V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Vivian Shipley's Ninth Book of Poetry



. . . she tackles topics of social and familial responsibility, 
gender isolation, or suppression of artistic freedom, 
she does so by excavating one very human story 
with a very sharp spade; as if, in the recording of the life 
of one individual, there is somehow redemption of the whole. 

                                        Words of warning: memory
          can be banked in a safe. When ingested, leaves of basil will

          be tumblers clicking open the past. Stunning to your senses,
               sweet as honeysuckle or lilac with heart shaped leaves,
               like love, the smell of basil, the taste of it never had
          a thing to do with words, canât be extracted like your teeth.

                              —"A Verb from the Earth,"  Vivian Shipley 

With its play-on-words title, Vivian Shipley's homage to "plain old sweet basil" invests the herb with an insistence like desire that cannot be ignored. For Shipley, memory and myth, like the pungent oils of this deceptively simple plant, possess an intractable power.  Yet proper handling is everything because with the application of the knife or exposure to too much heat, its savor may "dissipate like dreams." 
     When There is No Shore, Vivian Shipley's ninth book of poetry, received the 2002 Word Press Poetry Prize. Here, the poet, named as a University of Connecticut Distinguished Professor, again demonstrates the fluid artistry and vise-like control of the verse seen in her earlier works. But in this collection, she relies less upon metaphor, now speaking with a new directness and pathos.  Whether she paints the hardscrabble, Kentucky terrain of her childhood, mourns the lives lost in TWA Flight 800, or challenges a granddaddy walleye of a Minnesota ice fishing fest, her lines prod and provoke the conscientious reader who becomes helpless to extract Shipleyâs stories and images from the heart. 
     Shipley is first and foremost a storyteller and a chronicler of lost voices.  As in her former collections, she honors both those renowned and little revered.  She elegizes the exiled Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky and she mourns the simple poem her late father will never write; she recounts tales of the last witch tried in Connecticut, an Alcatraz anniversary party through the eyes of a former inmate, and the runaway daydream of a fifty-year old waitress. Always, she draws deeply from the well of society's dispossessed.  For the reader, she becomes Hotspur's starling, referenced in the Shakespearean epigraph of "Kachino, Russia: Perm 36," and states:

               Unrecorded, a voice without throat to channel it 
          disappears, memory of a name thickens to amnesia,

          then vanishes if there are no words to print it, no starling
          Hotspur coached to speak it. 

     Characteristic of Shipley's earlier work, these poems are often replete with lovely, softened landscapes as backdrops for razor-edged realities.  In  "If You Are in Manhattan After the First Snow," she opens by describing a blanketed city where "everything will appear to have the same weight when covered."  The silent, shrouded city is "Powdered over with snow, the skin of the earth is made up, pores / filled in like Garbo's face, forever smiling, forever mysterious."  But there is irony in the equalizing effect of snow, in the weighty knowledge of what lies beneath:

          Take away color and there is only the beauty, shapes that might

          be tin cans, the Post tied into plastic covered bales, a dog, black
          garbage bags or a woman in a red plaid coat curled as if asleep.

     In the same vein, the tongue-in-cheek "Martha Stewart's Ten Commandments for
Snow" uses language familiar to the modern consumer in a disturbing mimicry to underscore the degradation of the homeless, thus reducing compassion to bulleted rules of etiquette.  Likewise, the list poem "A Glossary of Literary Terms for My Son" plugs the emotional enormity of the abandonment and subsequent suffering of her child into a limiting structure and the only language a poet can grapple with. These poems beg the question, how does contemporary language buffer us from the small and daily tragedies we experience? 

     It would be a mistake to suggest that Shipley's poems are intended to encourage outrage.  Indeed, she is often humorous and she is never caustic. But when she tackles topics of social and familial responsibility, gender isolation, or suppression of artistic freedom, she does so by excavating one very human story with a very sharp spade; as if, in the recording of the life of one individual, there is somehow redemption of the whole. 
     Although Shipley's earlier collections have relied largely upon the acuity of her observation of the natural world, Shore seems more about history, myth-making, and the preservation of lost voices.  Delightfully, when she writes from the kitchen, the grocer's stand, or the water's edge, she finds a graceful balance between the lyric of her nature writing and her love of the human narrative.  It is there, she is at her best.  In "The Artichoke" the spiny vegetable is elevated and personified: 

          Artichokes don't give themselves away to greed 
          or incompetence. They have to be approached slowly;
          their quality of refusal must be listed to be understood: 
          complicated treasure-box; haughty, elegant courtesans 
          or rare peacocks whose feathers are not easily glimpsed.

