by Lyn Lifshin

For several years I've lived between two houses.  When I think of a typical day in my glass and wood house no one can believe was actually built in the 50's, I think of the light thru stained glass, the cat rubbing against the cobalt, amethyst and jade lampshade, starved, a luscious green shadowy light. Last weekend squirrels woke me up there, already scrambling along the walnut branches. I think of loud rain, nuts crashed against stone. A train in the distance. Now I long for mornings the cat couldn't wait, could leap up to the window, the counter where, these last months she can only get to if the dishwasher door is open and even then, she's apt to clunk down in the corner between that door and the cupboard where I spent hours with my mother the night the plane crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland unsticking a lazy Susan and I saw her bones sticking up out of her clothes and knew what I didn't want to know was coming was. 

Up in that house, where I am when I'm not here in Vienna (where I'm writing where I so often do on my way to ballet, in the metro,)  one constant seems that, tho I am not in love with cooking, mornings start with grinding coffee beans and feeding (which now, often means coaxing) my green eyed Abyssinian cat, Memento, to eat one of several cans of food I'll tempt her with during the day. A year ago I thought she was dying – it kept reminding me of trying to tempt my mother to "just try this" in her last days. In Niskayuna I bring a cup of coffee upstairs, write in bed a couple of hours, the phone off the hook in the past, no voices. Today, looking for a book to fill an order with (not exactly a daily ritual but I do have a list of books available (onyxvelvet@aol.com) and since no one can find them in book stores or even thru used book stores, I am glad to get them out) I came across a chapbook diary of my work on my collection of women's memoirs, Ariadne's Thread. In writing a memoir for Gale Research Series for Contemporary Authors, On The Outside: Lips, Blues, Blue Lace, thought that the past became most real for me through letters I wrote and photographs, rather than diaries. But just skimming thru this little book called Lobster and Oatmeal (my first choice for the dairy and journal collection) I'm amazed how wrong I was about diaries, my diary: the selections, from August 7, 1980 to October 31, 1982, a day before my deadline, make the time so vivid.  June 30, 1981 starts: "love this early time of day, phone off the hook, light thru the leaves..." I read this after writing what a typical (good) day is. It's full of things I've forgotten, like a letter from Sylvia Plath's mother about Sylvia's diaries.....where is that now? Somewhere, probably in, as I wrote on June 30, 1981 in "the papers, typed up notebooks, manuscripts, interviews crammed into boxes..."

Several years ago Mary Ann Lynch and her film crew came to my house to do a documentary film on me: Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass. They planned to begin the shoot with what would have been a typical day in my life: get up, grind the coffee beans, feed the cat. Instead of sweats or jeans, I was wearing a long plum velvet sweatshirt--like dress now in a closet down here in the room over looking the pond where I saw a "real" banded goose from Fly Away Home one January and where, in a few minutes, I'll go to feed six three week old goslings.  That first morning with the film crew, we  walked thru this morning ritual a few times. But that start of a typical day never got on film. All was ready. The director said whatever happens, just keep on going. Never look at the camera.  The windows were gelled, the house was full of huge machines, everything transformed, the beans were in the grinder. The crew was a room away, my cat  suitably hungry and we began. First, Lights, Camera and then, just as the someone called Action and the clackers cut the stillness, the cat leaped up, terrified, into the coffee beans, spilling them thru the floor, even into the dining room in her escape. I just stood there, frozen, staring at the camera, the flecks of cat food scenting the air. Memento hid under the bed rest of the day. So this daily ritual never got in the film. I'd love to see the out-takes.  My cat never did and still doesn't like strangers around

When I was a child, I dreamed of being a ballerina. I wanted to have long skinny legs you could see light thru, not plump thighs that would rub against each other as if too shy to stride around on their own. In Middlebury, Vermont, a calendar town (Life Magazine always came to take photographs of the white Congregational Church when it snowed) of 3,000, there was ballroom dancing but no ballet until, for a short time, an exotic woman from France who had danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet (and gave me a cherished green silk costume and head dress) taught Saturday morning classes.  I probably still have the tiny blue and brown taffeta check costume for a recital, puffy and full, a costume that did nothing for me, in a suitcase near the fireplace on Appletree. My mother used this valise when she went to college at Simmons and Maryland College for Women, maybe even to elope. I imagine the peach satin teddies, (her nickname) she really bought for the man she couldn't marry and then packed as the spirea and yellow roses were full of June. She was leaving for a marriage that would happen too fast for her to think about and back out of to a man from a family of brothers she heard made good husbands. I imagine that night from her stories and from a box of letters from the man she left I found recently, a trigger for a group of poems in Before It's Light.

