Back in the days when all writing submissions came to us by mail, we could identify poet Lyn Lifshin’s packages even before seeing her return address. She would typically send a stack of poems the size of a book manuscript. A week later she might send another. We tried asking politely if she could submit fewer poems at once, but there was no stopping the flow of words from her pen. Describing her writing process toward the end of her life, she said, “When asked for a poem, I’d write fifty.”

Lifshin died this past December in Virginia at the age of seventy-seven. She was born in Barre, Vermont, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University in New York and her master’s from the University of Vermont. Dubbed the “queen of the small presses,” she was the author of more than 130 books and chapbooks, and a list of her publication credits would be too long for us to print.

A submission from Lifshin would often include dozens of poems about a single subject: a relationship, a memory, dancing the tango. (Dance — including ballet and ballroom — was her second great love, after writing.) Our former manuscript editor Colleen Donfield recalls, “Over and over she would record the happy days of her childhood and the later constraints of living with her mother and sister in their small but complete world.” Lifshin also wrote about cultural and political topics that fascinated her, including entire books about the Barbie doll, the racehorse Secretariat, and Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. But it was her more personal poetry that found its way into The Sun.

What follows is an incomplete selection of her poems that have appeared in our pages over the years. You can read the rest on our website and learn more about her and her work at lynlifshin.com.

Her unique voice will be missed. Looking back on her younger self, Lifshin said, in 2018, “My days were filled with writing and dancing, and it was enough. It was more than enough.”

— Ed.

 

Next Door
My Neighbor
Is Moving
packing the chinese
rugs and amethyst
measuring the
chippendale chest
she’s circled which
crates are for
silver which for
moving china this
year she won’t
see the grape
vine turn green
from her bed the
chinese dogwood’s
star flowers glow
across the yard
from lawnchairs a
June breeze hits
40 years she’s
watched her husband
put in rose leaves
and iris     a border
of geraniums that
never looked the
same when she put
them in herself
alone     she’s pack
ing the years she
painted while he
played the violin
told her what to
pack for paris     his
voice as much a part
of the rooms as the
way light slivers
thru the spruce
that was just planted
the first night in
the house, the moon
wild on them the
whole night
The Mad Girl
Is Flip,
Uses Words
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
wounded on the
side of the road
Taking My
Mother To The
Bathroom
I lead her, a
child waking up
from a nightmare,
dazed by light.
She lags, hurries
then, half cranky,
half grateful.
She wants the
door shut, then
says open it,
wants my hands
the right way,
wash in between
my fingers she
says the wash
cloth is too
wet, too cold,
too soapy. The
towels are too
heavy. You don’t,
she spits, cover
your mouth. Go
home, you should
not be here to
see me like this
My Mother
Who Can’t
see my face clear enough
to know me in Macy’s
until she hears my
voice wants to go
out in the trees      look
for the comet.
She sighs how she
used to be able to
jump up from a yoga
position      now has to
catch her breath. She
wants to learn to
disco      says how when
she wanted to dance
they wouldn’t let her
still she danced on bare
toes as if her feet were
in pointe shoes. The
comet she says like a
child dreaming of
marzipan      we could
go out in the trees
look up for that
brightness lashing us
with light that won’t
be here again for
200 years     as she moves
by touching the
scarred red wood
slowly up stairs she
used to take three
at a time
Dropping The Bottle
Of Perfume My Mother
Always Wore
on the anniversary of her dying, the
candle for her flickering down
stairs, an eerie light like the
arms of someone drowning. In the
mirror my body seems to be trying

to catch up with her, as if
stripped to the bone it would be
sweeter, close. I’m in a house
that doesn’t seem like mine, though
my clothes are in a closet. I want

the smell of her, as Napoleon carried
in a locket the violets that Josephine
always wore, taken from her grave. I
take the Joy out of the drawer where
it’s nestled in flannel, and it slips

from my hands, as she did, smashes
on white tile, an explosion of glass.
I try to soak up the gold juice like
someone at a murder trying to sop
up blood. “Shit,” I yelp, but only once,

as if I’m in a church or synagogue.
Or because of the day. The bottle
could be me, ragged, in sharp pieces,
empty, holding on to what is gone.
The pale chemise reeks of jasmine

and roses. I take it to my old house,
where once, when we fought and she
said my clothes were slutty, I held
my breath, wondered when things
wouldn’t always be this way.
Like When I Read
About The Other
Side Of The
Moon Landing
how, if things went bad, if there
was a moon disaster and the
astronauts couldn’t come back,
they’d call the widows-to-be
before reading the statement to
the nation. Then NASA would
cut off communication with
the stranded astronauts, and
the clergyman would adopt
the same procedure as a
burial at sea. I think of you,
baby, telling me how you
pulled the plug on your phone
talking to a woman who
thought she was yours, a
warning I should have listened
to before I was in a cold place,
like where those astronauts might
have been, with no hope left
of getting back to where I’d
started, stuck, abandoned, with-
out anything like those suicide
capsules someone says they
carried with them. When
you said you’d call
back and didn’t, I could have
been getting that phone call,
not so different from the one
I got months later cutting all
connection: “It’s not you,
it’s me.” And then, “It’s over.”
Do I Really
Have To Write
About What Seems
Most Scary?
Isn’t it enough I’ve fought against
it with ballet classes every day,
often more than one? Do I have
to tell you about the letter
from a woman who says, “Now
in the gym the men stop looking”?
Do I have to joke, “Pull the plug if
I can’t do ballet,” laugh when a
friend says, “I didn’t sleep with him
because I’d have to get undressed”?
Do I have to remember my mother
saying she’d rather be dead than
lose her teeth?
I think of the friend who
says she doesn’t worry about what
poem she’ll read but about what she
will wear. Another says she wants
plastic surgery but doesn’t think
it’s right for someone in the arts;
shouldn’t she care about loftier things?
I think of another woman who will
be photographed only in certain
positions. Do I have to tell you what
I’m thinking about isn’t death?
The Pearls
An engagement present from my husband’s parents,
they seemed like something from a yearbook photograph.
I’d have preferred a wrought-iron pendant, costume
beads that caught the sunlight. Pearls were for them,

and I was always only a visitor in their world. He wished
I would call him “Dad,” but “Sam” was all I could get out.
It was hard to throw my arms around him, to kiss
his cheek. And not just because they thought me a hippie,

a witch who’d stolen their son’s car and stamp collection.
Pearls didn’t go with my corduroy smocks and long straight
black hair. They clashed with the hoops of onyx and abalone
in my ears. They might have gone with the suits I’d thrown away,
no longer a graduate student trying to please, but they weren’t
suitable for hiding in the trees with a poet or throwing up wine
after poetry readings. The pearls reminded me of the way
I’d once thought I was: studious but not wild, not interesting.

I put those pearls on last night, though, after finding them shoved
in a drawer like small eggs waiting to hatch. They didn’t seem ugly
and apt to choke but gentle and mild, as so little in my life is these days.
I slept in them and nothing else, as if they were a part of me.