Excerpts from LIPS, BLUES, BLUE LACE: ON THE OUTSIDE
Excerpts from an Autobiographical Essay published in Contemporary Authors
There are only three things I clearly remember my father saying to me, all began with “Don’t.” Don’t wear light pink lipstick, it makes your teeth look grey, he told me at twelve or thirteen when I discovered Milkmaid’s creamy gloss. “Don’t invite me to your wedding, I don’t want to be involved, or come. Or pay,” a few years later, just days before that August 25, on the phone. And then, in the post office, the last words he’d say to me, “Don’t do anything you don’t want to.” When I was born my mother says he was thrilled at my long legs and thought I looked like Ann Miller. Those first years I’ve heard he played with me every night. I remember none of that. Only how he sat quietly in the gold chair listening for the Dow-Jones average, rarely smiling. And the stain where his head touched that chair when he was gone. But he did one thing never maybe imagining its impact, something that has stayed with me as long as all he never did or said.
Born in Russia, my father had many qualities typical of Vermonters: he was quiet, frugal, taciturn. Maybe it was that lack of warmth, that withdrawn, brooding, often depressed mood, a dark coldness, that endeared my father and Robert Frost to each other. I used to see Frost wandering around Middlebury in baggy green pants, carrying strawberries. He bought those pants in Lazarus Department Store, my grandfather’s store, and he would let only my father wait on him. At Syracuse, still afraid I couldn’t write enough to take a creative-writing course, I submitted two of the only poems I’d written since high school to Syracuse 10, where Joyce Carol Oates published often. One was published. My father, without telling me, got a copy of that poem and showed it to Frost, who wrote on it, “Very good sayeth Robert Frost,” and told my father he liked the striking images and wanted me to come and visit him, bring him more.
But, before then . . .
Like me, I think my mother married because she felt she ought to, at a time when there wasn’t anything in the next couple of months she wanted to do. Then, on July 12, exactly nine months after my mother first slept with my father, I was born. They’d been married three months and she was beginning to wonder what kind of marriage this would be. They’d eloped July 1 in his brother’s borrowed Chevy and went right to one sister’s in Maiden, Massachusetts. My father didn’t introduce my mother as his wife and slept in a separate room, as he would as they slid between various sisters’ houses in Maiden, Winthrop, and Brookline, as unused condoms spilled from a bulging suitcase and he didn’t touch her, even when they were alone. When he did, before she had time to think how to deal with the brother-in-law who blew up, sure the car was stolen, or get used to writing her name as Lipman, or had a day to think about what brides buy or the apartment, she was pregnant.
When I was born, bicycles were big, and ocean liners. You could go for twenty-eight days for 127 dollars and up. Pepsodent sweetens breath. I wonder if I still use it for nostalgia. A lovesick man says, “I’ll be holding my breath till I see you again,” as the woman glad to get away shrugs, “Swell, dear.” Skirts were just below the knees, a style not unlike this summer’s. The dress my mother is wearing in one photograph could have come off this summer’s Macy’s rack. Except she would, having recently lost so much weight, after years of trying to, swim in it.
I said my first word at six months, “cig,” for cigarette. And, before I was three, driving to Middlebury in a bumpy car on a back road over Lincoln Mountain, before the cigar a man smoked made me sick, said, “It looks like the trees are dancing,” as we drove past. My mother wanted to write that down, an omen. If I wasn’t to be an actress, I’d be a writer. Trees became a recurring image, and wood and women who, Daphnelike, run into trees. The first poem I wrote when I skipped and slid from first grade to third was about apple trees, and apples have been in the titles of at least three books, Black Apples, Paper Apples and Forty Days, Apple Nights. I live in a house on Appletree, and branches, hearts of wood, are inside and outside me.
We lived in Barre, a granite-mining town, where what I remember is a bench in a park where you could whisper anything and it would circle, come back to you. As some poems do. My father worked in his brother’s store. Wearing a clown suit, I beat up the boy next door, and my mother defended me as she has and does, said I didn’t do it, couldn’t, was too sweet, rosebud mouth, huge eyes, plump but not fat. Yet. Maybe there was a song that had “Are you happy?” in it as a refrain. My mother, I heard, asked me that so often that my father frowned, growled, “Don’t keep asking her that. She might think she’s not.”
