At about the same time Vivian Shipley was engaged in putting together her fine new collection of poems, All of Your Messages Have Been Erased (Louisiana Literature Press, 2010), Jennifer Bosveldt and Pudding House Publications was preparing her Greatest Hits as a part of its fine series of chapbooks by selected poets. Also published in 2010, the Greatest Hits: Vivian Shipley collection, a retrospective of what the poet considers her best work, serves as an exquisite primer for reading All Your Messages Have Been Erased, almost as an introduction to the new, larger collection. The Greatest Hits collection allows poets to discuss their own poems and write, in a fairly conversational manner, about how those poems came into existence.
Read both the retrospective and the new book and treat yourself, also, to the pleasure of hearing Vivian Shipley read selections from her poems as a part of the Library of Congress’s “Poet and the Poem Webcasts” at http://www.loc.gov/poetry/avfiles/poet-poem-vivian-shipley.mp3. Immerse yourself in this fine poet and her poems.
All of Your Messages Have Been Erased, Vivian Shipley’s fourteenth book/chapbook, casts its poems in place and family, expands the line into social currents and the history that produces the “now” of the book. Shipley begins with family in “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” a kayak, a son fishing, catch and release, struggle to keep caught fish alive, but expands the poem to include similar struggles in a fish market in Cambodia, the miracle of death to allow sustaining life in others, and an image that recalls, in some abstract way, the culmination of some of Edward Taylor’s metaphysical poems: “Blood slicking forearms, his hand probing, Todd / will feel how firmly the heart roots before it gives way.” One powerful and persistent metaphor, a kind of prefatory poem, that encompasses and is emblematic of much of the poetry in this important book.
The remainder of the first part of All Your Messages Have Been Erased is a collection of poems “about” women involved with or creating literary art. The poetic message of the heart rooting that we see in “Nature, red in tooth and claw” leads into one of the finest poem-about-writers (something of a subgenre all on its own, a part of ekphrastic poetry, and one that I almost always like) that I have read: “Proud Flesh: Mary Waits for Shelley on the Gulf of Specia’s Shore.” This four-part dramatic monolgue, set on the shore where Mary Shelley waits for Percy on the day his boat, the Don Juan, sinks and he drowns, is much more than just a retelling of the story of a wife many times betrayed, a wife who is the daughter of the woman who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but echoes through a century of time to bring a heart truth to its readers.
Shipley is a sure writer, in control of her craft, and does not let the poem slip into a polemical tract or overt sentimentality: the lyricism in the narrative of the four days Mary Shelly waited for news of her husband soars, reminds me, in some ways, of Berryman’s great poem on his ancestor, Anne Bradstreet, though with much more bitterness because of the subject matter. The list of the dead, especially, echoes not Berryman’s but Bradstreet’s verse:
Premature, our first daughter lived twelve days. One year later
in 1816, I gave birth to William. September, 1818, our Clara
was dead at one, followed in less than nine months by William,
your Willmouse, taken by Malaria at three. Percy Florence
was born in November, 1819. After my miscarriage in spring, 1820,
I was the only one to console Claire at the death of Allegra,
her daughter by Byron who has sent the girl, barely four,
to an Italian convent in Bagnacavallo, She was dead at five.
And the betrayals of his wife, the scent of other women, is less what the poem treats with than is the idea of the persistent heart and its wounds and perseverance, its rootedness. We see this, also, in poems of Holly Stevens’s obessession with the memory of her father and Lucia Joyce’s impulses to artistry and her eradication from the Joycean bibliography. And, finally, with the Roma poet/singer Bronislawa Wajs, known as Papusza. All women suffocated in their own lives by famous men or by male-dominated cultures. But these are not polemical poems; they have their own narrative integrity.
Shipley’s present, in many of her books, is informed by the historic past, not just her past, but the past of her various regions and of recent events. The second section of the book, “Sand No Hourglass Can Contain” swings from past to present and back again beginning with the violence at Virginia Tech in 2007. The poem begins with narratives of youth, of hunting, of casual cruelties that cannot be undone: shooting squirrels for their tails, smearing fireflies on fence posts to make the posts glow, killing snakes sunning on roadways. the childhood litany of casual, innocent (?) violence continues through
Never // stopping to think what I did could not be undone, I targeted / the red breast of a robin which had lured me with its music.
and then, the leap to the present of Virginia Tech, 2007:
Remembering the silence, bird wings spread like a cross
on the ground, why do I wonder how Seung-Hui Cho
could harm the blameless, those he didn’t know, pull a trigger
again, again until he had silenced thirty-two lives in midsong?
