Thursday, April 30, 2009

Poetry Month Series: Lyn Lifshin

{In honor of National Poetry Month, Godine and Black Sparrow poets will be periodically commenting upon their work, their writing process, and the art of poetry.}

"Mint Leaves at Yaddo"

In the frosty glasses of
tea. Here, iced
tea is what we
make waiting for

death with this
machine my mother
wanted. Not knowing
if she’d still be

here for her birth-
day we still shopped
madly, bought her
this iced tea maker for.

For twenty days my
mother shows only
luke warm interest
in presents or tea,

vomits even water,
but I unpack the
plastic, intent
on trying this

sleek device while
my mother, queen
of gadgets —
even a gun to

demolish flies —
maybe the strangest
thing she got me,
can still see the

tall glasses that
seem summery on what
is the longest day.
Soon the light

will go she says
the days get shorter.
I can’t bear, she
mumurs, another

winter in Stowe and
I think how different
this isolation is,
this iced tea, this

time that stretches
where little grows
as it did, green
as that mint, except

my mother, smaller
more distant, gaunt

"The Writing of 'Mind Leaves at Yaddo'"
by Lyn Lifshin
originally appeared in Writer's Digest, 1994

Part I

"Behind the Poem,
Before the Time That Stretches"

I began to write early, had to write my own first poem a weekend after I’d copied, at age 6, a poem of William Blake’s and told my mother it was mine. Since we lived in a small town, it’s not surprising that she ran into my teacher on Main Street, told her she must have been an incredibly inspiration.

But I knew that I wanted to write, knew it almost that early. Still, even after my father gave an early poem of mine to Robert Frost, who wrote that he like the imagery in it, told my father to have me bring him more, I was afraid to take a creative writing class, afraid I couldn’t write enough, couldn’t write if I had to. Once I began, though, after putting things like finishing a PhD in the way like a roadblock, I found that I couldn’t imagine not writing poetry. In interviews, when asked about being so prolific (not always a compliment), I’ve found an answer: In the Eskimo language, the words for “to breathe” and “to make a poem” are the same.
When something terrible began happening to my mother, writing about it was a way to breathe through it, to shape what was happening or change it, in the only way I could. After receiving the news that what was thought first to be the flu was a terminal disease, I sat with my mother most of the day. We talked as much as she could. The TV was often on, a black scratchy colorless slash of a world that seemed far away. Later, as my mother dozed, cut off from everything, I wrote poems, tried to catch her words, objects in the room, the feeling of the days burning down. I jotted down phrases, images: bringing my mother chips of ice, her hunger for steak, roast beef, lamb chops, the IV tubes with their paraphernalia, strange words that became part of our vocabulary. Angio-cath, Heplock, striated ringer. When my mother sighed that she wanted to leave my sister’s house, something that would become more difficult as she got weaker and the tubes and drips became like ropes, or a leash, I often though of the film Midnight Cowboy, of John Voight rescuing a scrawny Ratso Rizzo and escaping for a last feverish trip to somewhere, anywhere.

My sister and I, knowing how ill she was, still shopped giddily, hysterically, for Mother’s Day gifts and, should she make it, presents for her birthday two weeks later. We knew people often hang on until their birthdays, but what do you get someone dying? We bought a black credit card holder she wanted but wouldn’t need, but rejected an expensive music box. It seemed as if my sister and I were buying it for ourselves. The Christmas before, my mother, always intrigued by gadgets, had bought someone an electric iced tea maker. She was fascinated by it. Though my sister and I thought the iced tea maker was absurd, another bit of clutter, that June it seemed to be the only thing we could come up with that might amuse and please her.

Much of what I wrote during that period was especially tight, restrained, pared down. It was as if, to get through what was happening, I’d kept superfluous things at a distance, contained, controlled, but with an undercurrent. I pared away much in my daily life: Poetry readings and teaching were put on hold. I lived in chinos and a black jersey. I rarely put on contact lenses (maybe only wanting to see what was near). Fresh ground coffee in the morning and Gentle Orange tea at night were my luxuries. Ballet class, my drug of choice, was out of the question. Even with so little exercise and so little that was comforting except food, I lost weight, as if to keep up with my mother. After her death, the poems began to take on a loose, sprawling, rambling shape, and within a weekend I gained back four or five pounds.

