Femme Eterna by Lyn Lifshin
Published by Glass Lyre Press
Review by April Salzano
Born of a collaboration that unfortunately never came to fruition between Lifshin and Russian painter Luba Serlikova, Femme Eterna examines historical women, Enheduanna, Scheherazade, and Nefertiti, to provide what becomes an ambitious speculation on the women’s innermost thoughts, as well as a comment on their collective and individual impact on feminism and writing. From an intrigued, and at times obsessive, perspective, Lifshin contemplates each of her subjects with a voice as bold and feminist as the voice she projects onto each woman. Reader-accessibility and understanding is of utmost importance to the poet in this work, as in all of her work, and each woman is examined fully and with Lifshin’s usual unapologetic questioning and fearless explanation in place of esoteric allusion. Also typical of the poet’s previous collections, each poem could easily stand alone, displaying no dependence on the others in the collection. Many are even titled the same, simply with each woman’s name, and include all information necessary for any reader to fully appreciate the subject. It is this very accessibility that allows the reader to become part of this world, to “smell the saffron, feel the hot dust near the pyramids,” just as Lifshin promises in the introduction. As much as she allows us to become immersed in this ancient world, Lifshin still keeps us tethered to the here and now with her signature vernacular, which forms a stark contrast to the world it describes: “Birds no/one now living can/see dart thru brambles,” she writes in “In a Breeze of Dates And Olives, 4000 Years BC”. Just as we forget we were reading ink on paper rather than cuneiform on lapis lazuli tablet, we are reminded by the poet with such an abbreviation or a reference to the difference between that time and our own, which one of the work’s key themes.
At times, the writer adopts the persona of her gorgeous, powerful subject, while in other poems she remains an external voice and outside observer, allowing herself to become a character in this history. Only once the image is fully created does Lifshin interject, always returning us to the vision of a young passionate woman on the banks of the Tigris, weaving words and history into a beautiful braid, giving “birth to what/explodes from/her heart,” as in the poem, “Between the Euphrates and the Tigris.”
The first section is as much a tribute to Enheduanna as Enheduanna’s to the goddess Inanna, a contribution to the very immortalization of which she stands in awe. Here is a woman, 6000 years before us, that we as readers can associate with, that through “rage and pain” is asking: “Can you still be/a poet-priestess/when your skin/wants a flesh man?” (“Some Days Her Heart Feels No Relief”). Is art alone enough to sustain us? This is one of the many questions of poet, reader, as much as it is of Enheduanna herself. The relationship between art and life is an essential one to explore as is the nature of language, simultaneously fragile and permanent: “She can’t let/the day go, she/is obsessed,//she is carrying/the embryo of a/poem in her fingers.” Enheduanna shows us the restlessness Lifshin colors her with, a young writing because she has to, often showing little control over the act of creating art. With or without her consent, Enheduanna creates, each poem becomes a divine act, “each shape/glowing with the/ambiguity poetry/demands,” as in the poem “When She Pressed Her Web-Shaped Reed into Soft Clay.”
Much like Enheduanna, Scheherazade is alive and well in this collection, despite the nightly danger she faced at the hands of the Sultan if she was unable to entertain him with her stories. Lifshin tells us in her introduction that this is a woman “easy to identify with,” which one finds to be, however unfortunately, a profoundly true statement. At the beginning of this section, Lifshin sets up the notion of sexuality coming second in importance to artistic importance, the latter a more difficult test to cheat on, and a task that cannot be faked. In the third poem in this section, “Scheherazade,” our subject is clad in blue, “not the wild bullfight flame/color that drives men wild/as the story goes,/but calm.” Importance and focus is placed on her word, not her physical form. The hypnotized husband becomes the “you” in most of this section, forcing the reader to identify with him, to become as taken with the speaker as we are the author, both performing the same task, luring us with their imaginations, one through the other. “Each tale,” she tells us “like the third person/in this ménage à /trois where words tempt/more than bodies,” as she shows in “How Could Her Palms Not Be Wet?” She offers the scenario of man, woman, and story locked in an intimate triste. The reader becomes the fourth member, breath held, a fearful voyeur who cannot turn away. The speaker’s ongoing plots become a “strip tease,” each night only a shred of clothing removed as a new plot unravels in the ongoing effort to stay alive. We get the sense that the imminent danger adds adrenaline we presume is needed to do what she has to do to stay alive. Lifshin interestingly equates Scheherazade to Rapunzel in “ Each Night She is Like A Drowning Nymph,” with her words as her rope, both women sacrificing themselves to escape their fate.
Lifshin saves the best for last, paying tribute to the mystery and beauty of Nefertiti through poems as sensual and strong as the woman herself. Speculating on the many theories about the woman’s life and death, Lifshin paints the third portrait in her collection, this one maintaining the state of the “perpetual arousal” Lifshin warns us of in the section’s introduction. We are also shown a deep admiration, as the author conjures ideas of what Nefertiti may have thought and felt during all phases of her life, as woman, mother, as goddess and king, multifaceted “like a flower/that keeps unfolding,” but, as time has shown, nowhere near as fragile or ephemeral, as she shows us in “Hours Posing for the Sculpture.” Nefertiti’s beauty and power has lasted beyond what she could have imagined, though Lifshin certainly instills in her version of this mythical creature a kind of prescience rivaled only by her sex appeal. “[H]er skin can barely/keep her inside,” we see as the young woman poses for the sculptor who will immortalize her, a knowledge of her own beauty, which seems to feed itself infinitely.
Maybe due to the accessibility of the work, to the balance of speculation and fact, or perhaps because of the ease with which the poet navigates her subject, this collection comes to a close before we are ready to let go, leaving us sitting in the sun on the banks of the Nile, thinking of these three beauties, each a petal of that forever-unfolding flower, wondering why we haven’t read more poetry about them. Ultimately, the collection as whole educates as much as it admires, and the subject matter is presented with equal parts knowledge and grace.