Norman J. Olson's review of Cold Comfort
I have kept a copy of Lyn Lifshin's 1997 Black Sparrow book, Cold Comfort, in the backseat of my Geo for the past couple of years and whenever I happen to have an idle moment in my car, I pull it out and read a few pages. Actually, I have probably been through the whole book cover to cover four or five times. The short lyrics in this book bear reading over and over.
The poetic technique is simple; short free verse lyrics with a stream of consciousness voice, an intensely personal tone and each poem creating a few simple images of almost psychedelic intensity. For example, "Mint Leaves at Yaddo" is an image of the narrator's mother who is apparently dying of some wasting disease. The narrator has bought a ice tea making machine for her dying mother because mom was "queen / of gadgets--- / even a gun to / demolish flies" which is "maybe the strangest / thing she got me." Given the harrowing subject, this poem could easily have devolved into the sort of maudlin "woe is me" bathos so common in personal free verse. But, it doesn't. Lyn Lifshin's poetry has plenty of backbone and can plumb these stories of personal horror and loss with an eye for the telling detail that brings the whole scene, the whole of life and death into perspective. In this case, a mint leaf in the ice tea from the gadget and a gun for shooting flies make this more a story about the "coffee spoons," about the gizmos and colors that make up a life and about the love of a parent for a child which can be so perfectly expressed with a little gift, a gun for shooting flies or an ice tea maker. Indeed, it is the thought that counts!!
Many of these poems are about the narrator's mother moving into old age and death; about the narrator being daughter to a woman of a generation with a certain take on life that those of my generation have had to deal with. However, the poet always takes us beyond the superficial to tell us what really is the story of her life experience and how it is part of her and our past. In "Mama" a woman writes a letter, imaginary perhaps, to her mother about her sex life. The narrator goes from reading "Love with / Out Fear on the / toilet" at age eight to saying "no" over and over and finally saying "yes" to a man who wants to "kiss / my eyes my ass shove / no out of me with / his you know what" It is not easy to share your sex life with your parents or, with your children but, more the point, as a child, each one of us sometimes has to make the transition from "son" or "daughter" to "person." Sexuality is one thing that takes us away from family of origin and this poem is a reminder of the interesting perspective that experience can bring to a person as a member of a family, looking backward, and as an adult living his or her own life, looking forward. In the end the poet says, "Mama, it's ok love Lyn" which tells us that it is possible for a former child to make that journey, away from the family of origin, to embrace a new generation, a new way of doing things, and having faced the personal demons "what if / I'm frigid" still have that bond with mom, or more with the history of my family and my species with all their peculiar customs and hang ups that the last phrase of this poems sums up so nicely.
A section near the end of the book is devoted to the subject of war. Here we see the narrator as a child in Europe in the final days of the Second World War. Again, the view is personal. The march of armies, conquest, politics, the march of civilization toward cataclysm, none of these things matter to the poet. Rather, she cares, as in "There Were Always Stars" about the "smell of my / mother's hair / holding me / curled into her / coolness of / marble and the / hard lines / of a chair / shading us." Not only has Lyn chosen to talk about war from the point of view of a civilian and a child, she has chosen to show us what Wilfred Owen called the "pity" of war by contrasting the intensely personal experience of the child/victim with the idiocy of the armies. In "It Was Like Wintergreen," the American soldiers made the Germans "rebury / the dead." The Germans put Wintergreen on the graves because "it doesn't need / care. You don't have / to think about it." So, the armies kill and maim the innocent and wreak terrible personal havoc but in the end, victory amounts to little more than a plant on a grave that doesn't need care. Our guilt, our ability to become inhuman in war is too easily pushed aside and forgotten.
Is Lyn Lifshin the best poet writing today? I don't know. But, she is certainly my favorite. No, this is not an unbiased review by a disinterested observer. I am a fan of Lyn Lifshin's poetry, pretty much all of it. I read a lot of small press poetry publications and college literary magazines and whenever I pull a new batch out of my mailbox I look for Lyn Lifshin's wonderful poems because she is one of the few poets of stature who still risk the slings and arrows of the small press. I read Lyn Lifshin's poems in my car while I am waiting for my daughter to finish track practice. I read them over my coffee breaks at work. I read them in the park and in bed before conking out, morning, noon and night like some compulsive poetry sponge. If you are a person who likes well crafted, readable poetry that will bring you into the visceral brain, body and mind of a poet with a penetrating eye, and powerful humanity, buy this book. You will enjoy it.
Norman J. Olson, Maplewood, MN, 2001