My isolation in Stowe wasn’t unlike the quite remoteness of Yaddo, the art colony I’d gone to 20 years earlier. In both Stowe and in Yaddo, the green branches clustered around the house, made rooms into jade caves. Twenty years earlier I was on the verge of divorce, on the verge of change and loss, just as I was in 1990. Outside everything was blooming. But inside, so much was shriveling. At Yaddo, magnolias and forsythia exploded, a rose bush matched the blush color of a sweater I wore. In Stowe, a huge pot of rouge petunias spilled across the redwood deck. The same stillness, the birds, the same slant of light. Hours spent standing at a window wrapped in that green, seemed to connect the two Junes.

On her birthday, my mother woke up feeling wonderful. She was animated and looked young in her jersey shift (later, I’d wash that shift, find chips of almond slivers, remnants of her last trip out to a mall). She seemed full of life, said she’d dreamt of eating all sorts of fruits on a picnic. Thrilled, we bought watermelon, peaches, cherries and took a ride up to the top of one of the tallest Stowe mountains. But the road was twisting and, with the tumor spreading inside, she became nauseated. The day was ruined. The iced tea maker she opened later, after a few hours of rest, was not the success it might have been before the ride. She was too tired to open all the cards. “There’s so many,” she said. “You could have saved some for next year.” I wrote phrases like that in my notebook. I still have those fragments, most consisting of a line on the top of a page, the rest blank.

Part 2

"In the Poem, In the Longest Days"

It was the smell of fresh mint that triggered this poem. In workshops, I try to get students to trust their senses. As much as music and sound and touch flash memories and feelings back, smell does so even more vividly. When I smelled mint in the iced tea, I felt the magical quiet of Yaddo, calm amber light from the stained glass windows (images included in early versions of the poem). Those honeyed shades, so full of the color that was missing the June of the poem, were vivid but slowed the poem down. It was the memory of those tall glasses of iced tea with mint dripping from them that started first with the physical – the tawny, shiny, glistening amber glass – then moved on to the emotional, to feelings connected with the time that the image of iced tea connects with, and then leaped on to something like an epiphany.

In 1978 Beacon accepted my first anthology, Tangled Vines. At the time I had written almost nothing about mothers and daughters. It was my father, first emotionally and then physically absent, who was the subject of some poems. But once I’d immersed myself in this new subject, my poems on that relationship, now a main theme, a main obsession, started. As my mother aged, poems of rebellion changed to poems anticipating loss, a theme central to my poetry from the start. Images of “dissolving” stud the poems from my first book of poems, Why Is the House Dissolving?, published by Open Skull Press. My first published poem, in Syracuse 10, (the one that Robert Frost liked) ends with an image of loss and dissolving. The Poem, “Disillusions,” uses the image of a child’s shadow dissolving when a cloud breaks the spell of the shadow “and his dream-mate disappears.”

I often think of poems as a way to hold, to keep a moment, like photographs – the first things I packed and took from my mother’s. “Mint Leaves at Yaddo” is a freeze frame. An image of an afternoon. Here the mother is literally and symbolically dissolving, as is the light. Like the last two stanzas, more of her, more in her life, becomes pared down, less full, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. The things she can control, where she can move, are contracting like the ice in the cubes, dying like the flies, the light. As people’s ability to be effective and to interact with the world goes, their world becomes their night table, the pillows, the sheets, the bed. My mother wanted the clock just so on the pine nightstand, Life Savers candies close enough to reach for, her slippers pointed a certain way. As her life became reduced to rituals involving the basic things, getting to the bathroom, washing her hands, and all her energy was used up trying to do them, telling me how I should help her do them, our lives contracted together, were limited more and more to just her room.

