BOOK REVIEW By Therese Broderick
391 West Lawrence St. / Albany, NY
May 28, 2007
ANOTHER WOMAN WHO LOOKS LIKE ME
by Lyn Lifshin
A Black Sparrow Book (Boston)
David R. Godine, publisher (New Hampshire)
app. 223 pages, paperback $18.95
If you havent 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 Americas
longest-reigning poetry idols. If
youre already a fan, then dont 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.
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 Lifshins
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 Lifshins 2004 book, Another
Womans 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 Lifshins 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
The books title is also a signpost for the poems
many beautiful features. The most obvious beauty is the mirroring by
one poem of another poems contents. One poem looks like
another in that both contain the same word or phrase. A bedroom vanity,
a womans long hair, the glider chair on the porchthese 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 books 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. Lifshins 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 familyself,
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 Holocaustthese are Lifshins ongoing concerns.
This books 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 womans physical and emotional experiences. And the most important
men in these poems a stingy father and a missing loverdisappoint
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 dont 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 books last section, a sequence
of six poems on the theme of dying birds, is heartbreaking. From that
section entitled the wind wont 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 Lifshins previous
work. With the exception of one modified pantoum and one modified blues
song, these free verse poems dont 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 mothers
pocketbook between eye-
glasses, a broken watch,
coupons, lipsticks, keys
she was always sure shed
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
Lifshins 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 poets 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.
by permission of The River Reporter.