This is a terrific juxtaposition of childhood casual violence against nature and a college student’s own violence perpetrated against his fellow students, the death of the robin, mid-song with that of the students who, also,will never get to complete their own songs. I don’t want to belabor the point, but this is poetry of a high order, not so much personal lyrics as public poetry that can speak to all of us.
We move back and forth in time in this section of the book and a brief review like this can only hint at the riches to be found: from Jim Quillen’s recollections of Alcatraz from its opening in 1934 to the closing in 1963 through Vasyl Strus’s gulag experiences in Russia and Winifred Benham’s witchcraft trial in 1697 and Elizabeth Atwood’s erroneous conviction and sentence to hang for having killed her bastard child in 1720, Shipley places herself in the minds of her characters and crafts poetry from what she sees there. In the case of Elizabeth Atwood, the mind she inserts herself into is that of the judge and father of the bastard child, murdered by its father to avoid being accused of adultery. Elizabeth, a strong, proud woman, does not defend herself, does not raise an accusing finger.
That is not the case of the victims in the final poem in this section. The women who speak in “February 1, 2004:” have a kind of saving grace, an innocence to their victimhood, but do not have the dignity and grace of an Elizabeth Atwood. These dramatic monologues by victims of the Waterbury Clock Factory’s radium painting by lippointing, the “bitter taste of radium”, young women trying to earn some money and unaware of the dangers from the radium they use to paint watch faces tell a compelling story of greed in the 1920s. The first speaker, Mae Keane, 97, cries out to men cleaning the room:
Wear white lab coats, plastic masks and rubber gloves
while you vacuum radioactive dust from wooden floors,
scrape then scrub radium from the ceilings and walls,
but you will still inhale my history.
“My history”? This poem is the unrelenting story of five of seventeen friends who worked at the factory using radium to paint luminescent watch and clock faces and what happned to them over the years. But this is not simple history, the poetry in the monologues is almost conversational, but Shipley’s art is mature, walks the sharp dividing line between prose and poetry with a kind of narrative lyricism that we don’t often see. The tercets of this poem, rooted in history, roll down the page reminding of us of the barbarity that uses people for profit, but the cadence of the poem keeps it moving, maintains its poetic energy. Consider this, after a naming of the dead:
….statistics, their sores did not heal,
their tongues were not freed. Canaries in the coal mine,
song in their throat was a prayer their deaths would save
others. Memory, more bitter than radium that tunneled
into their hearts, is in this room’s walls you are disturbing.
Awakened, voices of girls who worked here are not erased,
will not be stilled any longer. They are filtering through.
“This Is What Desire Looks Like,” the third section, is an examination of types of desire. The first of the poems, “The Statue, The Death of Cleopatra, Speaks to Me in the National Museum of American Art” traces two aspects of desire: that of Cleopatra and that of her sculptor, Edmonia Lewis. Cleopatra’s desire for Anthony; Edmonia’s desire for respect. This monologue, from the point of view of Cleopatra, concerns Edmonia Lewis and her life, her beating, broken ribs, her sculpting the two-ton statue, its movement and deterioration, followed by reconstruction. But it twines the familiar Cleopatra story, twins it, with that of Lewis.
I notice, the poem begins, you are taken captive by the size, articulation /and muscles of my hands and not my bared right breast. /My sculptor, Edmonia Lewis, held up her black palm // to my white one, making our fingers match. Without her, / I might have been a slab hauled by men with dirt caked nails / to a grand hotel lobby in Rome to top a Victorian table.
The artist sees in her subject more than the simple story of passion and desire that comes down through myth and story. And, at the end, But now, I sit here, her flag, though not one of surrender. She / held her hand up as a model for my white one, not to dramatize / her blackness but to lift a voice against darkness of the world. What a wonderful ending to the poem! And, finally, it ties together the two women: one an empress, the other an artist, both with dignity, both filled with different forms of desire.
“This is what desire looks like unconsummated” is the fifth section of “Eve’s Story, Revised” and is an elegy for a woman who leaves so much undone because of cancer: How can a person be buried with so music inside? The same question, redirected, that forms the core of the Virginia Tech poem.
But I am doing too much quoting, too much pedantic analysis. Not one poem in “All of Your Messages Have Been Erased” can be ignored and, as a result, we will not be able to erase the messages delivered in this book. This collection shows Shipley as a master poet, one of our finest. The thing to do is not to read this review; instead, read both of the books and listen to Shipley read in the Library of Congress’s “Poet and the Poem” webcast. Absorb the words, the music of Vivian Shipley’s language, that we are fortunate enough not to have to miss. This is a collection you will not want to miss.