Dorothy Livesay

(October 12, 1909 – December 29, 1996)



“You smell good
you smell
like a woman should.”

There have been eaters
and drinkers of me
painters of me
eye bright
and one singer
who wreathed me
in an aria

But I had yet to discover
how even in old age
a woman moves
with freshness
is a leaf     perhaps
or a breath of wind
in a man’s nostrils


What happens to Allende
happens to you and me
who have not the courage
to take the knife, the gun
before the enemy
has girded on
his sinister plan:
we wait
for the plumb projected down
to fall in the well
and measure its level

We, born to flourish
in a heyday of sun
and tumble to rubble
when the ice age comes.

  • Dorothy Livesay Ice Age ( 1975 – Press Porcepic)

About Dorothy Livesay

Dorothy Livesay 1983 29803I didn’t so much meet Dorothy Livesay, as hear about her from professors in St. John College where she for a moment in time had an office and published CVII, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2015. She had earlier launched Contemporary Verse in the 1940s with fellow women poets including Anne Marriott. I often haunted the hallways in St. John’s College, and my memories of Livesay, most honestly, are of her back, as she worked over copy editing CVII.

I knew about Anne Marriott long before Dorothy Livesay because Marriott’s “The Wind Our Enemy” was a regular part of our household, either recited by my father or part of my mother’s lesson plans for Canadian geography or history classes about the 1930s.

Dorothy was a communist in the 1930s, and her writing reflects her interests in the world around her, and social justice, while always tuned to the dance of the body and her lusty heart. Some poems like “The Gun” even combined the two.

About “Breathing” and “Unitas”

There were more than two sides to Dorothy Livesay, but I’ve chosen two poems, with “Breathing” a personal favourite, and “Unitas” as an example of her more political writing. Allende’s murder and Pinochet’s coup were very very fresh, and the Manitoban where I was an editor, reported it as a CIA instigated coup.

Ice Age was published while she was at the University of Manitoba in 1975, and are the poems of hers I know best. I’ve come back to them again now that I approach the age she was when these poems first appeared. I’ve always appreciated poems about sex and death as driving principles of humanity and poetry. Livesay had no shortage of either. I had thought of calling her Canada’s Lillian Hellman, but realized after thinking about it that Livesay was a Canadian original as full of fire as of ice.