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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Review of Vivian Shipley's Twelfth Book of Poetry



Insofar as Shipley insists on telling her life's story,
she represents an authentic American voice. . . . 
There is much to praise in this poet's straightforward
approach to her personal subject matter. 

Of the two horses Wallace Stevens cites from Plato's Phaedrus, representing imagination and reality respectively, there can be little doubt as to which one is leading today. The latter runs through the majority of our contemporary poetry books and journals, having long ago outraced the kind of last ditch effort of modern decadence that challenged romantic imagination with a capital "I." We are living in a very realistic age.
    Horse racing proves an apt metaphor for Vivian Shipley's twelfth book of poetry, Hardboot: Poems New and Old. The middle section, which carries the book's title, features the poet's commitment to an aesthetic of verisimilitude. In the first poem, "Why an Aging Poet Signs Up for Yet Another Summer Poetry Workshop," she claims "Red Pollard" — underrated jockey of the underrated horse "Seabiscuit" — as her muse. Like Red, she too would be called "hardboot," a name given to horse enthusiasts from her native Kentucky.
    Insofar as Shipley insists on telling her life's story, she represents an authentic American voice. 

                                        Writing poems about barns
        holding wood shavings from my father's knife,
        stains of tobacco he spit on the floor will be like
        spitting cherry stones out to breadcrumb my way

        home to hills of Howe Valley. In workshops, I will
        maintain Red's dignity and smile, not be defeated
        by being labeled easy to read, plain of speech,
        or ordinary. . .

    There is much to praise in this poet's straightforward approach to her personal subject matter.  It is not easy to write such "easy to read" verse. Commenting upon it also proves rather difficult. While traditional criticism typically calls for comparative readings and superlative judgments, today's poetry puts the poet in competition with herself. In the final analysis, how is one writer's reality better than another's? The nature of such narrative verse, more than the chumminess among those in the poetry establishment, best explains the plethora of favorable reviews written today.
    This being said, there is to be sure a "best" Vivian Shipley poem. By far, it builds by breaking down. For example, when she reads herself against her failure to reach the ideal of an Ivy League pedigree in "Friday Tea: Opening the Manuscript Vault at the Elizabethan Club, Yale University," she paradoxically recreates the more interesting and less affected experiences of her life in Kentucky:

        I watch a man drink Earl Grey tea,
        his little fInger a comma, and I think of my Uncle Paul,

        with a soft rag of a voice but no nobleman's British accent,
        who was so polite he held a cup to his lips to catch
        tobacco juice instead of spitting. I want to hear the hillbilly

        in my voice, reclaim parcels of my life that I needed
        to keep tied. . .

    Relative to such personal poems, more deliberate attempts to play upon such poetic conventions as the pathetic fallacy seem less successful. Compare the poet's sentimental admonishment of her husband who stops believing in life by abandoning gardening in "For My Husband at Sixty" ("For god's sake! Wait until May. Plant petunias, marigolds.. .") to the difference between the husband's experience as a descendent of holocaust survivors and the poet's merely imagining a terrible past in "Survivors Have Victims":

        Knowing what cannot be swallowed must be spit out or it will
        rot like strings of meat caught between teeth, I choked on soil
        planted with your deaths.

    These lines much more effectively capture the poet's attempt to connect with her husband in writing. As importantly, they eschew the kind of post-modern posturing seen elsewhere in attempts to rewrite Frost's "Mending Wall" or to mourn the lost significance of Sandover in a world without James Merrill. The former necessitates comparisons to poets who better trope the work of Frost, while the latter requires a closer reading of James Merrill's verse (which paradoxically survives the landscape it depicts, even in this poem).
    Fortunately, more often than not Hardboot successfully grounds the reader in the fact of Shipley's life, an often difficult yet very meaningful terrain. If poetry must now ride a single horse, it ought to do so with this kind of enthusiasm for its humble subject matter. Red Pollard would be proud.

Shipley, Vivian. Hardboot: Poems New and Old. Hammond, LA: Louisiana Literature Press, 2005. ISBN: 0945083122  $14.95


© by Roger Sedarat

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