My deepest emotions are so tangled with my mother, sometimes in rage and anger-times I’ve felt suffocated, choked, sometimes with joy, often with the terror of losing her, something I felt as early as six, hearing stories of bad children playing with matches who start fires, burn their mother up. If I didn’t write this piece now, with her thin, fragile, smaller, but still alive, it would be hard for years to, later.
The more I think about it, the more horrid those early years back in Middlebury must have been for my mother. Soon she was pregnant with my sister. This time tho with all-day morning sickness, a mother she felt obligated to rush to see, and no circle of friends. She lost weight, and when it seemed the baby was coming early, was rushed to Burlington. My grandmother hurried to take care of me. I was four, had measles. I clearly remember delicious hours in a darkened room my mother brought fruit juices to with a glass straw. Suddenly she wasn’t there and my grandmother was flushing false teeth down the toilet in a wad of Kleenex and nothing seemed quiet or still.
In photographs of me and what turned out to be my sister, Joy, I seem happy, proud, grown up, and big sisterly. But much of waiting for her to be born was awful. I missed my mother, desperately. Over measles, I was sent to play-school, where, too unhappy to play, to distract me or make me laugh, I was hosed with icy water. I was enraged, had to go home and change, and have resisted, since then, organized play. All I liked of the playground was a house tall enough to stand up in and a vat of water we made oil and water prints in, globs of paint swirling plum, mango, and jade on meat-wrap paper.
I remember my loneliness, staying at my grandmother’s. An uncle told me if I ate the small candy pellets in glass ships on the piano, worms would crawl into my belly. The bedroom I slept in seemed icy, even in July with wasps in the shades. Nothing, not making clay men in the driveway or the smell of Yardley’s Lavender in the orchid and green-tile bathroom, helped. When I fell off my tricycle, riding over cut-up cement, and bruised my leg and crotch and belly, I was furious. It was my new sister’s fault. I wouldn’t have been on that street if she hadn’t been born.
Within months, we moved again. Not to our own house but the Zeno house, a stucco house I drove by last week. Sinks, motors, and mowers were in the front yard, the stucco almost guava. It was the end of the street then, near Battell Woods and a pine forest. Still as a church, carpeted with red needles. The house was surrounded by wildness. Queen Anne’s lace in a clump of stones and, behind the house, rhubarb a baby-sitter once told us panthers lurked in, the night we put candles in halved walnut shells and floated them in pans of water. They made eerie shadows anything could have lurked in. Upstairs the bedrooms had wide boards painted grey, with enough room between them for dead bugs to pile up, and heat grates where I could lie on my stomach listening. Eavesdropping. As I still do, spying. I learned to read early, before first grade. Jack and Jill magazine had stories of soldiers and dentists and a stone that would glow red and rose in a closet and transformed itself if you held it close and tight.
I painted Cheerios into rainbow beads, longed for a kitten. On the night before my sixth birthday, after my parents had tried to get one, a scraggly kitten appeared at the door, and within months she had kittens she was too young to take care of. My mother thought the kittens would die, until another pregnant cat appeared, gave birth in a coal bin, and when water rose, my father and one of the bigger cats carried many mewling, wet, scrawny bags of fur to the top stair. The boxes of cats in the kitchen near the old white and grey stove on legs is one of my warmest memories. It’s cats, not dolls, I hold in most photos.
My sister was born dark with a birthmark. I was appalled, sure people would think because she had blue eyes she didn’t belong in our family. She got blond, slowly became someone to play with. One uncle was still at Fort Devon. My mother made him brownies, one of the few recipes handed down to me, and listened to the brown Zenith. Across the street in a dark house with coves and a spiral teak staircase, a house that smelled of lemon, oil, polished wood, a smell that pulled me to the house I now live in and know it probably meant the heat-vents exchanger was about to go, a Baptist minister who was always trying to convert us lived, with his two daughters, Geraldine and Priscilla, who once lured me to steal some matches from their stove and bring them out to the club we were making in chickory and wild carrot.
