V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Vivian Shipley's Sixth Book of Poetry





Vivian Shipley approaches her subject matter with clarity and purpose.
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 time.
There is never a superfluous word. . . .  They are like a hem on a dress,
all the threads neatly tucked in.

Vivian Shipley, the Connecticut State University Distinguished Professor, is editor of the Connecticut Review. She has won numerous poetry prizes and awards during the past few years, including the University of Southern California's Ann Stanford Prize, Poetry Society of America's Lucille Medwick Award, as well as poetry prizes from George Mason University, the University of Arizona, Northern Michigan University, and others too numerous to mention.
    In Fair Haven,  her sixth book of poetry, Shipley puts her best foot forward with the beautiful "Fair Haven, Connecticut," the title poem which sets the tone for the rest of the collection.  Describing the town with its history of leading the world in exporting oysters "sold in Chicago, London, New York and Paris," she compares the work of Fair Haven's men and women with that of her father, 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.  "At 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 pushed wheelbarrows overflowing with oysters / up the Quinnipiac's banks to wives waiting / in above ground basements to shuck off sharp spines."  There were rewards, to be sure, revealed in the final stanza in which the poet decorates her father with the white shimmering of what the women sometimes 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.

    One has to be alert when reading Shipley's work. While not complicated, these poems are dense with information, description, and imagery.  Also, the transitions are so smooth that the reader can easily lose the thread without realizing it.  Each of these poems, especially the longer pieces, needs to be read several times so none of the content is lost.
    Aside from poems about family and friends, there are several more ambitious pieces dealing with poets who are no longer with us ÷ Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and James Merrill.  Apparently, Shipley is fascinated with these poets.  She seems to feel a kinship with them, trying to puzzle out the essence of their lives, the reasons for and circumstances of their deaths.  The questions she asks are on behalf of her readers as well, in an effort to clarify things for us.
    Shipley manages 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 clarify.  She poses questions as if at any moment these poets, merely asleep, might open their eyes and souls, and reach back into dream to tell us their secrets in a hesitant, groping voice.
    In "Adjust the Size of Grief: 6x9, 8x10," she asks Ted Hughes, "Did you / repeat Sylvia's line, Love set you going like a fat gold watch, / to Nicholas when the midwife slapped him on January 17, 1962? / Not a year old when Sylvia 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 make 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 prevented:

        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.

Shipley is 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 barn.
        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.

    In the long prose poem "If Emily Dickinson Had Been an Only Child," Shipley does not ask questions but gives information.  I found the introduction and ending more interesting than the descriptions of various quilts, "numbered like a sequence of poems."  By way of explanation, Shipley tells us, "Unhooked by words, Emily turned to quilting.  Cutting shapes, she wasted no time in turning old skirts into squares or on subtleties of thought that could never quite be expressed . . . Since only God was perfect, Emily deliberately misplaced shapes or patches of color to display her faith."  Shipley concludes the poem, "With patchwork pitched over her knees like a tent or stretched on a frame, Emily might have stitched This is my 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 days of other women left, nameless, to rot."
    In "Upon Looking at James Merrill's Poems," the author thinks back to the memorial service 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 the ceiling of the Celeste Bartos Forum."  She describes where she sat, 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 opportunities. "I falter because / of the life I have postponed, what I will never have.  Winter after / winter, I put off going to readings, seeing his smile give / 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 not 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."
    Throughout the poem, she links him to music, and again she expresses regret for having wasted time, something we all do when someone important to us dies:  "The last chord fades as if James Merrill were / a metronome that stopped music.  The pulse of his heart was / strong as a heavyweight punching a bag: steady, steady like years / that passed me one after the other."  Here again, Shipley is curious, pondering how Merrill may have viewed his art toward the end of his life:  "I don't / know if he had outlived 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 only he would rise from / flames to write in my notebook."  She looks to 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.

    One of my favorite pieces in this book is "Upon Receiving a Letter." In a conversational tone, Shipley compares her stationary life with that of her sister, who is going 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.

    She goes on describing places her sister will see and things she will do ÷ Wimbledon, a Scandinavian cruise, weekends in Geneva, a theater course in England.  And she will receive credits for attending plays in London starring great actors like Ben Kingsley.  Of herself, Shipley says, "I haven't been anywhere 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 too fast, I won't see anything. / If I slow down, I won't be there to see everything before / it disappears as the horizon does, a line like black spots / by the sides of my eyes."
    In reality, though, 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 your teeth or bifocals you / never wear."  The more she thinks about it, the more ways she finds to console herself:  "If I were / in Dover with hotels shutting down, umbrellas and chairs / folded, I suspect I would choose not to join my sister in Paris."  Eventually, Shipley gives us a glimpse into her relationship with her sister:  "Listening for the call of a herring gull / or watching light shining on the Strait, there would be almost / eighteen miles of English Channel for me to cross, stretching / like years or the gulf lying between France, my sister and me." She ends the poem here ÷ to prevent herself, perhaps, from revealing any more truths.
    Throughout this book, Vivian Shipley approaches her subject matter with clarity and purpose.  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 time.  There is never a superfluous word.  Everything she mentions contributes to the poem and serves to move it along.  Most importantly, each poem 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 pleasure to read.  I recommend it.

Shipley, Vivian. Fair Haven.  Mobile, Alabama: Negative Capability Press, 2000.  ISBN: 0-942-54455-2  $15.95

© by Marianne Poloskey


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