A Book Review by Laura Stamps

A New Film About a Woman in Love with the Dead by Lyn Lifshin, 2002, 109 pages, $20.00, ISBN 1-882983-83-1 (March Street Press, 3413 Wilshire Drive, Greensboro, NC 27408)

Almost every woman I know has had at least one heart-wrenching experience with a "bad news" boyfriend, and Lyn Lifshin is no exception. In this new collection of 103 poems she chronicles her own relationship with such a man, one who happened to be a popular radio personality, yet possessed a chilly heart. She tells her tale in a sequence of poems that reads like a novel, spanning the length of the relationship from beginning to end, including a period of time years later when she learns he has died of cancer. Lifshin astutely compares this miserable romance to the bizarre obsession of a woman in a film. In Kiss, Baby, The New Film she writes, "It was everything inside / where your heart must have been that was / rigid, ice. The woman in the film went to work, / an embalming assistant. Isn't that what I'm / doing? Keeping you with words? Embracing / you on the sheet of this paper, a tentative / kiss on cold lips, the cuddling of cadavers?"

Every woman who becomes involved with a man incapable of love knows in her heart that she shouldn't. The signs are always there, but she chooses to ignore them. When this man breaks a date early in their relationship, Lifshin captures that moment in It's Too Beautiful an Afternoon, Baby, to Feel: "I got undressed, / put on some blues. / It could have been / June. It could have / been lilacs dripping. / I could have seen this / as an omen."

Yet in Nostalgia, I Hate the Word we learn she is fully aware of her tendency to sabotage her better instincts:"I'm / always falling for men / with something missing: / more often it's a / heart."

Like most women involved with emotionally unavailable men, Lifshin struggles with the core of her dilemma. In Though You Never Asked she tells us, "It is as if the dead / still could comfort and / soothe like with my / father, who hardly talked, /never said I was pretty. / I've used absence to / make something out / out of nothing, to make / something more lasting / than either of you / could give me."

Most women who are attracted to men with cold hearts are the daughters of emotionally or physically absent fathers. Ultimately, it is this knowledge that gives Lifshin the strength to end the relationship and move ahead with her life. In Reading About the Floods in North Dakota she compares her experience to the devastating effects of fire and flood: "I think how I / felt swamped, / as if I'd lost / everything. What / mattered seemed / buried under water. / I was as wild as / someone looking / out at the water, / the buildings on / fire no one could / get to, eerie as / Dresden in WW2. / Like those buildings, / something inside / smoldered, felt as / gutted and I think / now I was lucky / to get out."

Even though she wrestles with an emotional pattern set from childhood, she knows what she wants and needs. In I want to Swallow the Anger she writes, "Give me a man like / a safe reliable / car, one that won't / let me down, won't have / me panicked, stranded / or have to lug home / in my arms at / too great a price."

Eventually, this is just the partner she finds. In Now I'm With Someone we learn: "who's really there. / He's not always / charming, harder to / do when it's not for / a few hours one / night. Or over radio / air. But he's there, / and when I once / feared he wouldn't / be it was more scary / than losing the tons / of fantasy I stock / piled about you." Once again, Lifshin delivers a stunning collection that enchants the reader with well-written, tightly focused poems.

Her work often reminds me of an abstract painting, and this book is a perfect example. An abstract painter delights in placing opposing colors and shapes in such a way that the overall composition is pleasing to the eye, and all areas of the piece are balanced with light, dark, or bright strokes of color. Words are Lifshin's paints, and she is a master at arranging them in tight, unusual ways to communicate the meaning of each poem to the reader. Beautifully designed and hand-bound by the publisher, A New Film About a Woman in Love With the Dead is an important addition to the two volumes of collected poems published by Black Sparrow Press. This book is not only a must for seasoned fans of Lifshin's work, but also for new readers, and I highly recommend it.