before it's LIGHT

Reviewed by Bruce Woods


  Masks and Magic

A review of before It's Light, new poems by Lyn Lifshim (Black Sparow Press, 1999)

by Bruce Woods

Perhaps the single most striking thing about Lyn Lifshin's 1999 collection — before it's LIGHT, new poems — is its size. After mining the veins of nearly three decades of production for her acclaimed 1997 collection, Cold Comfort, Lifshin offers up more than 170 new pieces. While most of us might scramble to pull together a 40 page chapbook from two year's work, she has produced a 240-page testament to the fact that she is not only a prodigiously productive poet, but certainly one of the hardest working full-time writers in the business. The collection is rich in Lifshin's usual personas: the mad girls and Madonna, mothers and daughters, Jackie O and Jesus, Barbie and Bobbit. And her fans will be pleased to know that the poems explore the themes that have long been this writer's meat: among them the tangled and often corrosive webs of family; the familiar faces of human cruelty; and a complex erotica that can seduce you with one line before, in the fall of a single careful enjambment, leave you as self- conscious as the protagonist in "The Mad Girl Wraps the Porn Book in a Jacket About Steak on the Subway"

"as she feels
the eyes of strangers as women
on subways on the page unzip and
drop or raise whatever keeps them
from merging so someone whose
face they can't even see can, with
one lick of spit, enter from behind."

There's no doubt about it. Lifshin's poetry dares. On the surface hers is the ultimate verse of revelation, even of confession. But it is too easy, and too demeaning to this poet, to assume that every persona is her own and every revelation is personal confession. Which is not to say that the writer doesn't lead us toward that assumption. Consider "Trying to Get the Bookstore to Buy my Books Blues," in which the narrator endures humiliation while trying to peddle collections of poetry ("This seems worse than being a pimp, worse than/a prostitute. It's like taking off my clothes/for a lover and having him laugh or gag.") And then, after a terse telephone dismissal by the store's buyer, gives us an anecdote that seems to end with a knowing wink: "I think of a German film, Nobody Loves Me where a woman thinks the super is hot for her she decides to surprise him, jumps into the trunk of his car with only a bottle of champagne only to find when he parks at a romantic out of the way country spot, he's got someone else, her close friend, spread-eagle on the back seat so she lurches, naked except for a branch into the crowded subway in Berlin, her skin the color or ruby toes. "Nobody loves me," I'm sure, hanging the phone up, feeling as stripped and silly, knowing this might be something, if it won't trigger sales, might make a poem.

The title of the collection is, however, before it's LIGHT. And illumination, or the lack of it, plays a recurring role in the poem here. In the pre-dawn dark of these creations, things might not be exactly as they seem. Lifshin states this in no uncertain terms in the opening poem, "But Instead has Gone Underground" about a woman who disappears into the dark of another subway station.

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."

before it's LIGHT is, at least in part, a dance of veils, where the things we occasionally make out in the darkness excite more than any simple spotlit revelation could. And the glimpses scattered through the collection are memorable, indeed. In the conclusion of "That Year, That Icy Blackness," for example, darkness seems to have invaded the protagonist to the point that she(?) feels "Things in me like/blind mice running/into each other". Or, in the first of a trilogy of poems titled "If I Had a Daughter,' the poem uses reflection, itself a notorious visual trickster, to show the imagined child in one vivid glimpse. "She stands/behind me in mirrors/about to take my/breath away." And again, following the chain of generations in the other direction, we have "My Mother and the Bed," in the conclusion of which Lifshin reveals the heart of this difficult relationship in three precise lines: "She thought of my life/as a bed only she/could make right". It is these glimmerings, these moments when we peer into the dark and find one image flashed clearly as if by a strobe of lightening, that reveal the author as a poet of craft and even guile, as well as a writer of terrible productivity. Because, though there is no doubt that the raw materials for these poems are mined from the experiences of the writer and those she knows or has known, the work here transcends confession, separates and refines the ore of that experience through art. Or, to let one of the poems speak for itself:


for barriers, like
the vines that tangle
over her front door,
or her hair, strands
snarling and weaving
a mask nobody
can quite see thru.
Her words seem like
beacons but their
brightness disarms
you like someone
naked under the
wildest glare,
blinding you in
ways you never
realize, a mask she
puts on and
can do what she
chooses behind,
barbs, quills that
seem impossible to
touch, you can't
see her shiver
under them

Of course, even while confessing to a masquerade the poem may be weaving a mask of its own. It is, after all, impossible to be sure of anything you see, before it's LIGHT. But it is equally certain that magic grows best in the hours of darkness. Lifshin knows this well, and she conjures up a bouquet of it in this new collection.

before it's LIGHT
New Poems
by Lyn Lifshin

Black Sparrow Press, 1999, 250 pp.
ISBN 1-57423-1114-6  (paperback)  $16.00
ISBN 1-57423-1115-4   (cloth trade)  $ 25.00

Reviewed by Bruce Woods


Last Updated:
December 27, 2000