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.
Sparrow Press, 1999, 250 pp.
1-57423-1114-6 (paperback) $16.00
1-57423-1115-4 (cloth trade) $ 25.00
946 N. McKnight Rd.
Maplewood, MN 55119-3635