, paint
and trap what once
was free, to have
them, like all the
women who trail him,
caught for him in
case he’s in
the mood

There are about forty-eight different things going on in those 23 lines.  We are on a stalled train with two people.  Same train, different planets.  The stalled train is a metaphor for their relationship.  How quickly we go from her vision of herself as a wild dancing animal (needing release) to what this guy’s job is, and how he sees animals…and women. 

Will this relationship last? 

Lifshin is into dancing ballet in a major way (thankfully not a Black Swan way.)  Was she riding on a train on the way to ballet when she thought of this?  Was she in a relationship with this guy?  If so, why

Should the reader care?  Nope.  The poem, however it was born, now is all grown up and in its own world.  The poem is not about her. 

Lyn Lifshin is one of our great living poets, which is a hell of a lot better than being one of our great dead poets.  Unfortunately most people only pay attention to poets after they croak.  This may be because poets are, generally speaking, seen as safer to society when dead.    

Readers familiar with Lifshin know why she’s so worth reading.  She has perhaps a gazillion books of poetry published.  On top of that she has edited several very well received anthologies.  She tours regularly.  Where does she get time to dance?  It is entirely likely Lifshin does not sleep or takes drugs—more on this in a moment. 

Be that as it may, most general readers have probably have never heard of Lifshin.  Those are the readers who avoid poetry for many reasons: they see the form as too self-involved, it is passé, rhymes are as loved as mimes.  For those readers, Ballroom is a great introduction to a great poet. 
Ballroom is neither a dash-off nor a quick read.  There are 248 poems.  No, this reviewer has not read all the poems.  It takes long enough to write a review, but to carefully read 248 poems would take several months.  And good poems deserve a good read: read it once, stop, read it again, then put the book down and putter about with the poem fluttering inside you.  Perhaps this is why using the washroom is an ideal time to read a poem. 

248 poems covers a lot of territory.  In Ballroom Lifshin dances through everything in her life.  These are not political or issues poems in the normal sense.  There are plenty o’ issues but on the surface the poems are about her.  As noted, many poets write about themselves but without offering anything the reader is interested in.  On the other hand, all readers are interested in destructive relationships. 

I could be a drunk.
You could be what
I swore I wouldn’t
long for then can’t
resist. Just a small
gulp. Doesn’t have
to be champagne.
That cold lip,
your lip. I imagine
bending to fit my
mouth over it like
someone kissing a
sleeping child

He doesn’t have to be champagne, he could be cheap beer, his lips are cold and when she kisses him he’ll wake up and like a needy child suck her breast.    Real attractive!  Bet he’ll leave a hickey! 

Okay, there aren’t too many relationships that seem to be working well here.  Let’s try again:

it’s the old, if you stop wanting
something so wildly,
then it happens movie in
darkness. Lets say lately
fantasy is what is and it’s
all avatar and this avatar
is flesh, more real than
when he’s holding me in
tango, hips rolling toward
where they should. In
the dream, it’s summer,
a blue lake. My body’s
perfect enough to wear
a string bikini I know will
be in a puddle around
my jeweled toes but it’s
this moment, suspended
between what I’ve ached
for and what, if I could
keep going on and never
come back from, I would.
No scars, my skin as it
was, my hair thicker. Rose
scent on my bare taut legs
and wrist, gashes in my
skin dissolving. I’m a film
in film run backward
until he’s about to
step out, unfold me as
he unfolds the towel. I
want to freeze this moment,
stay on the verge of,
waiting for what else
will unfold to unfold

This seems playful and pleasant!  Of course, she suffers from repeated daydreams so her real life is awful.  Her body is not really perfect, she has scars, including gashes in her skin.  But don’t you think that the ongoing movie fantasy she keeps replaying will probably at least end kind of nicely?  Except she is freezing the moment of unfolding because she knows that after she’s unfolded he’ll turn out to be Freddy Krueger.   

It is hard to say why some poems in particular are immediate grabbers.  As mentioned, there is the question of how Lifshin manages her prolificosity: to write and publish and tour and write some more:

water pools in the
roses. My head’s
under water in the
rouge blues. So
it’s not raining
but it will be. This
blue Friday, a
roach I can’t
escape without
a wall of them
burying me

Never before, to this reviewer’s limited knowledge, has a Friday been described as a roach.  How appropriate!  And it is a blue Friday, as are most, and we know if she goes out Friday night to have a good time and escape, she’ll end up checking into a roach motel. 

Victor Schwartzman