New Poems
by Lyn Lifshin

Black Sparrow Press, 1999, 250 pp.
ISBN 1-57423-1114-6  (paperback)  $16.00
ISBN 1-57423-1115-4   (cloth trade)  $ 25.00

Reviewed by John Birkbeck

     The literary voices of Lyn Lifshin are varied and myriad, and any attempt to write a brief review covering the tenor of all the poems in her most recent book, would be a too gigantic task to try in this space. "Before It's Light", is more like ten books wrapped in one cover.

    No, it's more like a universe; it runs the gamut of experience and imagination, from injured childhood innocence through dangerous knowledge of the world. Growing up Jewish in a small New England town, thinking she is too ugly and too fat to be loved, a young girl daydreams of escape to life in a far-off, glamourous place and time:

" . . .This girl, 9,
with too curly hair vows she will never
have children, will travel, live in Paris
or New York . . ."   (p. 80)

    The poems on love and erotica, implied by the title of that section of the book, "Beware My Love", are explicit, intense experiences, physically and mentally exhausting, and that seem, at times, more like sexual combat, in an arena of joyless lust-- matings in  brief moments, in concert with a sense of loss, or perhaps, a sense of not yet having won. The strains of invisible melancholy woven throughout are reminiscent of the forlorn songs of Edith Piaf, and themes of fleeting  or lost love.

   The group of poems about the ambiguous relationship between mother and daughter reveal the symbiotic love and rage that binds them. Yet in the end, is the stoic reliving of the agonising vigil over the mother, dying a lingering and painful death in the cancer ward. And after the mother's death, awareness comes that love has triumphed.

     Lifshin is not all angst and gloom, however.  At times she is outrageously funny. The collection titled "Red Velvet G-Strings And Apricot Sighs," is peopled with characters who are given such titles as Jackie-O, Marilyn, Lorena, The Mad Girl, Jesus. The titles are funny and cartoonish, yet there are dark undercurrents below, a kind of shuddering empathy.

     This is seen in the poem, "Lorena Remembers The Night She Had A Penis Of Her Own" -- taken from the horrific story on the nightly news, of a wife, in an act beyond everyman's mutilation nightmare — slices off her husband's penis with a kitchen knife, and worse yet, drives into the night and tosses it into a roadside ditch. In the poem, patterned after that incident, the reader gets a peek into the mind of the sickened Lorena, contemplating the magnitude of what she had done, able to see herself, also, as a severed member:  

" I could have been
what I held in
my hand that night,
cowering, quivering,
coming apart tho
somehow, even
wounded, abandoned,
I made it too . . ."  (p. 161)

     Lifshin's poetic imagination traverses time and space. She can project herself into the consciousness of someone who lived in distant times and places not her own. She weaves a variety of realities; is able to retrieve memories of existences as disparate as life in a colonial New England town, or enduring the nightmare of
captivity in the Nazi death camps.

   She can recall memories from a vanished Indian nation in the American Southwest; can place herself into the mind of a mummified, five hundred year old Tibetan woman in poem,"Tibet Woman (2)";  

" You hear that we're barbarians, superstitious. Is that all
bad? If you were here, I would take an apple that
goes back, true, as far as before the animals
were named . . ."    (p. 210)

In the final poem in the book, the poet seems to re-dissolve into the daylight of her own time and place:


like dreaming of
some place after
you leave it.  You
wake up in a daze

rain all day
in the pines.
It goes on
like that green,

like stained glass
between a bedroom
and the hall with
the light always

burning behind it,
cantaloupe and
peach light on
the bed all night"    (p. 239)

     The poet returns from a long and fitful journey into strange and distant realms, recovering refreshed, ready to pursue other far universes of her poetic imagination.  

- John Birkbeck, Iowa City, Iowa, 2000

Last Updated:
December 27, 2000