Lyn Lifshin has not written a series of poems about Alfred Hitchcock’s films. That would be a yawn. Instead, the poems are about Hitchcock and his problematic personality. And that makes this book of poems unique.
By Victor Schwartzman, poetry editor
Just available now: Lyn Lifshin’s Hitchcock Hotel, from Stonesthrow Poetry (available via Amazon.com, as a Kindle). Talk about timing. Alfred Hitchcock is the director most associated with things creepy, and Halloween is this year’s most frightening day on the calendar until Election Day!
Sir Alfred died worrying that he had become irrelevant to modern audiences. 1970’s audiences and later ones often found his films the opposite of frightening. The ‘master of the macabre’ (or was that William Castle?) actually made only a film and a half to earn him horror movie status: Psycho and parts of The Birds and Frenzy. The rest of Hitchcock’s films are suspense films, not horror or even frightening. However, it turns out his personality was frightening.
Hitchcock made Psycho partly because he was worried about becoming irrelevant. The audience wanted violence and being frightened? He decided to give it to them, in spades! And, by the time it came out, audiences were ready for a major switch in the pacing of thrillers and how much violence they saw onscreen.
Hitchcock’s films remain interesting for many reasons, among them how they reflect creepy aspects of his personality. A recent HBO film explored Tippi Hedren’s abuse problems with Hitchcock on The Birds and Marnie, depicting him as a stalker, demanding sex from her and destroying her career when she refused. An upcoming theatrical film, starring Anthony Hopkins, apparently is about Hitchcock’s insecurities leading up to Psycho.
Lyn Lifshin, who has written more books of poetry than most libraries own, takes on Hitchcock in her new collection, available in the Kindle format. Lifshin has periodically written books built around central themes. Barbaro: Beyond Brokenness, about a race horse, is probably the best known. A recent book, Tango, Knife Edge & Absinthe (out from Night Ballet Press, and to be reviewed here soon) is a series of poems built around the Tango.
Building a series of poems about Hitchcock, Lifshin did not simply watch the movies. This poet did research! The poems contain details of interviews with Hitchcock, various bits from his life, and some poems about his rarely mentioned wife, Alma. Lifshin seems to KNOW the guy.
So here is one artist, a poet with her words, assessing the personality of another artist, a poet with his films. She is tall and blonde and dances ballet; he, as Tippi Hedren has claimed, was so fat and ugly he had to blackmail women into sex. Lifshin is a very strong woman, Hitchcock loved in real life controlling women.
Expect fireworks from these poems.
So what do we get? First, the recognition that Hitchcock’s films resemble in eerie ways his personality and life (just as a poet’s work resembles hers). That a creepy guy made creepy movies ain’t hard to believe.
AS IF THERE WAS A HUGE
stewing pot of images
deep inside Hitchcock
bubbling to the surface
wild gems from Hitch’s
own secret longings
and imagination, dream
like images never quite
logical but wild as
long hair under water.
All he couldn’t deal
with with women
bloomed in rich
tapestries in the work
tho it left him lonely
and scattered but the
private desire, the
scenes bloomed into
art that scared and
delighted so many
Not Mr. Nice Guy…
Reflected within Hitchcock’s films are his obsessions with women, especially focusing on cool blondes with fire inside. Dial M for Murder has been characterized as Hitchcock reflecting himself through the murderer, noting the character played by Ray Milland directs the murderer on how he wants his wife killed. How many films reflect aspects of his personality? All of them. That is why a Hitchcock film is a Hitchcock film, duh. How many of the films reflect stories from his own life, are allegories about his experiences and desires? Probably, in the central plots, all of the films Hitchcock made on his own, starting with Rope. As Lifshin notes, Hitchcock shifted plots to reflect his own experiences, becoming more and more extreme as he went on, leading to Frenzy, which features a ghastly explicit rape/murder sequence which forces the viewer to become a voyeur far more than Hitchcock’s other films had. Frenzy is both Hitchcock’s most “modern” film and his most revolting.
One of Hitchcock’s favourite approaches is to find fear in the disruption of the expected. In The Birds he found a perfect allegory—birds, for no given reason, break the usual chirping routine and instead begin attacking humans. There is no explanation for why the attacks begin and no idea when they will end. No safe place exists, no refuge is possible: outside is deadly, but being inside is not much better. Several of Lifshin’s poems are about that film:
WHEN THE JUNGLE GYM FILLS WITH BLACK BIRDS
When black birds dot
the bars, first one, then
another four. Black
and ebony swooping,
startling. When the
bars became a cage of
fear and the birds
agitated. When the
birds suddenly take off,
swarm, cast licorice
shadows and then
swoop to attack, shatter
the eye glasses of
one girl, it is sure
nothing that seemed
to be safe won’t
The Birds was Hitchcock’s last great film. The glory days were behind him. His techniques were indeed outdated for audiences brought up on receiving a ‘bump’ every few minutes, first introduced by the James Bond film Dr. No. Hitchcock was happy with three or four major suspense sequences in an entire film, but Dr. No gave audiences major sequences every three or four minutes. The pacing was much faster, and what followed for Hitchcock was increasing decreasing results, as it were. Marnie, Topaz, Torn Curtain, Family Plot—only cinephiles who have not seen these films describe them as masterpieces.