That last summer on Seminary my mother rented a cottage at Mallets Bay on Lake Champlain. Inside, ceilings were low and the rooms smelled of oilcloth, linoleum, and citronella. Louis Armstrong played near a roller-skating rink across the way, where I found a girl with one blue eye and one green eye riveting. All these images haunted when I wrote about them, leaving Vermont for good. Until writing this tho, I hadn’t realized how many scary memories are connected to baby-sitters. At the lake, the baby-sitter filled us with stories of atrocities in Germany and Poland, “what they did to young girls,” and she painted the smoke from bodies in tunnels, said you could smell scorched hair. This may be where over a year of nightmares about fires began. And where two other obsessions got a start: wanting to be thin and wanting to have straight, not curly, wavy hair. It was the summer before school began I started to see myself as fat and ugly, and having to wear glasses very soon didn’t help. A cousin, Elaine, was skinny and pretty and snotty and always had her way. I thought the two went together. In a photograph from that summer I’m standing on the wharf looking unhappy in what seems like an old lady’s two-piece bathing suit, my sister is cute and blond and skinny. A poem I often read, “Fat,” deals with the loathing I had/have if I step on the scale and weigh more than I expected. I especially hated having legs I thought fat, especially thighs, and in one photo it looks like I’m trying to hide them. The first five years I took ballet, I’d only wear black tights. Until this past year I’ve had long hair that wasn’t straight without help. I can smell the dampness of leaves near the lake, wet wooden stairs. Night smells, wild roses opening. My mother’s cigarette on the next screened porch was a beacon. We washed our hair in the lake, just mothers and children, except for Saturday nights. When I combed my wet hair sleek and straight I prayed it would stay that way, horrified to find it curly in the morning.
I loved reading, and it was knowing how to, at four or five, that catapulted me quickly out of Mrs. Butterfield’s first grade into second then third grade when there weren’t enough chairs. What I remember of second grade is Miss Everts, skinny, ostrichlike in black silk, and that we made clay animals in a room full of lilac and lilies of the valley and that I wore a black embroidered wool jumper that was pretty but itched. Then I was in third grade with Mrs. Flag. This is where writing poems seriously started, probably because I never learned much long division. Shoved thru those first grades, words were what I grabbed and held on to. Especially words in poems Mrs. Flag had us read, poets like Blake, Milton, Wordsworth. I loved the Children’s Hour, the mystery and magical sensuousness, and had read Now We Are Six a bit earlier, judging by the pencil stabs in the margins and drawings of horses. I especially liked “I had a little beetle, Alexander was his name,” “Buttercup Days,” “Where is Anne? Close to her man. Brown head, gold head, in and out the buttercups,” and “Binker.”
Mrs. Flag had us write a lot of poems. 1 wrote about apples, apple blossoms, umbrellas. A packet of handwritten early poems is now in Temple University’s archives. One Saturday I copied a poem of William Blake’s out from Songs of Innocence, showed it to my mother. Since Middlebury, then, had a population of about three thousand, it’s not surprising she ran into this teacher, said how thrilling, wonderful it was she’d inspired me to write this poem full of words like “rill” and “descending.” So I had to write my own poem by the next Monday.
I don’t know how old I was when I saw the film Bambi but I was horrified that a mother could just burn up. That, and stories of Germany and a terror that began on a school trip, kept me dreaming of fires and death at least two years. My father drove four of us, one of the few times I remember him being involved with anything I was doing, to Ticonderoga, a day trip my mother still has the postcard we sent her from. What the postcard doesn’t say is how I was intrigued and terrified by what was thought to be the mummy of a six-year-old Indian child. Each night I imagined turning to stone, how people could lose each other. What dissolves, disappears, can’t be held or touched long enough, haunts what I write.
Again I was asked why and again, when I said I wanted to be a writer, was sneered at, asked why if I wanted to I didn’t. Being an extremist, I made everything second to graduate school. Nothing else mattered. I attacked weekly papers fiercely. Spenser, eighteenth-century lit, Elizabethan theater. It was a new doctoral program.
