Review of Lyn Lifshin's book
by Victor Schwartzman
All poets write about their lives, mostly, and mostly the poems are either self congratulatory (“I got laid!”) or whiny (“I got laid but it was awful!”) Lyn Lifshin is the rare poet who writes about herself without it ever being about herself. Without ever writing as if her real message was ‘Look at me!’
While many poets write about themselves, Lifshin uses what at a glance are poems about herself to capture A Bigger Picture. Which is why her poems are often short stories.
There are 248 poems in Ballroom. To pick one:
ON THE STALLED METRO
There are about forty-eight different things going on in those 23 lines. We are on a stalled train with two people. Same train, different planets. The stalled train is a metaphor for their relationship. How quickly we go from her vision of herself as a wild dancing animal (needing release) to what this guy’s job is, and how he sees animals…and women.
Will this relationship last?
Lifshin is into dancing ballet in a major way (thankfully not a Black Swan way.) Was she riding on a train on the way to ballet when she thought of this? Was she in a relationship with this guy? If so, why?
Should the reader care? Nope. The poem, however it was born, now is all grown up and in its own world. The poem is not about her.
Lyn Lifshin is one of our great living poets, which is a hell of a lot better than being one of our great dead poets. Unfortunately most people only pay attention to poets after they croak. This may be because poets are, generally speaking, seen as safer to society when dead.
Readers familiar with Lifshin know why she’s so worth reading. She has perhaps a gazillion books of poetry published. On top of that she has edited several very well received anthologies. She tours regularly. Where does she get time to dance? It is entirely likely Lifshin does not sleep or takes drugs—more on this in a moment.
Be that as it may, most general readers have probably have never heard of Lifshin. Those are the readers who avoid poetry for many reasons: they see the form as too self-involved, it is passé, rhymes are as loved as mimes. For those readers, Ballroom is a great introduction to a great poet.
248 poems covers a lot of territory. In Ballroom Lifshin dances through everything in her life. These are not political or issues poems in the normal sense. There are plenty o’ issues but on the surface the poems are about her. As noted, many poets write about themselves but without offering anything the reader is interested in. On the other hand, all readers are interested in destructive relationships.
He doesn’t have to be champagne, he could be cheap beer, his lips are cold and when she kisses him he’ll wake up and like a needy child suck her breast. Real attractive! Bet he’ll leave a hickey!
Okay, there aren’t too many relationships that seem to be working well here. Let’s try again:
THE I’M IN A LAWN CHAIR DREAM WITH A IN THE TUB,
This seems playful and pleasant! Of course, she suffers from repeated daydreams so her real life is awful. Her body is not really perfect, she has scars, including gashes in her skin. But don’t you think that the ongoing movie fantasy she keeps replaying will probably at least end kind of nicely? Except she is freezing the moment of unfolding because she knows that after she’s unfolded he’ll turn out to be Freddy Krueger.
It is hard to say why some poems in particular are immediate grabbers. As mentioned, there is the question of how Lifshin manages her prolificosity: to write and publish and tour and write some more:
NO SLEEP AND
Never before, to this reviewer’s limited knowledge, has a Friday been described as a roach. How appropriate! And it is a blue Friday, as are most, and we know if she goes out Friday night to have a good time and escape, she’ll end up checking into a roach motel.