Light At The End - The Jesus Poems
by Lyn Lifshin
Clevis Hook Press, 2008. ISBN: 0-9821718-0-3. $12.95.

No one can milk a metaphor like Lyn Lifshin. Her new collection is a tour de force & an instant classic. She dares to work with emotionally & historically laden public symbols in her work, thus challenging the prevailing poetic values. She's done Barbie, Marilyn Monroe & Madonna as ongoing symbols of femininity in previous collections. These new poems, subtitled The Jesus Poems, plumb new depths & reach new heights of insight.

These are not Christian or religious poems. In fact, the literally minded might find them blasphemous. Jesus is used as a metaphor, in a wide variety of ways. Ultimately, she uses icons for their symbolism, in the way that Robert Mapplethorpe has done in visual art. Hopefully, her reception will be better than Mapplethorpe's.

These poems are rich with metaphor & association. Lifshin is unyielding in her drive to deep dive. Taken as a group, their complexity & virtuosity are truly unprecedented in contemporary poetry. She puts so much skill & feeling into each poem that they cannot easily be reduced to their elements. When she wants to be simple, she can be, but when she digs deeply, the result is multi-leveled, evocative & universal. On the immediate level her subject is mankind's yearning for a savior. On a deeper level, Lifshin expresses the feminine nature of that yearning.

The poems were composed a few years ago for an anthology Denise Duhamel was doing. A much smaller version was brought out by the small press Future Tense & was a quick sell out. This larger book, beautifully & lavishly illustrated by photographer-artist Lindsay Herko, was developed by Clevis Hook Press after they saw some of the unpublished poems through a submission to their magazine HazMat Review.

This much-expanded version gets the complete Lifshin treatment, & is astonishing in its range. There are psychosexual levels mixed with cultural iconography & religious/spiritual levels & she puts enough of herself into it to succeed on that ongoing level as well. Her deep intelligence & poetic sensibility are everywhere apparent. No single example or quotation illustrates all of this. The parts add up to a much greater total in Lifshin's brave, intense work. Here's a snippet I like for its deft imagery:

"We gathered violets as the sun went / down, soaked them overnight in the blue bowl and mixed / them with pectin and paraffin until the violet jelly glowed / amethyst in a jar near a window until snow when he rushed /out, as if the stars were in the yard, gathering the / flakes, holding them up to me like fine crystals or / lace from the angels fluttering above our heads as he was / over me, bringing berries and cream up to the garnet room / before spreading himself over me like those stars" from Jesus And The Garden

Lyn Lifshin is a poetic virtuoso. Much has been said about her prolific output, but the truly phenomenal aspect of her poetry is its consistent high quality & depth. Light At The End once again confirms her status as a major poet of the boom generation.

-Eric Greinke, for Home Planet News


Last updated: June 30, 2009