SUNY, formerly, the State Teachers’ College of New York, was planning to move to a bigger campus and was hiring professors with reputations, trying to be as traditional as possible, as if to get an instant reputation. I got all A’s. Tho I’d never studied Italian, with flash cards and a few random books, managed to be the only one of several to pass the Italian exam the first time. I’d written a hundred pages of what would be my doctoral dissertation on a comparison of the Psalms of Wyatt, who I really liked, and those of Sidney, who I didn’t. I loved the ragged, explosive, jagged thought-in-process of Wyatt, the darkness, surprise, how his poems were colloquial, not polished and polished so smooth nothing caught and startled and snagged. It was, I thought, exciting to be the first Ph.D. candidate. I’d be the youngest, I was sure, to get a degree, just over twenty. I didn’t pick up on one or two omens: even with the best academic record, when I talked about getting an instructorship I was told, “You aren’t a man with a family to support,” and during the first year with a teaching fellowship I got a note suggesting “I dress in a way that’s more professional, wear my hair up,” a note in my mailbox that became part of the second most anthologized poem, “You Understand the Requirements.” No wonder hair has been a recurring image, the subject of two long poems, one a New York Quarterly Sadin Award.
“Energetic” was the way the head of the graduate department described me. Within weeks I was simply too involved in, too excited by, the literature I was studying to imagine I’d not be a professor. In early readings I often went over the experience of those written and oral Ph.D. exams. The poem “Orals” is pretty much a true account. Because I was the first candidate and many were new to the Ph.D. program, they actually asked me how many days, how long, the exams should be. I did go and buy special suits to wear for this, masks. And I was asked, perhaps the first question, what I thought of adultery, bedbugs, by Edward Le Comte, the newly hired respected Milton scholar. The exam clearly embarrassed the other professors: it was so sexist and shoddy, and it was because of that cut short. They decided I should have a written exam. I’d passed exams in other fields and was anxious to get this last written one over. The exam had two parts: first, fifty quotes from seventeenth-century poetry, all slightly misquoted. I was to identify the poet, make the corrections, and say why the original was better. The second half was to explicate a section from Herbert’s The Temple. I knew seventeenth-century poetry and after the exam went out to celebrate, sure I’d passed. That night I got a call saying, “You have identified the poems correctly, and the poets,” then added, “but in your explication it seems you do not have the religious background to work sympathetically in the seventeenth century. You don’t have enough affiliation or sympathy for seventeenth-century English Anglicanism.”
The department still had confidence in me, said there seemed to be a personality conflict, decided I should take a last exam from someone else. I was drained, wiped out. But I had to take it two weeks from that day, December 15. Unable to concentrate, tho it was a fair, actually easy exam, I slammed out of the room onto Central Avenue, without a coat, hoped, I think, I’d get hit by a car.
I wanted to get a Ph.D. so I could write and then wrote because I didn’t get one. When I cleared out my desk in the English Annex, the hundred pages on Wyatt had disappeared. I should thank some of the department for pushing me, finally, to write. But for years I couldn’t go near the university. The first time I did, nervously, to a party, I got a flat tire in the lot and then, somehow, managed to be in the elevator when it got stuck. Stuck with me was Dr. Le Comte. Many of the professors could recognize themselves in some prose pieces in an upcoming book from Applezaba, Doctors. As I left, to be nice one man said, “Well, why don’t you just have a baby.”
First I wrote on yellow lined paper, folded into four pieces and put into a red bag. When the bag was filled, I typed them up, threw many of the handwritten manuscripts away. Except for poems in books, I have only some carbons of the first few years I wrote. Most were sold and are in the archives at the University of Texas at Austin. Each week I discovered a new poet; like a drug addict I’d float high on that. Or a new magazine. I planted red tulips, watched tumbleweed blow toward the house, watched blood maples turn fire. Maybe the women in poems running into and disappearing in trees, the Daphne images so prevalent, come from leaning against the glass, feeling the branches move nearer.
