subject matter with clarity and purpose.
The lines are relatively
yet she achieves great fluency as if she had
jotted them down just the
they came to her, perfect the first time.
There is never a
word. . . . They are like a hem on a dress,
all the threads neatly
the Connecticut State University Distinguished Professor, is editor of
the Connecticut Review. She has won numerous poetry prizes and
during the past few years, including the University of Southern
Ann Stanford Prize, Poetry Society of America's Lucille Medwick Award,
as well as poetry prizes from George Mason University, the University
Arizona, Northern Michigan University, and others too numerous to
her sixth book of poetry, Shipley puts her best foot forward with the
"Fair Haven, Connecticut," the title poem which sets the tone for the
of the collection. Describing the town with its history of
the world in exporting oysters "sold in Chicago, London, New York and
she compares the work of Fair Haven's men and women with that of her
who was a coal miner:
Trees hang on the banks, roots
exposed like the tentacles on squid or the scrub
pine at the rim of pits left by miners like my father
in Harlan County. Shovel then empty the bucket and back again
was not so different than stripping away land
that surfaced to air not rivergreen water. Fill with bits
of coal almost blue in the sun was bulldozed back leaving earth
not good for anything but holding the surface
of my family's world together.
Shipley goes easily
back and forth between the present and the past, describing in turn the
hard life of the fishermen and her father, and her own musings.
night, I can hang / my head over the pier and as the moon mirrors up, /
stars are dropped like sweat on blackened faces / of fishermen who
wheelbarrows overflowing with oysters / up the Quinnipiac's banks to
waiting / in above ground basements to shuck off sharp spines."
were rewards, to be sure, revealed in the final stanza in which the
decorates her father with the white shimmering of what the women
found inside the oysters:
Pearls they found were strung, twisted twice around their necks.
Each wore the life her man dug out, proudly beaded
in black like my father's lungs or in albino drops of blood.
has to be
alert when reading Shipley's work. While not complicated, these poems
dense with information, description, and imagery. Also, the
are so smooth that the reader can easily lose the thread without
it. Each of these poems, especially the longer pieces, needs to
read several times so none of the content is lost.
about family and friends, there are several more ambitious pieces
with poets who are no longer with us ÷ Sylvia Plath and her
Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and James Merrill. Apparently, Shipley
fascinated with these poets. She seems to feel a kinship with
puzzle out the essence of their lives, the reasons for and
of their deaths. The questions she asks are on behalf of her
as well, in an effort to clarify things for us.
to convey the illusion that she was a trusted friend who had the key to
the house, but who missed a few points which she now seeks to
She poses questions as if at any moment these poets, merely asleep,
open their eyes and souls, and reach back into dream to tell us their
in a hesitant, groping voice.
Size of Grief: 6x9, 8x10," she asks Ted Hughes, "Did you / repeat
line, Love set you going like a fat gold watch, / to Nicholas
the midwife slapped him on January 17, 1962? / Not a year old when
carried him to Chapham Junction, / a flat, without you, now a family of
three, they rolled on crackers / together in bed to stay warm in a cold
that strong armed London." At times it seems Shipley wants to
clear to Ted what he has done, how devastated Sylvia Plath was when he
left ÷ trying to talk sense into him so the tragedy might be
Sylvia's sinuses coagulated then opened with ammonia on floors,
smoke steaming from her nostrils while she swung a mop
in the kitchen at 3 a.m. A rushing inside, never stillness,
Sylvia talked of a mother's helper to outlast children's need:
One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral.
February 11, 1963: the end. Married just four months
after your first meeting in February, dead four months after
you left with Assia Wevill. Symmetry in Sylvia's language,
in her life: wet towels stuffed in gaps around doors, margins
to contain smell, the gas, This dark ceiling without a star.
Words were tattooed as if by a needle tipped in blood not ink
from her black Schaeffer pen. Not a drop spent for Nicholas,
Frieda or for you. No time to make a life mask, Sylvia's face
plastered, straws to tunnel breath. No paramedic to rip
what had already set.
relentless. A few
stanzas down she reminds Hughes,
...you stacked her poems, journals into other boxes
that you would label Empty. Telling bedtime stories to cover up
your children, you created a Sylvia for Nick: You were the one!
Solid the spaces lean on, envious. / You are the baby in the
Nothing but your hand gave Frieda the daffodils you told her
you had once gathered with her mother in Devon, in April,
or the lines, Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks, / The zoo of the new.