My house on Appletree, dark and wood paneled, is full of ghosts and many sneak into poems. My mother's pocket book, in the closet, as if after 9 years she'll get out of the hospital bed she died in and want to go out and shop. There are over a hundred boxes, maybe more, of literary magazines from the mid sixties to now, every letter I wrote my mother, photographs from my first days on Hill St, Barre, Vermont to snapshots from a week ago, photographs of gone lovers, dead relatives, dead cats. My wedding gown is packed  on the garage, baton, softball mitt, my mother's pogo stick, her Mah-jongg set, chandelier that hunger in her dining room, shells, smooth glass pebbles from a 4 year old now with her own children, all the books I had as a child, my drawings my mother hung on walls. There are drawers of angora and cashmere( they had to be, they were checked, a touch of your shoulder as you left) sweaters from sorority rushing in college, an old doll that turned dark in the sun on vacation. Every shelf, every drawer haunts: old diaries, jewelry from my past, posters, news clips, a black scarf of stars my mother gave me one Christmas Eve we wandered thru a half outdoor mall, paintings, videotapes of readings, a samovar from my grandmother's house, tapestries that hung there. On a shelf in my kitchen there, old ballet dolls, prisms, a chestnut from Versailles, silver horse yanked from the crushed grill of my torn Mustang near the "wild women don't get the blues" button. The other day there, I saw ivy come thru the floor boards as it did one of the most difficult years. Nothing in that house isn't throbbing with memories. And there's little in the house that isn't connected with writing: a garage too full of paper and magazines and books to put a car in, full, as I said in the introduction to Not Made of Glass "musty, moldy carbons, diaries whose wire spiral spines tangle and clot, posters, photographs, workshop exercises"

Here, in Vienna, when I'm not traveling, mornings start with that shot that didn't get into the documentary: the coffee, the cat.  Most mornings now though I am in the shower by 8 am and out the door an hour later for ballet. Those classes I longed for as a child, now I have nearly every day, though I miss, desperately, the long mornings to write. But I'm obsessed with dance, too. In planning film shots for Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass the film maker wrote "the more I discuss with her what other possibilities there are for scenes, the more it comes down to the fact that nearly everything she does, except for ballet and movies, is related to poetry."

Lately I want to pare away everything not connected to work, work to numbness– no, not to numbness, – I have often done that– but to feeling I am getting what I need done and can go to the pond and feed that geese, photograph herons. Time seems the one thing I can't get enough of. Of course, if I didn't spend as much as 11 hours some day coming and going to dance (two dance classes and one body sculpture class some days of the week) I might not feel I never could touch down.  A year and a half ago I stopped sending out poetry submissions, unless invited. There were a couple of reasons to change what had been a daily ritual: noting acceptances, sending bio notes, keeping track, resubmitting rejected poems. Most of my reasons involved saving time. I was ecstatic when Black Sparrow said they wanted to do a series of my books. I've been fortunate in having many supportive publishers. Often when I travel to read and teach, people know my work from magazines more than books even though I've published over a 100 books and chapbooks and until review magazines cut back drastically on reviewing poetry books, especially small press poetry books, one of the most important ways my books got into libraries, my books were well reviewed.   Because I wanted to be sure I had many new poems for a new Black Sparrow book, in January 1998 I began typing up but, for the first time, not even printing out, let alone sending out, poems. There were disks and disks.  In late July of 98, asked if I could have a new book manuscript by the end of the year, I began working full tilt on going through those disks. In the past, I selected book manuscripts, or an editor or publisher did, mostly from poems that had appeared in magazines, a first edit really.  In many ways, this was scary. I looked  thru the magazines that had appeared since I finished Cold Comfort.  I had never selected poems no one had seen. Seeing some of these poems quoted in Black Sparrow's just out catalogue is a relief.

There are so many poems–all fall I cut and cut and cut, then I cut within the sections of the new book, looking for variety and strength. There are still boxes on the table downstairs– each labeled by the cut. Finally close to the middle of December, after more juggling, more and more revisions, I got the book in the mail. Though exciting, and fun, putting any book or anthology together is consuming. It's like teaching, something I've done a lot of. I especially enjoy planning workshops on some theme.  The New York Museum often asks me to design workshops to accompany an exhibit: The Holocaust, Mothers and Daughters, the American Urban Ghetto, Feelings about War, Mirrors etc. It can take up to half a year to prepare for these workshops, always ending it seems with me writing many poems on the subject.  (That is how Blue Tattoo, my collection of Holocaust poems grew, as well as a series of Mirror poems and some still untyped up poems about runaway children, the homeless, the disenchanted.)  Though I'm not teaching any ongoing workshops right now, a large number of my former students have continued in their own successful writing careers. 

