The Licorice Daughter

by Lyn Lifshin
113 pages
Texas Review Press
Reviewed by: Leopold McGinnis

I was only vaguely aware of Lyn Lifshin when I was asked to review this book. I'd read an article of hers in a book in which we'd both been published and, a few weeks previously, a poet friend of mine whose opinion I respect raved about her work. When the opportunity to review Lyn's latest book (or second latest at the time of this writing - I think she puts out a book a month!) came up, I was eager to find out what my own opinion was.

The Licorice Daughter is poetry-novella based on the true story of Ruffian, widely considered the best female racing horse in history. I believe Ruffian was even featured in the Sports Illustrated top 100 female athletes of all time. (But not in the swimsuit edition, to my knowledge.) To avoid spoiling the book, I'll say no more than that.

When I realized, about 10 pages in, that this was a book about horses, or about a series of horses I began to regret my offering to review it. It's a subject area of which I have little interest, and yet the poems were good enough that I was enjoying reading it, so I figured that was all that mattered. It wasn't until about a third of the way through the book that I realized that this was all about one horse and, in fact, a continuing narrative. This piqued my interest greatly and, to use the obligatory cheesy book-review metaphor, it was a race all the way to the finish line after this point. Born after the events in the story, I wasn't aware that the story was based on reality until I did some research later, so this also kept my interest for quite a while.

There is a burning inevitability to The Licorice Daughter which I love, and makes the book a thrilling read. I'll quote a poem about Ruffian from the book, which I think applies equally to The Licorice Daughter as a read:

It Was Her Stride, Long, Almost Dream-Like, Floating
riders with a sense of
pace were fooled.
She was like a dancer
with balloon, hanging
in the air, suspended.
If you were on her,
you thought the
clockers were wrong.
Sometimes it seemed
she wasn't running,
never came back
winded. Those long
legs seemed too
long for a real horse.
Someone said it
was as if she hung
there and the ground
rushed under her

While the book starts off a bit slow out of the starting gate, the book picks up a lot of speed by the middle and is running at full gallop by the last third, even though you know where it's going. Ruffian's story is an engaging one and Lyn does not do it a disservice. A lot of poets try to boost their poetry, or replace a lack of something to say, by co-opting an already existing story. Certainly this is legitimate poetic practice, however, often the poet does nothing more than dilute the strength of the original story for poetic gain. Lifshin, on the other hand, brings a lot to this little known (at least to me!) story, filling in or making up pieces that have not been documented by the papers and historians, and giving a real sense of the passion, the life, and the intimate hopes behind Ruffian and all those involved with her story, from the jockeys, to the fans and beyond. It's a sign of a remarkable poet who can improve upon a classic story.

The book is notable for a number of other features. One thing I enjoyed was that the poems weren't linked like chapters, but more like a grasshopper touching down as it hopped along Ruffians lifeline, allowing the reader to piece together a lot of the details. Often times two or three poems would cover the same event. Rather than being redundant, they offered different views of on singular piece of the story and this was quite refreshing. The book dances close to cliché on a few occasions (what books don't?), but never touches, and often blasts off in some wonderful directions. I particularly enjoyed some of the poems at the end that manage to tie thing like eBay to the story of this horse from 30 years ago. Unexpected and wonderful.

If I was a visionless corporate book producer, I'd target this book towards young girls. I wouldn't target it towards horse enthusiasts because they aren't a big enough market...and we all know that poetry doesn't sell anyway. Unless you're dead and your name is Bukowski. Thankfully I'm not and while this book would certainly delight little girls, it would also be a must for any horse enthusiast. But still that's narrow minded. This book is well executed, fun, a quick read, and contains a great and engaging story. I believe it would be a great book for anyone who loves poetry. Even lovers of sports (if you can convince them to give poetry a try) should like it.

I think the true sign of a good book is if you can get someone who isn't at all interested in the subject to like it. As someone who is highly contrarian, very critical of poetry about hackneyed overdone things like horses, and far from sporty or interested in things equine I greatly enjoyed this book, so I believe anybody will if they give it a try.

Updated: June 21, 2007