Shirley Kaufman’s “Lake”

A friend recently shared this poem by Shirley Kaufman (1923-2016). I wrote it into my morning journal, and I have been pondering it every morning since, wanting to understand how it works its magic. “She is more lost to me than ever,” is such a simple, unadorned way to begin. Then—without ever describing the lost friend—the poem conjures a dreamlike (and somehow distinct) vision.


She is more lost to me than ever
where I stand on her birthday in the June light
next to a lake she never heard of.
The trees at the edge are dissolving
under themselves. She’s not in my dreams,
she has returned to her first language,
drifting over the mountains
while my father rows the small boat.
His sleeves are rolled up
and he’s milder than I remember,
though his suspenders are cutting his shoulders
and the oars blister his soft palms.
The mountains are upside down. They’ve left me
with someone on the shore.
I watch how she leans back
trailing one hand in the water,
her pinned hair starting to fall down
and her eyes crinkled. I forget everything
I had to tell her. If only she’d wave
before we are gone. If only I knew
what she’s saying about the future
that makes her happy.

—Shirley Kaufman (from Rivers of Salt)

I am caught up in two big projects, and don’t seem to have the wherewithal to explain what makes me happy about this poem. But maybe explaining and analyzing this poem isn’t the right thing to do anyway. Maybe the right thing to do is to conjure a dream of our own.

2 replies
  1. JMayer
    JMayer says:

    For me, it opens that liminal space where the multiverse meets in all its possibilities. The lines, “She has returned to her first language,
    drifting over the mountains…” gives the absent one an expansiveness she never had in this world.


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