Poems by Lyn Lifshin


If My Grandmother Could Have Written a Postcard to the Sister Left Behind

It would be written
on sand, or on a
hand colored photo
graph of a country
with nobody waiting
with guns, no thatched
roofs on fire, no
hiding in trees after
a knock on the
door: Sister, it is
nothing like we had
or what we imagined.
There are no Jews
in the small rural
towns hardly. They
don’t spit or say
we are thieves but
it is as icy in Vermont
as days in Russia.
Lake Champlain is
not like our sea. We
are safe, we are


If My Grandmother Would Have Written a Post Card to Odessa

she would write her
name in salt, salt
and mist, an SOS
from the ship sea
wind slaps with night
water. Somehow I’m
dreaming of Russian
pines. I don’t dream
of the houses on fire,
babies pressed into
a shivering woman’s
chest to keep them
still. Someone had
something to eat the
color of sun going
down behind the
hill late summer,
rose, with its own
sweet skin. They
are everywhere in
America. If the lilies
bloom in our
town of darkness,
just one petal in an
envelope would be


56 North Pleasant Street

past the beads hung over the door,
rose light floods the back room
where the safe is, my grandmother
with a sick baby crying, tapping
the pane under apple leaves
My mother is 8, her new doll’s
head lies smashed on the floor.
She is hating her brother. Spirea
covers the sidewalk. She is
furious at her brother and runs
into the hot stove. Her
grandmother gets  a cold knife.
My mother screams, is sure the
knife is a weapon. She is wild
to claw her brother. My great
grandmother will die without
replacing the broken head tho
she promises this until her last
month in the blue bed where I
will try to sleep when my mother
goes to have my sister and won’t
tho my grandmother sings
White Cliffs of Dover  and the
apples are like magic green eggs
in July light behind the house


My Father Tells Us about Leaving Vilnius

On the night we left Vilnius, I had to bring goats
next door in the moon. Since I was not the youngest, I
couldn’t wait pressed under a shawl of coarse cotton
close to Mama’s breast as she whispered “hurry” in Yiddish.
Her ankles were swollen from ten babies. Though she was
only thirty her waist was thick, her lank hair hung in
strings under the babushka she swore she would burn
in New York City. She dreamt others pointed and snickered
near the tenement, that a neighbor borrowed the only bowl
she brought that was her mother’s and broke it. That night
every move had to be secret. In rooms there was no heat in,
no one put on muddy shoes or talked. It was forbidden to leave,
a law we broke like the skin of ice on pails of milk. Years from
then a daughter would write that I didn’t have a word for
America yet, that night of a new moon. Mother pressed my
brother to her, warned everyone even the babies must not make
a sound. Frozen branches creaked. I shivered at men with
guns near straw roofs on fire. It took our old samovar, every
coin to bribe someone to take us to the train. “Pretend to be
sleeping,” father whispered as the conductor moved near. Mother
stuffed cotton in the baby’s mouth. She held the mortar and
pestle wrapped in my quilt of feathers closer, told me I would
sleep in this soft blue in the years ahead. But that night I
was knocked sideways into ribs of the boat so sea sick I
couldn’t swallow the orange someone threw from an upstairs
bunk tho it was bright as sun and smelled of a new country I
could only imagine though never how my mother would become
a stranger to herself there, forget why we risked dogs and guns to come


Lyn Lifshin has published over 120 books. She has edited 4 anthologies and was the subject of the award-winning documentary film, Lyn Lifshin: Not Made of Glass. Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines, including Christian Science Monitor, Ploughshares, nthWORD and Rolling Stone. Forthcoming books include A Girl Goes into the Woods from New York Quarterly Books and For the Roses: Poems for Joni Mitchell. She divides her time between Niskayuna, NY and Virginia. Read more about Lyn at lynlifshin.com.



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