As the title suggests, the thrust of this collection of poems is a revision of the poet's life not strictly a project of setting things in order but meditations on certain important aspects of her life, chiefly having to do with family and love but without the slavish demands of factual accuracy imposed on it. Indeed, the very title puts the "license" into "poetic license" because whether this sequence of poems can be taken as the autobiography of Lyn Lifshin is beside the point; we do not read the poems as "facts." The poems are provisional reconstructions, not factual renditions.
For just as what we think we see with our eyes is not "reality" but light beamed into the brain from which we interpret according to what we already know of the world, so the memories recaptured and displayed here are filtered through the poet's emotions, attachments, personality, and in that, for her at least, may provide a more accurate understanding of who she is.
To the rest of us, the poems seem to be recurring dreams that intersect with reality, amplify it, distort it, but nonetheless are sunk like stones in the muck of "reality." Again and again we see her sister with the blue eyes that convince the poet her sister is adopted; the mother who receives more telephone calls in college than anybody else; the buttered bread and milk that are the poet's mother's dying wish; the mother dancing on a table or on her blue couch or in a hospital charming the nurses, and dozens of other details that loom up into consciousness with new significance each time, even if tacitly dismissed a moment later as just another version in a stream of versions. The images slip through the reader's fingers like sand or water, just as the poem entitled "The past is melting in my fingers" suggests.
Otherwise, one poem bleeds into the next, like dreams, a kaleidoscopic view of the woman, who is this woman and another woman and another woman in a series of overlapping images that aren't quite the same.
Though there is punctuation throughout the poems, there is never a concluding period at the end of any poem, suggesting, like the title of the book, the idea that all are just possible versions of the events of a life and their significance. Only the poem entitled "I Never Wanted You," from the "written on the body of night" section, poems dealing with lovers, ends with a punctuation mark appropriately, a question mark. Otherwise, one poem bleeds into the next, like dreams, a kaleidoscopic view of the woman, who is this woman and another woman and another woman in a series of overlapping images that aren't quite the same. Echoing this idea is the book's cover, a repeated snapshot of a winsome Lifshin in a miniskirt, posing like a fashion model, one photo in blue tint, others tantalizingly cropped by the title and edges of the book more or less the same photograph but slightly different.
In another context, the poems in Another Woman Who Looks Like Me might be said to constitute a psycho-history. Indeed, a comparison with Marcel Proust comes to mind. Just as Proust began the monumental task of recapturing the past through the taste of the madeleine, so Lifshin recaptures her mother, after she has died, in the scent of wintergreen ("a whiff of wintergreen is/the smell of my mother"); the powerful olfactory sensation evokes so many vivid associations of her mother in Vermont. In the same way so many of the poems are rooted in some simple visual or sensual cue a candy dish, a jar of baby teeth, a kitchen knife, a bath mat, her mother's vanity, an odor of sex.
Lifshin's erotic poems in the "written on the body of the night" section are equally poignant and rooted in sensation, equally stuff she'll "never be over with."
"The past is melting in my fingers" comes from a section entitled "parallel worlds," with poems about grandfather, father, sister, cousin, uncle. This section begins the lengthy psycho-history of her family, principally her mother, her decline and death, and like the title of the book, the section title suggests the poet is aware of the conditional nature of the accounts just another draft, another possible explication.
Most important to this reconstruction is her vivid recollections of her mother. Of the twelve sections of the book, nine of them are dominated by poems about the poet's family, principally her mother. That the mother-daughter bond is a potent one does not need to be argued. The poems about the poet's mother are vivid, heartbreaking, especially when we see her in her decline. Tellingly, toward the end of these mother poems come the lines from "Hearing 'Bloomsday' as 'Blues Day'":
Before she died
she was in the bed
in the orange room.
Now she is
Indeed, it could be argued that the other woman who "looks like me" is the poet's mother. The poem, "The night before I was born," concludes with the lines about her mother, "She
wanted to get on
with what she still
didn't know she'd
never be over with"
Certainly this observation applies equally to the poet as it does to her mother. And just as the poet feels a strong bond with her mother, reconstructs her in her head and in verse, so the mother reconstructs the daughter. "She saved
every mention of
my name as if they
Lifshin's erotic poems in the "written on the body of the night" section are equally poignant and rooted in sensation, equally stuff she'll "never be over with." You can sense the anticipation of erotic allure in lines like these from "Black sweater in May":
The sun warmer
than hands, it slid
thru the last
mounds of snow as the
man who made me blush
just sitting near me
was suddenly there.
A sequence of poems addressed to a "dead" lover make one wonder if the object is really dead or just metaphorically. Dickinson-like, these poems evoke a sense of never-fulfilled possibilities, heartbreak, rejection. Others take place in motel rooms, fleeting, almost anonymous sexual encounters, the stuff of pure eros.
Another Woman Who Looks Like Me opens appropriately with a section, "slippery blisses," poems that bring the poet into focus in childhood in Vermont "Lake Champlain," "First Day of School," "Saturday movies," "In front of my mother's vanity." The collection ends with two sections of poems about nature, no family involved. In the penultimate section, "darkness in the light," the poems move from dead winter to lush, hopeful spring, focusing on the color and vegetation of the natural world, while "the wind won't carry us" contains poems about birds herons, geese, doves, swans. If there is a message here, it may be the cyclical nature of life, grief mutating into hope. Only the natural world endures; human history is painted on its canvas, ever-changing.