A Book Review by Laura Stamps

Lyn Lifshin skipped so many grades in school she thought she would earn her Ph.D. and begin a career in academia by the time she was twenty. However, that dream crashed when she was informed during her oral exams that she didn't fit the mold at the time for a college professor. Little did her instructors realize those harsh words inspired a new dream in Lifshin, one in which the best revenge is to write and publish well. And that is exactly what she has done. More than thirty years later, Lifshin is considered the "Queen of the Small Press." Her poems have appeared in most literary journals and magazines across the country. She has written 100 books and chapbooks, edited four anthologies, given more than 700 readings, and won many awards, including the prestigious Jack Kerouac Award.

Lifshin's latest book Before It's Light: New Poems (Black Sparrow Press, 1999, 239 pages, $16.00), a hefty volume of 170 poems, is one of her best. What makes Lifshin's work unique among a sea of contemporary poets is her spirit, an indestructible spirit that shines through almost every poem she writes. The first poem But Instead Has Gone Underground is about a woman who disappears in the subway, and it is a good example of Lifshin's ability to weave a spunky, spirited story by ending the poem with these lines: "It was / a grey humid day, / very much like today. / It was today. Now you might / imagine I'm that woman, it / seems there are reasons. / But listen, I don't live / anywhere near that metro stop / and who I am is already / camouflaged behind / velvet and leather."

Many of her poems are laced with a growing sense of independence and self-esteem. It's no wonder Lifshin is as popular with feminists as she has always been with poets. In Cat Women she explains "most of us don't have children, / are apt to wrap closer in what / is soft as baby skin: velvet, moire, / or the softest pale loose jeans. / But it's the cats that get us thru, / that we clutch, let curl between / our legs. We can make up what / they're thinking, interpret their / dreams." In one of her most popular poems The No More Apologizing, The No More Little Laughing Blues she writes "apologizing for my / hair, wild gypsy / hair that fell out of / every clip the way the / life I started dreaming / of did. Apologizing for / the cats // you know, if someone said my skirt / was too short, I explained / or said sorry, but never that / I finally loved my legs." There are three poems in the book titled If I had a Daughter. In the last one she tells us "This daughter / would be friends / with herself, / not battle with / what she could / have or should. / What she feels / and thinks as / close as letters / that stand together / but don't rub / the other out."

Currently, the poetry market is still recovering from the shocking news that Lifshin's publisher Black Sparrow Press, one of the most profitable of the small presses, suddenly closed its doors in July after 36 years. Fortunately, David R. Godine (P.O. Box 450, Jaffrey, NH 03452) has taken over the distribution of Black Sparrow's backlist, which includes this book as well as her first Black Sparrow book Cold Comfort: Selected Poems 1970-1996. Godine has also agreed to publish her new collection Another Woman Who Looks Like Me. Once more, the indomitable spirit of Lyn Lifshin rises from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix to shine again. The Lifshin "legend" continues. Stay tuned!