A Girl Goes into the Woods
Lyn Lifshin
NYQ Books
ISBN: 978-1-935520-32-0

Reviewer: JoSelle Vanderhooft

With a publication history dating back to 1969 and encompassing 130 books and three edited anthologies, Lyn Lifshin is one of the US’s most prolific and, perhaps, difficult to categorize poets. Regardless of genre or medium, many writers, poets among them, tend to have ranges in much the same way singers do—an octave or two of subject matter, theme, and technique. In A Girl Goes into the Woods, however, Lifshin uses what often seems like the entire poetic keyboard. Here, the reader can hear the low thunder of falling atom bombs and the progress of history, the staccato of adolescent humiliation, the glissando of love, lust, and desire, the subtle melody of a Quebec sunset. Yet, despite this range in style and subject matter, the playing, the fingering of the keys and working of the pedals, is always recognizably the same master poet at work and at play.

A Girl Goes into the Woods is divided into fourteen sections, some poems grouped around a concrete theme, such as the poet’s childhood, love poems, or poetry about war, and some that are more abstract, such as “what you can’t erase” (for the section “Isn’t It Enough How It Slams Back?”) or “those aches in the arc of it” (for “Haven’t You Ever Lusted for Those Red Shoes?”). Each brims with provoking, image-dense work and deserves a full review of its own, a fate ultimately beyond the limits of this commentary. Instead, I will focus on what is most breathtaking about Lifshin’s technique and overall journey into the beauty, terror, and sheer absurdity of being human; not just her sonatas and études, but her overall playing, to extend the metaphor.

Though I myself am long out of adolescence, I was nonetheless struck to the core by the honesty and bluntness with which Lifshin writes about childhood in the book’s first section, “Black Velvet Girl.” It may well be a universal truth that a majority of US girls grow up largely feeling awkward, disliked, ugly, and rejected at various times, but little ink is spilled over the experiences of girls who grow up feeling and being shunned because they are fat, Jewish (i.e., not Christian), and unable to embody social expectations regarding femininity. Although Lifshin was born in the late 1940s and I in the early 1980s, and we grew up in vastly different parts of the country, culturally speaking, the experiences of which she writes with such directness made my breath catch, as with the following poem, aptly titled “Fat,” which explores not only how social fat-phobia impacts heavier girls, but how that damage can stay with us well into adulthood.

Somebody once said
you’ll never get
cold this winter
fat legs
like that

How could something like fat ever
protect you from anything
outside being only an
extension of yourself, cells
spreading, making you
more vulnerable,
fat people having more
places to bruise
or scar

I sat in a room and
watched the
river when
other girls
were going across the
state line,
were necking in cars at
Lake Bomoseen
despising those
layers I
didn’t need

Look at me now and
you say but those
thin wrists

Listen, when I weigh
over a hundred I
break out in
hives. We

all think of the way
we were
especially when it
comes to what we
don’t love

Each of these words registers like a punch in its bluntness, its tight control of image, and its precision. This poem and others like it from this section, such as “Hair,” “You Understand the Requirements,” and “Being Jewish in a Small Town,” stay with a reader, especially if she resembles a young Lifshin in some way, long after she puts the book aside.

Although Lifshin’s lines are often longer than in “Fat,” her images denser and more abstract, her meaning less concretely presented, she always speaks with directness and urgency, looking the reader in the eye. “Listen” is such an important word in “Fat,” just as it is in many other poems in this compilation, whether Lifshin writes about painful adolescence, the brutality the Holocaust visited upon her family, or love affairs both tragic and triumphant; it signifies Lifshin’s refusal to let the reader off easily, her insistence that a poem is more than an artful trick—rather the blood-jet of human experience.

This isn’t to say that Lifshin can’t be gentle, haunting, or subtle. Indeed, her strength as a poet lies, like any good composer or musician, in knowing when fortissimo and when pianissimo should be used, when to crescendo and when to contain her playing, making use of silence. One of my favorite sections of A Girl Goes into the Woods is, perhaps, its most speculative: “Looking for the Lost Voices,” in which Lifshin speaks not only as other poets and artists, but also as a Barbie doll and even culturally infamous figures like Lorena Bobbit and Marilyn Monroe. One poem I cannot stop ruminating on, perhaps because of my love for O’Keeffe’s work, is “Georgia O’Keeffe” (here reproduced in full):

I can see shapes

it’s as if my mind
created shapes

some repeat themselves

sand pink tops
a mountain
sun, bleached skull
of deer

a black iris
I wanted the black
to make you feel
what I was

your eye pulled to its center


I painted my first skull

from a barrel of bones

the cow’s head
against the blue

I like the shapes
they have no-

thing to do with death

mountains thru the
holes in a bone

bones against the sky
bones and moons
bones and flowers
a reddish bone with a yellow sky


I put up all my paintings
and saw how in each
one I’d tried to
please someone

took them down

put them away

there were things I
wanted to say

I sat on the floor
worked against the
closet door


her hair bound
on top of her head

“the first year here
because there weren’t any
flowers I began
picking up bones”
a whole pile in the patio

bones like flowers

her hair the color of
bones, of the lightest lilacs


I loved Texas
light coming on the plains

huge dust storms

sometimes I’d come in I couldn’t
tell it was me
except for my shape

I’d be the color of the road

Lifshin’s tight control over line and description allows her a framework to break from direct image into more indirect, lyrical image (the dust storms, the light on the planes, the mountains through the bone’s holes) with just as much power and beauty. In “Fat,” the images hit us like the taunts of schoolchildren; in “Georgia O’Keeffe,” they bloom like desert flowers and descend like red dust, allowing our minds to imagine the landscape and recreate O’Keeffe’s work in the tangle of our thoughts. Two different approaches, both of which take considerable skill to render effectively, yet the same poet has brought them both to life.

Tracking down all of Lifshin’s books is a feat that only the most dedicated Lifshin readers will even attempt. But such a vast sampling of Lifshin’s style and subject matter exists within A Girl Goes into the Woods that one needn’t miss out. Think of it as a “best-of” compilation of a composer’s considerable oeuvre, one that will inspire, challenge, and provoke students of poetry (including younger poets such as I, who had never read Lifshin’s work prior to preparing for this review), readers hungry for poetry by women and about women’s experiences, and poets and readers who, familiar with Lifshin’s work, are eager to plunge more deeply into it.