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.”
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
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
Mother To The
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
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
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
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
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?
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.
Read more by Lyn Lifshin in our digital archive.