Thursday, April 11, 2002

Encounter with a poet from my past.

Our paths cross every decade or so. Today it was in the lobby of the college where she was giving a reading. She was coming out of the ladies’ room; I was coming in the front door. The first thing I noticed was that we had both become blonde.

I first met Lyn Lifshin in the mid-seventies, when she had just begun having her poetry published and was giving writing workshops locally. (One of the other -- at the time -- young women in our workshop has since gone on to win writing awards from both the MacArthur and Guggenheim Foundations. I envied Alice Fulton even back then. She was beautiful, an amazing writer, younger than I, and unmarried. She’s now a Professor of English at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and she continues to write and publish. I don’t know if she ever married.)

But that summer in Albany, New York we were poets, each struggling to find her own voice. And we couldn’t have had a better workshop leader than Lyn, who had – and still has – a poetic voice as sharp and distinct and irreverent as her arresting face.

Her face today is the same as I remember: jutting cheek bones, dark eyes rimmed with kohl, long hair – once dark, now blonde – parted in the middle and falling across her stare with purpose and precision. She is dressed in black – a leather micro-mini skirt, tights and boots. Over her black leather jacket she wears a purposefully fake vintage leopard-look coat. I can’t help noticing that she is even thinner than ever, her hands clutching her bag of books are gnarled and claw-like. She is the millennium’s Hecate incarnate. Crone of Crones. She is who I once thought I might be. We walk together into the classroom, two blondes of similar age and obviously dissimilar inclinations.

I take my seat among the scattered audience – many of whom could be, well, under certain circumstances, my grandchildren. Even in jeans and a sweater, I feel too coiffed, too ordinary. Not looking exotic enough to ever be taken for a real poet. Real poets look like Lyn – live like Lyn – certainly, write like Lyn.

She reads poems that I hadn’t heard – or read -- before, talks about her choice to have cats instead of kids, her choice to love men often and well, her choice to open her wounds into her words and stare daringly into the faces of those who made them, even as she tosses those loaded words out to the whims of the world. She accompanies each poem with sinuous leanings of torso and hands, carefully placed intakes of breath, pauses to hold attention. She is who I once thought I might be.

One of her poems makes me think of Meryl Yourish and her anguished blogposts about the Holocaust. I Remember Haifa Being Lovely But ends with
once you become a
mother, blue numbers
appeared mysteriously
tattooed on your arm.

Lyn’s book the Blue Tattoo focuses on images related to the Holocaust.

As I leave, I buy her new book and she signs it for me. She says that she and her male partner (she uses his name, but I have forgotten it) will be moving back up into her house that is not too far from where I live. She needs to buy a new refrigerator. Where’s the best place to go for that? Sears, I say. I’ve always found good appliances in Sears. Well, she says, someone mentioned Home Depot. Yeah, I say. You should check them out too.

When I get home I take my mother outside to sit and snooze in the sun while I sit next to her and read from Lyn’s new book, Before It’s Light. The title of the first section makes me smile: “Blonde to the Bone.”

I’ve got the kids, you’ve got the cats, I think, as I get to her poem, “Cat Women.” I think of Anita Bora and her blogger cats project.

And then I get to its end:
……………..We’re mystical
about cats because some nights
we become one, slither away from
a lover’s side, wild to explore what
we sense in darkness, starved for
the prowl, the chase, the leap
from a life so domestic some of
us need to regrow claws, survive
on prey, give up safeness

Well, I, too, have a cat. And once I had a most remarkable growl. I'm sure it's still in there, somewhere.