Hitchcock knew this, and in his later years rested on laurels which were lost on a younger audience. See how Lifshin describes a rare public interview Hitchcock gave:
ALFRED HITCHCOCK IS INTERVIEWED ON JAMES LIPTON’S ACTOR’S STUDIO
He’s reluctant, in a way,
prefers few words in
public. “Thanks” for a
life time achievement
award or walk on parts
in a film where he’s
barely noticed. He could
tell James about his
childhood ordeals, the
mysterious night locked
in a police cell for
no reason. The applause,
ok, that’s par but will
he have to say much
about the blondes he
can’t stand being taunted
by? Some of the guests
sing or do a little soft
shoe. Hitchcock knows
he’ll be lucky to get
across the stage, wants
to get behind a table
to not show how large
he is. He knows he can
put on a front, use the
clash between reality
and illusion to draw
the audience in then
throw them off. He
knows his reputation
blinds them, leaves them
fumbling in the dark for
all the questions they ask.
They won’t truly see him
anymore than if their
eyes were glazed, their
cracked eye glasses
Take the poem in the larger context. It’s all about the aging artist basking in the dying glow of fading work. It is easy to believe that this image of Hitchcock is quite true—in many respects he was going through the motions after Marnie. His films came farther apart, and increasingly appeared to reflect past glories. Frenzy feels desperate to attract an audience.
HE WAS OBSESSED WITH MONEY
as if it was power, a mask
to camouflage his awkwardness.
He had paintings, cattle ranches.
He grew richer every year but
he seemed sad, as if what ever
he had wasn’t enough. He was
like a schoolboy who never
grew up. Obsessed with sex like
a young boy he had endless
dirty jokes, vulgar stories. They
amused him more than anyone
else. But it was like money,
power over the women, a way
to surprise them, have their
attention, control them like
jumping on a woman in a night
gown in a bed on the set. He
was not what he wanted to be,
not handsome or suave and he
never came to terms with
what he was
It is entirely possible to conclude at this point that Lifshin does not think a huge amount of Sir Alfred as a person, good fellow or gentleman.
as if sure everyone
else was doing something
dark and forbidden,
kinky sex and loving it,
as if something in him
was not up to it,
never was, he’d blurt
out blue passages,
suggest a gin and
menstrual blood drink,
whisper something that
would titillate a blonde
beauty, get a rise from her
in the one way he could
There was one strong woman in Hitchcock’s life—his life partner, and film-making partner. Lifshin writes about her and what she faced in life as Hitchcock’s wife:
with her dark cloche hat half over her eyes
and her short brown hair, glasses, a smile the
went from slightly turned up to a down
at the corners curl, a grimace. Years later
would she still have asked him to marry?
Lively and smart, not a blonde beauty but
full of ideas, would she have traded the
wealth, the travel the excitement for maybe
one night of sex? After a few years,
that bulge of flesh moving into her
briefly and then, like a barricade at the
other end of the table, just enough to make
the daughter she’d make a life of as
she helped Alfred with film negotiations
while he watched every hair on some blonde
beauty, hardly looked at her except as a
mother, an assistant. She heard his sex talk
to the babes knowing he’d never touch her.
She helped him edit trick shots of those
mechanical birds, animation because he
needed her even tho he didn’t want her as a
husband, a man and she soothed and apologized
the distraught women when he embarrassed
them, told them she was sorry they had to go
thru this, over and over as she must have told herself
Lifshin, as always, writes clearly, crisply. Her assessment of Hitchcock is honest and as direct as can be. In the end, does she think Hitchcock learned anything about himself before he died? As one last thought, quite suitable for Halloween:
HITCH WRITES TO TIPPI FROM THE GRAVE
under the tangle of roots and leaves,
past champagne to dull the aloneness,
red wine. Under pale bulbs, color
of the silence, fleshly as his belly
was before, smooth as her breasts
under red lambs wool. A lamb
herself, one he was sure he could
take and cuddle, keep from predators.
Sure, he thinks, he should apologize
for a few things: that the birds were
real. Sure he knew but it was for
those perfect frames of fear. The
terror he’d never catch any other way.
He wonders if she hates him for that,
thinks maybe he should write her.
Yes, he admits, he said some off color
things, maybe he moved in too abruptly
but what is a lonely slob of a man
going to do? Grace Kelly forgave him and
Ingrid Bergman. He thinks Tippi had such
promise, such looks. What’s a dirty joke
he wants to tell her: we’re all going to
die. Earth molds around his bones
like lava tubes around what had been
living, caught in molten flame as he
wants to tell Tippi he felt some afternoons,
how isolated hours were without the
camera. It was never good he knows the
last times they saw each other. Even
Alma couldn’t soothe things over. But
to see her no longer, as the blonde beauty
he longed for might be worse than to
never see her again