Probably as important to me as Frost’s encouraging words was a
review of this book in Works, an
issue that first had an article from Blazek, the publisher of Open Skull Press,
saying he wanted “poetry that is dangerous.” That would by itself
have pleased me. But it was the review, by John Hopper, who said, “The
most exciting poems published by any of the presses I covered were in Lyn
Lifshin’s Why Is the House
Dissolving? There is an unmistakable-and yet
undisguised-femininity at work here that reminds of Sylvia Plath and yet stands
very much on its own gorgeous legs. There is not the mordant urgency of
the Ariel poems,
that despair so often overpowering, but encountering the woman alone generates
such touching felicities I was sorry the poems ran out so soon.” He closed
saying, “I do not know what attempt the established houses make to scan
small press poets, but here is an excellent example of a fine strong voice
whose book, the reverse title page tells us is ‘published in a limited edition
of roughly five hundred copies.’ I know nothing of Miss Lifshin’s attitudes
toward making it in the Big Time, but somebody with international distribution
has a real obligation to give her a lot of bread and a wider audience. She well
deserves it” (Works 11,
no. 1, spring 1969). The review made me show people the book. Before I hadn’t.
The following passages are from Lyn Lifshin’s 2002 update to Contemporary Authors.
In mid-winter, 1989, in cold, upstate New York, I finished “On the Outside: Lips, Blues, Blue Lace.” It was an icy late afternoon with wild tangerine light falling through glass, turning the cherry wood flame. Memento, my seven-year-old Abyssinian cat was on the bed, kneading the velvet quilt, intrigued by pink ribbons I had just sewed on new pointe shoes. Now when I look at the last page of what I called “the beginning of autobiography,” I’m stunned at both the wild changes and also what is unchanged as the house on Appletree Lane with its stained glass, prisms, boxed diaries, my black 1986 Thunderbird with about 20,000 miles on it. The house, which I have enjoyed less time in since the summer of 1992, is full of old blues records, blue leaves, reflections of lips. Ghosts fill the house in photographs, things left in a closet as if still waiting for the ones who wore them to fill them: pocket books, glasses, gold dresses. Early contributor copies of my first published poems, and yellowing copies of Rolling Stone are in my small study from when magazines I published in could still fit on shelves, not have to be boxed. The ruby, jade, and sapphire squares of velvet have not faded. The same plants trail on wooden bricks in the cold room near leaves from the film set of Billy Bathgate. Tempted to leave the asparagus ferns from a house I lived in during the early 1970s outside, finally let them go. They looked so good in mid-October. I brought them back inside where they are probably tempting mice with their orange berries.
When I began “On the Outside,” I thought I’d capture the past to the spring of 1988 but was “astonished since I thought I left so much out that I’d typed only two and a half of the six notebooks of memoir and only covered the first of around eighty (now over one hundred) books and chapbooks.” I ended the memoir with a tantalizing litany of all I didn’t include from the publication of Why Is the House Dissolving in 1968 to that winter. Though changes were starting, they were as camouflaged as road signs masked behind drifting snow. The notebooks I never typed up then seem mysterious, like jewel boxes, as past words often do. But they hardly suggest the enormous changes that came so soon after “On the Outside” appeared.
Of several wrenching changes, the first was my mother’s terminal illness and her death five months later, just as “On the Outside” was published. I remember commenting in 1989 how difficult it would have been to write a memoir if she were no longer alive. Our closeness was extreme. Some would complain there were no boundaries. I was glad she was able, in October of 1989, to go the premiere of a documentary film about me. For months before it she talked about a purple dress she’d bought, hoped she’d “be there to wear,” and then returned before Mary Ann Lynch’s award-winning documentary, Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass, was first shown in the New York State capitol building. I’m pleased to have the documentary but regret we listened to my mother and did not shoot in Middlebury, Vermont, in the apartment I grew up in because my mother wanted to “fix it up first.” We did not even go to the small town where each walk, each street is filled with memories. The event was video taped and I can still watch her beaming at everything (almost) I did. I can see how thin she already looked but remember that when we all went out to eat afterward, she ordered coquille St. Jacques and ate it all.