The first draft of “Mint Leaves at Yaddo” was more descriptive. But I thought the poem would work better if it started, as it does now, with the image of calm evenings at Yaddo, then contrasted that with the dead, waiting, quiet in Stowe. I’ve tried typing the poem in longer lines, too. But in this version the enjambment and run-on lines put an emphasis on certain key words. By breaking the lines as I have, I can emphasize double meanings and twists more powerfully. For example, by breaking birth-/day, I can call up a birth that is really the birth of her last days, is death. By separating the eighth line, “if she’d still be,” I hope for a double suggestion of “being,” and “being here.”

I wanted to capture both the rush of time and the sense of everything being static, frozen, of the speaker rushing toward what she is pulling back from. The repetition of for in lines 12 and 13 operates to show the daughter’s mad search for a “present for” the mother slamming into the mother’s apathy, “For 20 days she shows little interest,” which shifts the mood. I used breathless run-on lines filled with images of things contracting and icing – the running out to shop, then the waiting to unpack – to suggest the frenzy caught in those frozen hours. I wanted to capture the rhythm of the days, the ordinary and blunt, slashed by something that startled, some beauty – the vomit bins contrasting with light on the tea reminding me of other days, just as I imagined my mother, seeing the tall glistening glass, must have drifted back to days on the front porch on North Pleasant where she grew up, or to afternoons with someone who mattered in Boston or New York City, before her children became her life. Even the poem, someone has suggested, is in the shape of a tall glass of iced tea, long and narrow as the days.

The speaker in the poem tells us it is the longest day, the longest day of summer. But longest is a charged word, and suggests the verb “to long,” as well as something hard to get through. Because there was light to see longer, the speaker sees what she is losing. What had seemed long – life – is becoming shorter. The mother notices, as well as says, “Soon the light will go, the days get shorter.” Color will be drained away like flesh, health, time, and the mother and daughter’s connection. That glass only seems summery. There is little to make this a period of fulfillment, fruitfulness, happiness or beauty. What is ahead is the opposite of summer. Nothing will be fed, kept or maintained. The word summery hints at “summary,” an adding up.

In the mother’s murmur that she couldn’t “bear another winter in Stowe,” that bear is full of irony. In contrast with the trees leafing out, ready to bear new fruit, the mother can no longer bear new life, can barely bear life at all. The dying begin to lose modesty, to find things they’d once found embarrassing unimportant. As the mother begins to separate from her body, she is in many was more “bare.”

My mother was an actress, able to sound perky and upbeat when she was in Intensive Care. Even before she was sick, if I failed to call her when she expected me to, she might hide her disappointment expertly or become enraged. In the poem she is losing her mask, her costumes, becoming bare, unmade up. In writing so many poems about her during this period, maybe I was making her up since she no longer could.

The word still, in the line “can still see the tall glasses,” also shimmers with suggestions. There is the stillness and the quiet, as well as the suggestion that, although she is still able to see, still alive, she won’t “still be” for long. And, once again, this scene is a still, a stopped frame of what is unraveling. Like the mint trapped in the tea, the mother and daughter are held in this moment.

The word present, mentioned earlier, also evokes many things. It is a “moment in time, perceptible as intermediate between past and future, a definite now.” And it is also “being at hand, being alert to circumstances, attentive, readily available.” Then the mother’s and daughter’s presents, gifts to each other, are central to the poem; both the literal gifts of the tea maker and the gun for killing flies, as well as the emotional giving and taking. Even the legal definition of present, to let it be known, could be said to be implied.

There is a lot the mother in the poem can’t bear, besides pain she never speaks of. I tried to capture an eerie undercurrent, the tension. How it was getting icier. Nothing was green in the middle of that summer’s greenness. All the green surrounding the mother and daughter, all the ivy and the trees that were growing closer, pressing against glass, seemed to underline how the mother was only growing smaller, growing away. Traditionally, green suggests youthful, vigorous, brand new, though it can also remind the reader of the green plot of a cemetery, or even the description of someone ill who is “green,” pale or wan. As in Federico García Lorca’s “Somnambulistic Ballad” (a poem I focused on for half a year in college, with the haunting, recurring line “Green, green, I want you green”), green also suggests a longing for what could grow, while it foreshadows death. Repetition of words and cadences such as “this isolation is, this iced tea, this time…” uses s and t sounds like hisses to contribute to the dream-nightmare mood. The linking of life and death is conveyed through rhythms, assonance and alliteration (make waiting and machine my mother and shows only), which connect on a less conscious level to those in earlier writing… from the Haggadah to the passages on death in Sir Thomas Browne’s “Urn Burial.”

