The range of Lyn Lifshin’s subjects is enormous and the breadth of their treatment diverse. However, from early in her career, certain poetic themes and characteristic forms would emerge.
The poems in Lifshin’s Upstate Madonna, which features a cover photograph of the author in a provocative pose suitable for a rock album, introduce a young woman speaking in vivid language with brash candor about the most important things in her life. The separate sections—“Biography,” “Middlebury Poems,” “People and Places,” and “Driving Home”—explore subjects and central concerns that form the focus of her succeeding work. The poems in this work signaled the appearance of a poet ready to confront the then-emerging gender issues and demonstrated the poet’s skill with some of the most traditional devices of poetic structure. Her approach and direct phrasing were both exhilarating and unsettling at the time, and subsequent cultural transformations have hardly reduced the power of Lifshin’s proclamations, as in the often anthologized “The No More Apologizing, the No More Little Laughing Blues” (from Before It’s Light). The persistently probing, intensely personal accounts of relationships, a characteristic of her writing from that time on, are augmented in Upstate Madonna by her lyric responses to the phenomena of the natural world. The manner in which the poems seem to have started prior to their presence on the page—the title effectively acting as a first line—and the sparing use of capital letters that keeps the momentum surging forward are defining features of Lifshin’s work, firmly under control after her first decade of poetic production.
In a 2002 essay in Courtland Review, Lifshin explained: “Writing has always been only a small part of what takes all my time: there’s the typing, arranging readings, promoting readings and books, writing letters,” and she describes her home as “full of towering boxes and magazines and letters . . . workshop material, handwritten notes, notebooks, hard copies, fax machines, printers.” Her writing is a natural outflow from this accumulation of information and other materials, which provide a source of potential poems and indicate a very high-energy psyche ready to assimilate and assemble data from a vast array of sources. Her earlier works—including twenty separate publications listed in the bibliography of Upstate Madonna—were primarily discrete statements; her later works are still singular in their focus but resonant and in communication with previous publications. Some of her poems have been revised and reworked across time.
Among Lifshin’s most memorable poems are the personal poems and the poems built around personas from popular culture. For example, “Fat,” reprinted in Cold Comfort, derives its inspiration from Lifshin’s obsession with weight and its unfortunate social implications. As a child she always felt overweight, and in this poem, she contemplates what she has lost since she overcame her weight problems:
Some of it I’vegiven away, I guess thatcomes from thinkingnobody couldwant it.Fat. Something youtake in and justcan’t use.It hangs aroundreminding you of whatwasn’t totallydigested, a layer of heavywater, grease.
Fat is the unwanted guest that stays despite all efforts at removal. Is fat designed to represent something beyond excess body weight here? Perhaps not, but the psychological associations with an intrusive physical manifestation cannot be ignored. As in most Lifshin poems, the imagery is paramount. The implications about the nature of being overweight can be discussed, or even the issue of whether one ought to judge overweight people as deficient in some way. The poem does not need to directly address these commonalities. It reports one woman’s memory of her hatred for her fat, her attempt to hide her fat, and her feeling that fat, rather than (as some suggest) protecting one from cold, makes one “more vulnerable,/ fat people having more/ places to bruise/ or scar.”
Lifshin has made it clear that her hair has been essential in the construction of her image: “Dig the hair,” says Mary Battiata of The Washington Post in a typically snide observation: “I mean she wants you to. She’s written poems about it. Her fairy-tale hair.” An early trademark poem is “Hair,” reprinted in Cold Comfort. Here the speaker protests her family’s and society’s efforts to make her conform by cutting her hair short, pinning it up, and styling it so that it does not call attention to itself. In two particular life moments, however, she attempts conformity and fails. First, at her wedding, she accedes to family and patriarchal wishes:
Afterthe wedding Ipulled pins out ofthat stiff hivefor a week, afraidto touch it
Then, as she attempts to conform to male expectations in her graduate program, she again examines her hair:
. . . Iknow they suspectedme of being ahippie, a witchthe college thatsaid I couldn’t stayon white cold paperwrote first can’t you look moreprofessional anddignified, wearit up.
The poem thus takes up a common theme for Lifshin: Women’s conformity to expectations usually results in a loss of womanhood.
“You Understand the Requirements”
Lifshin develops the theme further in “You Understand the...
(The entire section is 2669 words.)