Reviewed by: Miles Bell

Ruffian was a phenomenal racehorse who broke the track record in her first race and was unbeaten in her next nine. As a 3-year-old in 1975, in an ill-judged race against that year's Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure, she broke down while leading the "equine battle of the sexes", continued to try to race even with a badly broken leg, and couldn't be saved. Why should I care? you may ask yourself, and it was the question on my mind as I sat down with this book of poems about the life of "The Queen of the Fillies". After all, I'd no real interest in horses, and had never heard of Ruffian.

I had, however, heard of Lyn Lifshin, as I expect everyone in the small press has. Reportedly the most published poet alive, with more than 100 books to her name, she crops up everywhere there is poetry. I was unfamiliar with her work, and I must admit to being dubious about Lifshin's abilities; surely someone so prolific is just churning poems out?

It is at this point I must apologize to Lyn, for this book is fabulous for the most part, and it drew me into the story of Ruffian much further than I expected. There is a line early in Todd Moore's "The name is Dillinger" which speaks of a time "when horses were still magic", and this book succeeds in helping to explain some of the reasons horses can evoke so many indefinable emotions in people.

Comprising just over 100 short poems, "THE LICORICE DAUGHTER" (named after Ruffian's near-black coat) is actually one long poem in small sections covering the short but brightly-burning life of a horse acknowledged by many as the greatest female horse in history, from her birth, the separation from her mother, the glorious first races, to the tragic conclusion to Ruffian's career and life.

Lifshin writes with great passion for her subject without slipping too far into sentimentality, and the language she uses creates a mythology for Ruffian, as if she was/something in a dream/in the shape of a horse…

There are several other examples throughout of Lifshin using especially descriptive words to evoke a sense of "otherness" about Ruffian, supernatural, ghost-horse, black arrow, mystery, black lightning, and even mentioning Icarus and Pegasus, only to describe her again, finally, as just a trapped animal with wild eyes, as she was led, fatally hurt, to the ambulance after one race too far.

The pacing of the book is perfectly judged too, the poems increasing in intensity and speed like the horse herself, until the quiet last few poems lend an air of reverence more than deserved, it seems, such is the power and sheer story-telling mastery of the rest of the book.

There are a couple of small quibbles I have; the mention of EBay early on jarred me out of the quiet pastures of the 1970s I'd been immersed in, and there are a couple of occasions where descriptions of Ruffian veer towards anthropomorphosis, and I feel Lifshin is a good enough writer not to have to humanize the horse in order for the reader to empathize. That said, these are minor points and only mean I couldn't faithfully describe the book as perfect, just very, very good indeed.

In summary, I would highly recommend "THE LICORICE DAUGHTER: MY YEAR WITH RUFFIAN", as fine prose poetry and a terrific story/myth, well-told. As I reached the end I must admit to getting something in my eye and having to take a few manly deep breaths, before going online and reading all I could about Ruffian, the horse who lived simply to run.

updated: June 21, 2007