That October the film premiered at the Denver Film Festival, a truly exciting happening, especially for someone as addicted to films as I am. Even living much of the time in Virginia, I get up to the Montreal Film Festival every summer. In contrast to poetry conferences and festivals, at the Denver Film Festival the director and I were awed at how we were treated like celebrities! We were taken by limousine to formal events and cocktail parties and had a chance to mingle with many well know directors and actors, including Seymour Cassels, Robert Wise (who wrote the screen play for Citizen Kane and so many other films), as well as the stars of the opening film, Crimes and Misdemeanors. Some other films opening were My Left Foot, Sex, Lies, and Video Tapes, several films of Krzysztof’s, Roger and Me, andCinema Paradisio. There were tributes to Jack Clayton, John Cassavetes, and Stockard Channing. We were thrilled when my documentary was so popular it was shown twice. On one of the loveliest days, there was a side trip to see the aspens north of Denver with Robert Wise, Seymour Cassels, and Michael Wilson, who appeared in one of my favorite filmmaker’s, Alan Rudolph’s, The Moderns. After Denver, Mary Ann and I toured the states and prepared for a nearly month-long tour of southern California, Hawaii, and then northern California, where the film had its commercial opening at the Roxy Theater in the Mission District, along with a documentary on Alice Walker. We did readings, workshops, and parties up and down the coast of California as we did those weeks in Hawaii. We had tremendous crowds in Honolulu at the museum and university and in Maui at the Hui Noeau Arts Center, a beautiful old estate, where we planned to stay overnight. The others thought it seemed haunted and left. I woke up to a circle of ants around the bed and breathtaking flowers in the courtyard, bu I couldn’t shut out the thought that just before I left my mother had sounded strange on the phone, said she couldn’t eat anything much on New Year’s, couldn’t swallow salmon. That nothing tasted good. This was unlike her, and I was relieved she would be staying at my sister and brother-in-law’s while I was traveling. Even so, she remained a constant worry, and with the filmmaker’s mother ill, too, each day we were greeted by the hotel desk clerk’s questions about our mothers’ health. I had visions of bringing my mother to Hawaii, out of the cold mountains in Vermont, supposing the ocean and light and the smells of Plumeria, Pikake, Fragomeni, and wild ginger would heal her.
The trip was such a high, with many wonderful hosts and great audiences. Only a week ago this year, I learned of the death of Bill Packard, editor of New York Quarterly, who was interviewed in the film. Seeing him on the screen, I always felt I had just seen him, just been interviewed by him. And the February 11, 2002, death of my twenty-year-old cat (who I wrote six notebooks of poems about after that) made me sad when I saw the film soon after that.
Slamming back to reality was a shock. Snow in Niskayuna, and then dashing up to Stowe, Vermont, where I found my mother needy, frail. She was always the one who took care of everyone else. Even in that last year she was still sure she could. There was something suspicious in her throat, the doctor said. I stayed with her in Stowe since that was the only way she would agree to additional tests. I had to promise a trip to my house after that. I think she hoped that, as in the past, having fun shopping and eating out in New York would help her regain her strength. From April to August 1990, I pretty much dropped all readings, film showings, workshops to stay with her. Two of my strongest, prize-winning essays are about that experience; “August Wind,” a memoir published in Response and “On Writing Mind Leaves at Yaddo,” a non-fiction essay that was published in Writer’s Digest and won several awards, including the best piece about writing, were about those four months. Instead of traveling to promote the new documentary, I was with her twenty-three hours a day, writing while she dozed. She shriveled. As if to keep up with her, I lost weight, too. The poems I wrote in the small, half-underground room where we slept and in the upstairs TV room are among my strongest. Many appear in two recent Black Sparrow books, Cold Comfort and Before It’s Light, as well as in many magazines. I continued taping her words until she was too tired, have ten tapes I have not yet been able to play. My mother and I talked, I wrote, we looked at old films. I took photographs. Such a contrast to the film tour. The big outing was a trip to the Grand Union with my sister to buy paper towels or try to find some delicacy to tempt my mother, who ate less and less. It seemed there was no summer, no spring that year, just winter until July 4, when the roads washed out.