Then, like the basil (venerated by Krishna and Vishnu and watered by Keats' heroine Isabella's tears), the artichoke takes its place in history: 

          Other foods such as oysters, crabs, pomegranates 
          and coconuts require a strategy. Few, however, lend 
          themselves to out and out revenge.  Forced to house 
          and feed Germans in World War II, the French steamed 
          only enough artichokes for the troops in order to leave 
          the Nazis utterly at a loss.  With no hosts to imitate, 
          the soldiers choked, chewed through every bristle, leaf 
          and thorn.  Granted, it was a small act by a powerless 
          people, but satisfying as legumes can be, sprouting 
          to a pea that bruises, a bean that climbs to a castle. 

     With the exception of  "Confess: Gluttony," a wrenching poem about TWA Flight 800, despair is missing from Shipley's vocabulary. As in her earlier collections, she revisits themes of threshold experience and survivorship.  She opens Shore with "Static Bears a Grudge," a deceptively mischievous poem, playful as many from 2000's Pulitzer-nominated Fair Haven (Negative Capability Press).  In this, she ponders her fascination with static electricity, rubbing balloons on her head, running fingers along the TV screen, toying with "an impersonal force of nature I can't control."  In an abrupt associative leap, a signature stylistic device of Shipley's, she plunges into a farm pond where: 

                                                       Grabbing a fistful of mud 
               and weeds to anchor me, I stay down as long 
          as I can.  Letting the bottom suck me in until my ears 

          are a bomb, I toy with exploding, with sleeping forever 
               bagged in water. Knowing there is surface, I scissor 
                         kick, pull with one arm, spearing through the skin 
               to air, to light with one hand, the other hanging 
          onto what blackness can be held from the water's depth. 

     This sense of threshold, the still-point between two worlds, and the tentative toeing between the known and the unknown, is at the heart of many of her poems. Sometimes these gateways are a fanciful flight between distant time periods and/or concrete localities: the Connecticut of her academic present and the Kentucky farmland of her past, or a bird sanctuary in Papua and a retirement home in New England.   At others, the poet is arrested at the boundaries between states of being, possession and loss, the comic and the tragic, the quick and the dead. Often she writes from an interior place of piquant joy, sharper and sweeter for the knowledge of its temporality. As is true for the walleye she addresses at the Gull Lake $100,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza, the inevitable dangles before us, like the glittering lure, irresistible and frighteningly near. 
     These are not new motifs for Shipley. Threshold experience, the memorializing of lost voices, preservation, survivorship, and the celebration of the life force have propelled her work in her most recent volumes. In Shore, there is a maturity and constancy of voice that comes of her reworking of these themes, planing them to their richest grain. 
     I doubt that she intended When There is No Shore to be the final panel of a triptych, but within the last collections, there is a sense of  structural trilogy with a central cenotaph.  If Shipley's 2000 publication of Fair Haven stands as the entrance pier, supporting the tender span of grief work dedicated to her father in 2001's Down of Hawk (Sow's Ear Press),  When There is No Shore celebrates the struggle to the other side. Despite a broad movement in these works from personal confrontation of physical peril, through mourning, to resignation, even celebration, there is not a tidy and triumphant emergence true to the heroic myth.  Her characters are ordinary folk, navigating through the fog over uncharted depths, searching for an uncertain landfall. As her title suggests, the sought for place of rest is, at best, elusive.  But there is wealth in the connection with those who have gone before us, meaning in the culling of their stories, and life breath in the voyage itself. 

                                                                                         Sixty poems

          you left keep their rhythm in my heart, keep it beating steady 
          as oars rowing near a glacier with waves breaking on its flanks, 
          the deceiving sound of shoreline when there is no shore. 

                              ["Reading: Poet Laureate of Connecticut"] 

Shipley, Vivian.  When There Is No Shore.  Cincinnati, OH: Word Press, 2002.  ISBN: 097173710X  $16.00

© by Mary Carter Ginn


Contributor's note
Next page
Table of contents
VPR home page