before it's LIGHT

Reviewed by Norman J. Olson


  Recommended Reading: Before it's Light, New Poems By: Lyn Lifshin, Published by Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa, California

Everybody in the poetry biz knows the name "Lyn Lifshin." In the snake eat snake world of the small press, Lyn and her distinctive poems are everywhere. According to her web site, Lyn spends a lot of time teaching in college and university creative writing programs and running workshops but I first ran into her in an obscure poetry journal and have always admired her willingness to publish everywhere. It takes guts to send your poetry around as much as she does. Judging from the pictures posted on her web site, she is kind of skinny with long dark hair. Why mention her appearance? Well, because of the pictures on the web site but also because her poems sound so relentlessly autobiographical. The thing is, the Lyn Lifshin we learn about in the poems is not a poet showing us how cool it is to be a poet. She rather sounds like a woman giving us a look at the world through her eyes.

Yes, in reading her new book, we learn a little bit about Lyn Lifshin, famous small press poet, but more importantly, we learn about the woman who is "already /camouflaged behind / velvet and leather" and even more importantly than that, we learn to see through her eyes, to touch with her fingers and to taste with her lips. My favorite of all of these poems (and I liked every one of them) is a short piece called "Moving By Touch." This poem is Lyn Lifshin at her best, describing a perfect moment. The poem begins "that afternoon an / unreal amber / light 4 o'clock the / quietness of / oil February blue / bowls full of/ oranges." The sparing use of punctuation flows the images together so the language has the very meter of the unctuous, amber light described. This beautiful image has with a few spare words painted a word picture like an old Dutch still life painting. The "February blue" bowls must be delft, or maybe real China ware.

She then describes "spreading honey, butter / on new bread our / skin nearly touching" Here we feel with the poet's hands and we know that we will soon taste with her lips, honey and butter on fresh bread. But, the skin almost touching. Who's skin? It doesn't matter. Friend, relative, lover, child, there are lots of different kinds of skin touching but that point of contact, the whole world of human beings as social animals in the sense that we need contact, skin to skin, of many kinds to live and be happy, all of that is in this gentle image. The point is similar that made by Mathew Arnold in "To Marguerite" (which is my favorite poem of all time) which describes the possibility of skin to skin contact and the perpetual struggle of us "mortal millions" to break out of our island bodies where we "live alone." The difference is, where Arnold rails against his god who made human contact so difficult, Lifshin simply accepts the moment for what it is. Personally, I am more like the up-tight Victorian, seeing the perfect moment and the possibilities it may offer but too hung up, too old fashioned and terrified of intimacy to simply accept what is beautiful to look at, taste and touch for what it is, simply a lovely moment. What a treat then, for this uptight, old Norwegian male to see this moment through the poet's eyes, to share the blue bowls and the oranges, to touch the oil, bread, butter and honey and to almost touch another human being's "skin" on an afternoon when "Even the dark wood glowed." The skinny woman with long dark hair is a hell of a poet and before it's LIGHT is a very fine book.

before it's LIGHT
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 Norman J. Olson
946 N. McKnight Rd.
Maplewood, MN 55119-3635

Last Updated:
December 27, 2000