by Lyn Lifshin

A review by Tony Moffeit

The arrival of a major collection by Lyn Lifshin is a cause for celebration. Because at the roots of the small press movement, she stood as a marvelous icon of the small press essence: extremely individualistic, tremendously innovative, and working with the speed of lightning to go through as many periods as Picasso. Now she is simply an American icon, a poet you love to see everywhere, a poet you love to read for her amazing approach to the poem and to life.

She is a poet with many identities, many masks, many mirrors. As evidenced in the title of her latest collection, ANOTHER WOMAN WHO LOOKS LIKE ME, and the title poem:

Another woman who looks like me

gets on Amtrak, leaves
her suitcase on the
platform. Nobody she
leaves behind has a clue,
She isn't a terrorist,
there's no Anthrax or
fertilizer in it, only
a few explosive
words to someone
dead. She could have
just made a fire,
curled near the etched
glass as if nothing
had happened
yet or revised the past.
But instead, she's coiled
what no one has left
to understand in the
lingerie pockets of a
shattered blue suitcase.
You might think
she's reckless
or lost, in a daze, but
first imagine she
sees it as a child too
much for her that
she can't bear to keep
or know will grow
up with strangers
so before it can
belong to anybody
else, she wraps the
words in lamb's wool
like someone
putting a newborn
in thick wool,
leaving it in a
dumpster with a
diamond anklet to
let whoever takes it
know how much
it mattered

Lyn Lifshin's poems have an elusive quality that is ghostlike. Touching the ghosts of others through touching the ghost of herself. The archetype of the words, the myth of the words, played out as a child she can't bear to keep, leaving the words coiled in the lingerie pockets of a shattered blue suitcase, a stunning metaphor that continues on about this child she can't bear to keep until the final brilliant association of wrapping the words in lamb's wool, like someone putting a newborn in thick wool, leaving it in a dumpster with a diamond anklet to let whoever takes it know how much it mattered. The power of this poem, the power of its ideas, the power of its metaphors, the power of its working with who and what she is, who and what we are, who and what words are, make it a breathtaking experience.

The poem's intensity is enhanced by the condensed line, the slim line that is one of Lifshin's trademarks. I have always felt that the more intense the poem, the more intense the ideas, the slimmer the line, as if she is squeezing the essence out of the poem. Reading Lyn Lifshin is a fascinating experience because her ghost essence is firmly in the physical, the visceral:

Cherry blossoms in darkness

glow like
stars of lace,
heavy snow
clotting on boughs,
I couldn't sleep,
the sweet white
floating up-
stairs pulled me
back to the
cove of an
old lover's
arms, deep in
such white
dripping branches,
white petals
on slopes of
skin, lips
studded Tuesday
with jewels
in the sweet
grass, locked
like antlers

This book, intensely personal, is full of archetypal American experiences. The more intensely personal the experience, the more universal:

Lake Chaplain

We could hear Louis Armstrong
if the wind blew right.
On our side of the lake,
we listened to the baby-

sitter's stories
of what they did to children
in Germany in the tunnels,
my mother's cigarette a

firefly on the porch across
the dark jade grass, a
night-light. I imagined
hair straight as that of

the girl at the rink with
one green eye, one blue,
her gaze as hypnotic
as the stories of what

people could do. I
didn't know what
might uncoil in the night.
Or that, though I felt

I was storing up sun,
catching light like
minnows, in the fall
ahead there wouldn't
be one night I didn't

wake up screaming
in dreams of fire

-- Review by Tony Moffeit

Last updated: September 8, 2006