On New Year’s Eve 1990 in Albany, I said the new decade felt like the decade of death. It was. By accident I learned of the death of someone I had been, or thought I’d been, close to. Poems based on his stories are liberally scattered through my new book from March Street, A New Film about a Woman in Love with the Dead. This book, published in fall 2002, came accidentally from a huge submission of poems to Parting Gifts. Robert Bixby found a narrative in it that seems to have touched some recent reviewers. Writing about relationships or a relationship is much harder in a memoir than in poems where what is true is always tempered, shaped, twisted, sculpted, and controlled by the writer, so it’s both less true and more true than what happened.
Internet presses began to publish my poems in books, sometimes with my knowledge, often without. I think it was in 1995 that Michael McNeilly, who had published many of my poems in his magazines, asked if I’d be interested in having him do a Web site. I was excited, and within a short time, he had my site up and running (http://www.lynlifshin.com). I began to get more requests to critique poems, send submissions, do more readings. There were some book orders. When I gave readings, before Black Sparrow, I usually found I was known by the magazines and anthology publications, not by my hundred books, which were harder it seemed for readers to find. As I write this, I can barely imagine researching without the internet. Today, looking for a certain poem of mine (living between two places I’m often hunting for some poem or photograph) with a few clicks I learned five poems of mine had been set to music and performed by a quartet in Chicago (http://www.rbgmusic.com/pieces_of_some_dream.htm) and found a panel discussion and interpretation of a poem of mine. There was beautiful broadside from Santa Fe Poetry Broadside with my poem, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1944” and an interview I had not seen. Both surprises and all in minutes while the ice is glazing trees, branches snapping, the new kitten amazed by what looks like thick slabs of liquid glass blurring the screens. Suddenly a poem not even “accepted” is out there. Anything in a book can be turned into music, theater, dance. If I go to Google and type in my name, there are so many poems and interviews I’ve forgotten about or never seen. It’s great. But there are the fake e-mails-someone taking part of my name and writing vile notes to and about other writers as if the e-mail, sounding like me, really is me. But the ease of finding information, even if there’s too much at times, still astonishes me and is so much easier on this no-ballet morning to do it in a thick fleece sweatshirt and jeans and a cup of red tea.
A perfect day to stay inside. Certainly not one on which I’d want to be traveling to do readings. I still do them, not as many as in the past. It’s not only that I don’t want to read and not be paid. For all the readings I’ve done, I still have stage fright before a reading. Unlike some poets who love to perform anywhere at anytime, it’s hard for me, though I’m known as an excellent reader. About a November 16, 2002 reading for the Utne Reader, Catherine Savoy McCormack wrote “she’s a fantastic reader, with a strong voice and animated delivery. . . . her delivery engaged the audience from beginning to end.” I try to include a variety of poems, including those that might be called lighter like “The Condom Chain Letter Poem” and poems about Barbie, Marilyn Monroe, and Lorena Bobbit. I keep planning to read some of the Jesus poems, but so far I haven’t. I think they’d be good reading poems. Some editors think they are my best. Several are in Cold Comfort, Before It’s Light, and the forthcoming Another Woman Who Looks Like Me. In them I might meet Jesus at Starbucks the night I’ve fought with my boyfriend or find Jesus trying out for a part as an extra in Godspell only to be told he looks too much like a hippie. (An odd synchronicity: when I took the mail in after my last sentence, there was a note from a small press that said “I have spent months trying to figure out how to deal with the Jesus Poems. They are simply magnificent. I can’t for the life of me figure out why you would send them to some little magazine. Do you mean there are no major publishers who would take these?”) Some Jesus poems did appear in a small chap book but I never thought of sending them to a major press and this seems a good transition to why.
