Review of Persephone
by Lyn Lifshin

in Asheville Poetry Review
by Janice Moore Fuller

While the title of Lyn Lifshin’s Persephone seems to promise a thematically bound collection, the volume instead includes poems arranged in a hodgepodge of nine sections, some consisting of only two or three poems. “Awaiting Alma” includes three delicate poems about a writer and her husband’s adoption of a child from Guatemala. Short poems with haiku sensibility fill the section “On the Other Side of the Bridge: Poems of Place.” In the final section “Flame Birds,” Lifshin presents the quotidian actions of a series of post-9-11 “someones,” whose lives will never be the same:

Someone eats, not tasting
what she swallows. (“Someone Says They Looked Like Cartwheeling Birds”)
who used to talk to
her mother kneels near
the fish tank, still
sees her car in the drive
way, talks to the fish
now, tells them it’s just
us, Sarah is gone

(“After September 11”)

Perhaps most notable in the book are the poems about persecuted
women. The section “Life Leaves Marks: Other Voices” includes a
haunting sequence of poems about the Ice Maiden Mummy and her
cries for help:

they slashed my skull,
there were no ghosts to
keep me company but
moonlight, no chit chat,
no lilac wind. No wine
dark lips moving over
me. The darkening
vowels were my dream
of an ocean, the leaves
brushing a last sentence
south until they sounded
like the sea or the moth
I was merging with fire

(“The Ice Maiden Mummy’s 78th SOS”)

These urgent poems join the others sprinkled throughout the volume
that sympathize with exploited women, most notably the poems of
“Mad Girls, Strangers, Women with Wings and Without Wings.” In
addition to the poems about Barbie and the “Mad Girl” included in
this section, Lifshin devotes three poems to the plight of Leda’s daughter
whose voice appears at the end of the last poem in the series:

I’m Leda’s
girl she whispered cowering inside those
wings that were like a screen I imagined
her camouflaged behind, some Gipsy Rose
Lee doing a costume change, coming out
with a basket of fruit on her head. “The
daughter of rape,” she hissed, more like
the geese, getting bolder. My mother was
ravished, raped. Without arms, I could be
Venus. Without arms, she could have loved
me but these wings remind her of that day
everything changed. Now I crouch like
statues of angels in the gardens rain and
sleet pelt, earthbound and cracked,
still dream of flight

(“For Months She Came at Night, a Strange Presence”)

In talking about Persephone, I have trouble ignoring the cover
image—a photograph by Norm Darwish of the back of a naked
woman. A tear in a spider-web fabric frames her buttocks, which
are cupped by two ageing hands, a male hand and a flame-nailed
female one. The image led me to expect poems about sexuality and
ageing—an expectation that the collection does not explicitly fulfill.
Instead the beginning of the book is filled with poems about
the kind of wild, almost dangerous exploits one associates with the
young. Except for a fantasy about sleeping with Lorca and a fling
with a college professor (“This time I was the / lure, the flash of a
new verb and / he canceled classes, took off work”—“When I Was
No Longer My Leather Jacket”), these are poems in which one
“you,” one unnamed lover, morphs into another who either finds
the person impossibly alluring or violates and abandons her.

These are poems of immediacy—the live-in-the-moment attitude of
a 60's world in which a girl might choose to be a biker chick or a
poetry groupie. The sensuality in these poems is untouched by time
or a concern for ageing. No wrestling with what sex and the body
might be like for a middle-aged woman.

And yet, in perhaps the most compelling sections of the book,
“Deserted Rooms: Family” and “Bay of Love and Sorrow: Mother
Poems,” Lifshin seems to displace concern for her own ageing by
worrying over her mother’s declining state:

My mother’s
breasts, once 38 D’s, now
are little droopy thimbles

(“Around the Table”)

My mother doesn’t want to
sit downstairs in the
cool dark with the
dog tho my sister has been
yelling on the phone,
says the dog doesn’t
like to be alone

(“The Old Dog”)

When her hair was being done, her head looked
already skeletal.

(“My Mother Hated the Song of the Whales”)

The connection between her mother’s ageing and her own is something
the speaker finally acknowledges in the poem “Asparagus”:

I’m wearing her socks,
her ring, find myself with saltine crackers,
bran waffles, asparagus, strawberries
as if the bits of her I carry inside me,
as one writer said we do our mothers,
like dolls, each with another inside, are
with me in the supermarkets

Despite Lifshin’s nostalgia for youthful adventures, she recognizes,
as all we middle-aged writers must, that her mother’s decline contains
her own.

Ashevilel Poetry Review