Their mother, an orchard you fenced, Nicholas and Frieda
picked nothing but your memory of her, read Birthday Letters
to understand why neither smell of their heads nor their hands
on their mother's breast could hold off that night for long.
poem "If Emily Dickinson Had Been an Only Child," Shipley does not ask
questions but gives information. I found the introduction and
more interesting than the descriptions of various quilts, "numbered
a sequence of poems." By way of explanation, Shipley tells us,
by words, Emily turned to quilting. Cutting shapes, she wasted no
time in turning old skirts into squares or on subtleties of thought
could never quite be expressed . . . Since only God was perfect, Emily
deliberately misplaced shapes or patches of color to display her
Shipley concludes the poem, "With patchwork pitched over her knees like
a tent or stretched on a frame, Emily might have stitched This is
letter to the world That never wrote to Me on cloth and never inked
a poem. Her life would have folded into chests, numberless like
of other women left, nameless, to rot."
at James Merrill's Poems," the author thinks back to the memorial
for Merrill, held at the New York Public Library. It was the only
time she had ever heard Merrill's voice, "floating like an aria from
ceiling of the Celeste Bartos Forum." She describes where she
and the circumstances of her being there: "Squeezed into the row behind
/ Merrill's mother, Stanley Kunitz to my left, I was with an invited /
guest, not masquerading as a mourner." As she listens to stories about
"Jimmy," she feels regret for his death, and for her own missed
"I falter because / of the life I have postponed, what I will never
Winter after / winter, I put off going to readings, seeing his smile
/ words flight like a bird's wing does." Visiting his ashes each
August, she says, "is not the same. / No need for a granite marker with
verses carved from Luke / or a cannon to fire into dark, his grave is
a sad one, not one / for a child broken off. Space Merrill takes
up in the earth is small, / not much larger than a blue marble painted
with green / continents that was dropped into his grave."
poem, she links him to music, and again she expresses regret for having
wasted time, something we all do when someone important to us
"The last chord fades as if James Merrill were / a metronome that
music. The pulse of his heart was / strong as a heavyweight
a bag: steady, steady like years / that passed me one after the
Here again, Shipley is curious, pondering how Merrill may have viewed
art toward the end of his life: "I don't / know if he had
the yearning that dreams must carry, when / desire is worth the burning
in the dark." To the very end, this poem is full of regret: "If
he would rise from / flames to write in my notebook." She looks
the next generation to go on promoting Merrill and his work:
His poems drain from this century; my students' unveined hands
will spread the name James Merrill into the next millennium. He
can no longer conjugate verbs into language that has no future tense.
pieces in this book is "Upon Receiving a Letter." In a conversational
Shipley compares her stationary life with that of her sister, who is
on a trip to Europe:
With my yo-yo, I walk the dog and go clear around
the world but otherwise, I stand still, look at weed
and bramble. Slitting the envelope, I read that my sister
is taking off for Europe on Tuesday.
goes on describing
places her sister will see and things she will do ÷ Wimbledon, a
cruise, weekends in Geneva, a theater course in England. And she
will receive credits for attending plays in London starring great
like Ben Kingsley. Of herself, Shipley says, "I haven't been
yet, but it's on my list: let's get / this act on the road; shake a
leg; let's get cracking; I'm / clearing out of here If I go
fast, I won't see anything. / If I slow down, I won't be there to see
before / it disappears as the horizon does, a line like black spots /
the sides of my eyes."
she doesn't seem all that eager to travel. "It's / easier to stay put,
leave the mail unopened than to plead: / take me along like floss for
teeth or bifocals you / never wear." The more she thinks about
the more ways she finds to console herself: "If I were / in Dover
with hotels shutting down, umbrellas and chairs / folded, I suspect I
choose not to join my sister in Paris." Eventually, Shipley gives
us a glimpse into her relationship with her sister: "Listening
the call of a herring gull / or watching light shining on the Strait,
would be almost / eighteen miles of English Channel for me to cross,
/ like years or the gulf lying between France, my sister and me." She
the poem here ÷ to prevent herself, perhaps, from revealing any
book, Vivian Shipley approaches her subject matter with clarity and
The lines are relatively long, yet she achieves great fluency as if she
had jotted them down just the way they came to her, perfect the first
There is never a superfluous word. Everything she mentions
to the poem and serves to move it along. Most importantly, each
delivers what it promises at the outset. The endings are logical
and satisfying, even when they surprise. They are like a hem on a
dress, all the threads neatly tucked in. Fair Haven is a
to read. I recommend it.
Shipley, Vivian. Fair
Mobile, Alabama: Negative Capability Press, 2000. ISBN:
© by Marianne