One good thing is that Temple University will continue to collect my archives. Since their last acquisition was in 1986 and I have continued to write and publish prolifically, you can imagine how magazines, handwritten spiral notebooks, posters, flyers, tapes, and videos have accumulated. Besides the material I collected for the Holocaust workshop at New York State Museum, I have boxes full of workshop material designed to go with many exhibits, as well as the poems that came from them: “Mother and Daughters,” “the Changing Urban Scene,” “Mirrors Inside and Outside,” “Feelings about War.” I’ve spent less time lately in museums even though many wonderful ones are only a metro ride away. When I went to the Portrait Gallery talks, poems were triggered about gipsies, Asian immigrants, poems from Inuit drawings and sculptures, Native American masks and clothing. It will be hard to pack off all the flyers and pamphlets from D.C. museums. Though I’ve kept some contributor copies, even those should be packed and shipped. I’ve joked that I’d like to include my wedding gown, 1970s Betsey Johnson dresses still in my closet, and all the cashmere sweaters I had in college. I’m terrible at getting rid of clothes. With one box of old clothes, first I had to write a goodbye poem for each dress. After my mother died I bought tons of stretch leggings and leather jackets. For comfort? To hold me? After the news of Black Sparrow no longer being Black Sparrow, I bought too many suede and leather jackets. But the urge to pare poems and closets down, turn lines and drawers to something Shaker is always colliding with my velvet coats and scarves. It’s a pattern in poems, too, stripped down, spare, only the essentials side by side with what flows and grows like a Vermont house. Part of me wants to hang on to everything from the sheet music my mother saved, stored in a closet, to the baby teeth she kept in a jar (all in poems so I’ll always have them). I will keep the letters I wrote to her from the time I was six, which she kept, and letters from men who were good enough or bad enough for whole books. Photographs. There’s a part of me that wants to pack up even autographed copies of poetry books and all the posters, but I then wonder: What if there is another film?
When I did the first autobiography for Gale series, I went through every diary, every letter. But I don’t keep a diary now, only a diary of my new cat. My letters are no longer in folders or stapled into diaries but on disks. It seemed for “On the Outside” that letters were more useful in pulling back the past, the details, the feelings, better than diaries. I doubt I will box up photographs, the first thing I took clearing out my mother’s house and what I wanted, but found gone, in my grandmother’s and uncle’s house. Knowing what to get rid of and what to keep-with objects, relationships, memories, feelings, always a mystery.
I’m writing this at the kitchen table, a postcard of the Black Angel from a graveyard in Iowa, something else I would never have written about unless someone was doing an anthology on her. There’s a stack of e-mails in a clip I’ve done a series of poems based on. Also on the refrigerator, Iroquois words about avoiding doctors, removable rose tattoos. There are Marilyn Monroe postcards and a Plath card, cat magnets, a photo of a close friend in a skirt I gave her, almost forgetting her birthday that year. There’s less stained glass in this house though, and since I rarely wear necklaces, I’ve thought of hanging glass beads near the light. Upstairs, on the vanity once in my mother’s house, the same barrettes I used to spread out on the blue quilt at Appletree. In Hawaii I found hair danglers made of old crystals, perfect since I don’t wear earrings. The beads glow in my still-long blond hair. Rushing off to ballet so often, I rarely change the crystal or diamond drop necklaces I love but rarely get to wear. But the rhinestone and crystal barrettes glisten wildly in the sun on the wood my mother’s Johnson’s baby talc and a musical jewel box once covered. By chance, I brought the yellow, spiral, handwritten notebooks with the first part of my autobiography down to Virginia over half a year ago and noticed they started in October 1988 and went to February 1999. The title, “On the Outside: Lips, Blues, Blue Lace” still seems right. Maybe I’d add velvet, or leather, burnt velvet, burn-out velvet, that lushness when something is taken away.
So many of my books are out of print. I see some at very high prices on the Web. Yet I’ve still not written in this autobiography about so much of the time when all but the last of my books in print and my first book were published. In 1989 I wrote that I was “astonished, since I thought I left so much out that I’ve typed only two and a half of six notebooks up and I’ve only come to the publishing of the first of around eighty (now over one hundred) books and chap books.” On the metro now, where I do more writing lately, I’m wondering about those still untyped notebooks. I couldn’t just add them because memory changes through time, would reshape reality differently.
Or could I?