I was sure I'd have a lot more time once the mail wasn't overwhelming. I wanted to type up the backlog:  80-100 handwritten spiral notebooks that go back to 1991. But it still seems I'm clawing and grabbing for time. If I'm up at 6, it's still a rush. I no longer keep a diary, don't write dreams down as I always used to. I don't have time to read under the velvet quilt, get work done and then go out for ballet in the evening, work again when I get home. Writing has always been a small part of what takes all the time: the typing, arranging readings, promoting readings, books, writing letters. When I come back late several evenings, I finally get to read just for pleasure.  I haven't started using a laptop on the metro– but I am set on getting caught up. If I didn't write by hand in notebooks, I'd save a lot of time. This way, by the time I get to some of the poems, they could have been written by a stranger, hieroglyphs

Getting the new Black Sparrow catalogue with its description of Before It's Light, I need to get news of its coming publication around, this time, since I'm not publishing so widely and wildly, without the chance to mention it in a bio.  Black Sparrow does a small hard cover edition of their books where each author does something unique with a poem. Calligraphy, painting.  I used to paint and for Cold Comfort I water colored a xerox of a photograph    I would like to try something more ambitious for Before It's Light, oils or water colors, but I need a stretch of time like a beach with no prints on it. I'm wild for more time to just gaze out at the pond, at the walnuts, let what's outside, like the rush of Otter Falls, move inside. Today, here in this house, in this guava and blood light moving from the water a few feet away, turning walls raspberry, there's less of the past. But in a minute, I'll jump back in the shower for the second and third ballet class today.

It's about 4:15, June 4. I'm back on the metro, the second time today for this hour trip into D.C. It is obsessive, this ballet and body sculpture binge, but its better than drugs or booze. Two days a week I have only two hours at my desk between classes. One day, I'm out from 9 AM to 10PM. Walking past the pond, I thought it would be nice– it's cool and bright– just to read in the shade, get a start on a manuscript I'm getting paid well to look at. But I'm going east on the orange line. As I said, I write a lot on the subway. Once when I was asked to teach a workshop on sensuality and sexuality for women, I read erotica and porn during rush-hour, wrapped the books in other book jackets so people crushed up close to me wouldn't press even close seeing Susie Bright or The Story of O. One day the book I was reading for this wouldn't fit in the jackets I usually used. Only a book on cooking steak worked and the mix of porn and grilling turned in a few wild poems on their own. One is in Cold Comfort, another will be in Before It's Light.

If I hadn't been spending time down in Virginia, I wonder how different my work would be.  The first year or so in DC, I went to museums every day. All of my book Marilyn Monroe Poems, written in a few weeks the first October I was here, came out of what and who I saw wandering around the city, reading the paper, missing upstate and feeling, as I always do, even more intensely an outsider. Wherever I went that almost-a-month October, Marilyn or poems about Marilyn followed.

Riding in, past Clarendon, I'm thinking how I have to plan readings, book signings, – there never seems a time to not feel I have to rush, hurry. In high school I was pressed, by myself, to win art and science contests. Every year I worked hard on a scientific display, more art than science, – a giant papier mache model of the eye, models of carbon molecules. I should just take a break, go to Europe but no one else can give my cat pills, fuss over her while she's eating. Another project I won't get to today is working to get my papers in an archive. Not only is upstate full of towering boxes of magazines and paper. Here too. The garage, the floor, too many rooms– workshop material, handwritten notes, notebooks, hard copies– fax machines, printers, little red lights blinking in every room. Except when I'm traveling, I hardly need more than sweat shirts, a denim mini skirt, boots and of course leotards and ballet slippers. But my closets bulge with too many clothes, too much velvet.  And too many unused leotards. I got into ballet when , living alone after divorce, I worked for hours, forget to eat, living on coffee. After sitting at a desk for hours, I needed more. I started with one class from a bad teacher who billed herself as a several time Miss Vermont and then began classes with a real dancer who I collaborated with: workshops combining ballet and journal writing, performances using my poems, her choreography. Now it's almost daily. But ballet still comes as hard to me as some probably think writing comes easy.

9.PM. Waiting for the metro is a great time to watch people. Usually on this trip back, I read short stories, dessert. It will be dark when I get to Vienna. Probably there will be oval shapes on the pond, geese in the ripples. I still haven't figured out exactly where the six goslings sleep. My tangerine tree will fill the air with a heavy musk I'll be able to smell before I get there. The moon will come thru my mother's pigeon ruby punch bowl and turn her refinished pale Heywood Wakefield furniture pale scarlet. Those maple pieces that were in my parents rooms  before I was have lived in more houses than I have. Tomorrow a day not to have to be anywhere. And now cut grass wind, clover and roses, the last streaks of garnet and tourmaline past the blood oaks the beaver hasn't touched yet.

More Prose by Lyn Lifshin:
Publishing as an Outsider


Last Updated:
December 27, 2000