BOOK REVIEW By Therese Broderick
391 West Lawrence St. / Albany, NY
May 28, 2007


by Lyn Lifshin
A Black Sparrow Book (Boston)
David R. Godine, publisher (New Hampshire)
app. 223 pages, paperback $18.95


If you haven’t yet heard of Lyn Lifshin, then consider getting a copy of Another Woman Who Looks Like Me, if for no other reason than to become familiar with one of America’s longest-reigning poetry idols.  If you’re already a fan, then don’t miss this collection of 161 new poems, each a glimpse of loss or loneliness that reminds us “how it is never easy to know / what not to keep.”

 Living near Schenectady, Lifshin needs no introduction among upstate poets. As recently as July 2006, she was the featured poet at the monthly poetry open mic at the legendary Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs. Lifshin has been writing poetry for more than forty years. She is the author of more than one hundred books--sometimes releasing as many as three in one year--and has edited four anthologies of women writers. She is lauded as “Queen of the Small Presses,” although her work has appeared as well in major periodicals such as American Poetry Review and The Christian Science Monitor. She has taught also at several colleges, universities, and high schools. Her awards and prizes are numerous. Despite this impressive career, Lyn Lifshin is still not among the approximately five hundred poets profiled on the website of the Academy of American Poets (www.poets.org).

Readers who have already had their full of Lifshin’s work may consider the title of this book to be a warning that most of the poems therein look too much like her earlier poems. Indeed, the title itself resembles the title of Lifshin’s 2004 book, Another Woman’s Story. And while it is true that most of these new poems are trademark Lifshin, her writing is neither tiresome nor shallow (except perhaps for Lifshin’s persistent substitution of “tho” for “though” and of “thru” for “through”). If we are still listening to The Rolling Stones, then we can still read Lyn Lifshin.

The book’s title is also a signpost for the poems’ many beautiful features. The most obvious beauty is the mirroring by one poem of another poem’s contents. One poem “looks like” another in that both contain the same word or phrase. A bedroom vanity, a woman’s long hair, the glider chair on the porch—these and many other motifs recur throughout the book, resulting in a thick and satisfying texture.  In addition, sometimes two or more poems become entwined in a tighter way as variations on a theme; for example, contiguous poems about “the bee man” or an entire section entitled “a love of blueness.”

But the book’s deepest mirroring is the encounter of life with death. The “me” in this collection regards her younger self, her many possible alter egos, and her deceased relatives as highly-charged presences that co-exist in time. Lifshin’s poems require that we look in our own mirror and ask ourselves some hard questions. What is our true identity? Who are we in relation to others, or in relation to the past and future?

Lifshin makes those inquiries by focusing on the strong and often painful bonds between female members of an extended family—self, mother, sister, immigrant grandmother, cousin, and the daughter-I-might-have-had. Childhood rites of passage, puberty, the physical features of women, tensions between siblings, childbirth, the ailments of old age, the ghosts of the Holocaust—these are Lifshin’s ongoing concerns. This book’s largest section of thirty-five poems, “written on the body of the night,” sketches several erotic encounters.

Given their preoccupations, are these poems intended primarily for female readers? Perhaps. Certainly these poems arise from one woman’s physical and emotional experiences. And the most important men in these poems— a stingy father and a missing lover—disappoint the women in their lives. Nevertheless, these poems are not retro-feminist rants against oppression. The politics of these poems is the one-on-one power game between individual men and women. Therefore, these poems have something to say to male readers, too.

Whether or not entirely autobiographical, these poems do seem to be drawn directly from real life because their surfaces are strewn with the commonplace belongings of flawed human beings: a nicotine-stained clock, a candy dish missing its top, shoplifted cashmere, pink-framed glasses that don’t fit. And because the people who owned those belongings are absent or deceased, the poems are, at the least, sad and poignant.  At most, the poems are lovely and elegiac. Indeed, the book’s last section, a sequence of six poems on the theme of dying birds, is heartbreaking. From that section entitled “the wind won’t carry us” come these lines:  “I heard goose music / from the pond, / slow and deep as a cello in a minor / blue key, music for a / plane crash, mournful / as the stunned family.”

The forms of the poems in Another Woman Who Looks Like Me are also consistent with those of Lifshin’s previous work. With the exception of one modified pantoum and one modified blues song, these free verse poems don’t bother with perfect rhymes or patterned stanzas. And most of them are leggy: slender columns both graceful and seductive. Within the first few words, the poems find a firm toe hold, then they twirl down the page, always in balance, and then they depart with a soft kick. The opening lines of “Wintergreen” illustrate this nimbleness:

always there in my mother’s

pocketbook between eye-

glasses, a broken watch,

coupons, lipsticks, keys

she was always sure she’d

lost. In her last days, she

wanted the Life Savers on

the nightstand. Like Joy

perfume and Jolie Madame,

a whiff of wintergreen is

the smell of my mother,

what she longed for her

last years as she had longed

for emeralds, for green to

move into late Vermont

winter snow.

Lifshin’s regional details about Vermont, Lake Champlain, Otter Creek, and Mineville may help to produce a sense of homecoming among New York State readers, but her occasional out-of-date references may discourage first-time readers who are younger than thirty. The poet’s mention of Jayne Mansfield, the mini-skirt, and Nancy Drew may leave the reader wondering whether Lyn Lifshin has possibly, alas, become old-fashioned.

Or possibly not. For as her extensive and snazzy website (www.lynlifshin.com) proves, Lyn Lifshin has worked hard for decades in order to earn her laurels. Even as a woman of a certain age, Lifshin continues to mold her legacy. And part of that legacy may very well be that she, like her dancing mother, was “in control of her audience / to the end.” Is Lyn Lifshin a poet whom we should keep? Absolutely.

reprinted by permission of The River Reporter.