by Jack Saunders
Ballroom, by Lyn Lifshin
March Street Press.
Greensboro, NC: 2010. $9
Lyn Lifshin has a new book of poems out. Ballroom.
I liked it. I’ll read anything of hers she publishes. I’ve been reading her for 30 years.
I edited a book called Adventures in the Underground for Pottersville Press (Postcards From Pottersville Anthology Series, Vol. 3), and invited her to contribute. She sent a piece on “Publishing as an Outsider” that talked about her days as a graduate student and PhD candidate, being a poet widely published in magazines that go belly up and pay in copies, so that, when you try to get additional copies of your work you have to buy them from rare book dealers as collectibles, gradually gaining recognition for your achievement, and being known by the small group of people who pay attention to such things, and finally having two books published by Black Sparrow Press, the dream of many an underground writer: Cold Comfort and Before It’s Light.
The publisher of Black Sparrow Press once wrote me that if I was Shakespeare and walked into his shop with Richard III under my arm he couldn’t even look at the manuscript for three years, he was that backed up.
I believed him.
I didn’t say, “I’ll take it. Put me in the queue.” That would be needy.
The fact that he would even look at Lifshin’s poems is a tribute to their quality. Those two books will do. They’re enough.
But one keeps writing. It’s what writers do.
They write. They publish. They hear back from readers.
I read Ballroom and wrote a review of it. I sent a copy to Lifshin. She said, “Interesting.” She said, “Thanks.”
But did you like the book? She couldn’t tell from what I’d written.
Her work is personal. You respond to it viscerally. It stirs up emotions you thought were dead.
“Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
Other than that, I liked it.
In fact, I like having to confront things about myself I thought were settled, and no longer at issue.
But it’s painful, and I am defensive, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.
High school was painful. College was painful. Graduate school was especially hard. My wife Brenda and I both got the bum’s rush, like she did, by academics who weren’t fit to carry our jocks.
Being married with children was difficult. Being an underground writer was hard.
My wife and kids never reproached me, they loved me and supported me, but I was made by the mainstream culture to feel like a failure, a fuck-up and a bad provider.
I’m sensitive about that. You might even say I’m paranoid. Except the facts are there. Read ’em and weep.
I am the man, I suffered, I was there, Whitman said.
I did what I did. They did what they did. Them. Dem.
The fact that her book is published, sells, is taught in schools, you can buy it on the worldwide web, is a rebuke to me. Why can’t I do that? Why am I not doing that well?
There’s something about me that rubs people wrong. I get tongue-tied and stammer. I get pissed off. I say things I shouldn’t, or things I don’t really mean. I show my ass. I show my true colors.
I’m not in control of the argument. I’m not in control of my feelings.
I look envious and small.
I feel envious and small.
I’d prefer to feel big, and magnanimous.
Identify, don’t compare, they say in AA.
I can identify with her.
More power to her.
Go, girl. You go.
Break it wide open.
I have an agenda. It makes me untrustworthy. Suspect.
I had about forgotten.
You brought it back.
I needed that.
I am not fearless. I am hiding.
I am not completely forthright. I am dissembling.
I have feared other men. I have feared women. I scare myself. I’m not brave enough.
It’s not going to get easier. It’s going to get tougher.
That’s what a poem is supposed to do. Rub your face in it.
At least you’ll stop bullshitting. Posing.
Too late for playacting.
Desi Arnaz had to do his dance of desperation.
Shoot the works. Don’t come in pussyfooting. Shoot Niagara.
Is you is or is you ain’t an existentialist.
What are you a poet for if not to let it all hang out. If a wee slip of a girl can do it you can.
I admire the ease with which she seems to do that.