There is a contrast between the tea makers, plastic, “a sleek device,” hardly vulnerable, which is being unpacked, and the mother, flesh disappearing, incredibly vulnerable, emotionally and physically “packing it up.” The glass of iced tea is like a mirror, reflecting a glass that seems between the mother and daughter: hard, fragile, brittle and breakable, a mirror the speaker and her mother watch to see what is past and what is coming in. The glass with tea in it also distorts, fragments, twists, enlarges, splits, makes ripples and waves in what is perceived, as the roles of the mother and daughter distort as they start to reverse.

“Not knowing” underlies the poem. The speaker doesn’t know if her mother will live; the mother’s words are a coded fear that she doesn’t know what is ahead and seems unable to talk directly about it. “Shopping madly” suggests not only the frenzy of the daughters trying to find something to show love to the mother, but also their anger that the mother is ill, is going to abandon them, leave them.

My mother fell for almost any new gadget, and would, when she came to visit, always include something we’d groan and shake our heads at, like the fly-killing gun in the poem. But the poem shows those gadgets suddenly without power. Although there are machines in the poem (the machine for making tea, and the “machine” to kill flies), there is no deus ex machina that will rescue her. Or us. Somehow, in luring the daughters to get this tea maker, the mother in the poem retains some control. Early in the poem the phrase “Here, iced tea is what we make waiting for death,” while contrasting this to what iced tea suggested at Yaddo, implies an atmosphere where the speaker seems controlled by what is going on around her, is “in service,” and there is an edge in the phrase. A mother’s control and criticisms of a daughter are often a luxury of health. Until the end, my mother told me my skirt was too short, my hair against her skin hurt her. In the poem, the mother is still queen. My brother-in-law described my sister and me during those days as ladies in waiting; there, ready, waiting and waiting.

In writing about mothers and daughters in Tangled Vines, I made connections to mythic mothers and daughters. So often the mother is less fairy godmother than bad witch, either binding and suffocating her daughter or sending her out into wilderness. There is often a pattern of the martyr mother and the dutiful daughter. In “Mint Leaves at Yaddo,” the daughter empties vomit bowls and shops for gifts while the mother suffers rather silently. I’ve often used the Daphne myth in my work, a woman running into trees to escape a lover. Here the myth is changed, perverted. The trees surround the speaker but offer no refuge. Instead, they flaunt their green. Nothing soothes or offers escape. Worse than not being a refuge, the green leaves are more like a cage. There is a suggestion of the Persephone and Demeter myth here, only it is not the mother sending the daughter off into the underworld and bringing darkness, but the daughter whose mother is slipping into that darkness. “I can’t bear another winter,” the mother sighs, but the truth is that there is only winter and that there will be no more springs.

As noted above, I’ve been fascinated by the intensity and ambivalence of mother and daughter poems. There is so much emotional rawness in this relationship, even when the mother and daughter are separated or estranged, in life or by death; there seems to be energy that is never casual, unimportant or totally finished. Even in the most loving of these poems, there is an image of something darker. A child cuddled in pink is held, yes, but often feels suffocated. Vines that nourish can also strangle.

“Mint Leaves at Yaddo” stops before poems based on dreams I had in which my mother was suspended between being the woman who could open jars nobody else could and something shriveled, held almost in a cocoon. This poem is frozen in time; it shapes what was fluid the way the glass holds the tea, caught, suspended, a vial of June months before a time when I can no longer expect to hear my mother’s voice on my answering machine.

It stops before the bedroom transformed by padding, walkers, a wheelchair, before rooms in which emptying each drawer is like excavating a city under ash. It stops before that house is gulped by an earthquake even as those in it are still reaching for each other.

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