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Gleanings by Vivian Shipley

The Louisiana Literature Press.
©2003 187pgs. $24.95   ISBN: 0-945083-06-08 (Cloth); 0-945083-07-6 (Paper)


This box office hit presents poems from Vivian Shipley that have been published in some 62 literary magazines, periodicals and journals. It is a celebration of journeys in all sorts of clothing, stylistically  an MRI of one poet’s Book of Life

I once thought of Vivian Shipley as a poet who knew more words than any other writer alive, even to naming the Latin varieties of goldenrod, Gleanings is subtitled Old Poems + New Poems and is about a farmer-artist-poet-mother chronicling the sickness and loss of both her parents and grandparents, the raising of her sons, a new marriage, and a writer’s life. From Kentucky to Connecticut, Shipley carves her experience from the love of literature -- her landscape is all that grows and can be touched

I like very much, of the five sections of the book, Section 4, and  chief among these poems,  “Excerpts from "T.S. Eliot's Birthday Letters to Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane.” It is a fascinating set of 10 prose poems allegedly written to Pound every year on his birthday for ten years. We hear surprising music in the advice intoned, the poetic references, the criticisms, the fatherly counsel. Here's a piece of #6. Ezra Pound’s 66th Birthday (Pg. 135) in Eliot’s voice.

“Your green land erasing my waste land, how can you
Make it new at St. Elizabeth’s? Ezra, on one television,
buttons are gone; an aide turns volume up, then down
by sticking a table knife in a metal slot. Enough. I write
to celebrate, give a gift of your words written while
in your cage outside Pisa: What thou lovest well remains/
the rest is dross. On my last visit we were able to talk
before our hour was over….”

These poems are worthwhile interpretations of the Eliot /Pound relationship and provide exposition that should not actually work in poetry. But it does. We call it making art.

Another winning set of poems in this section is “If Emily Dickinson had Been an Only Child”, a combination of social history, cultural history, and myth. Shipley converts the packets of poems found by Emily’s sister, Lavinia, and 11 of them are rendered here as pieces of quilting. It ends “…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, number-less like days of women left, nameless to rot.” (Pg. 129.)

Shipley is most comfortable in the company of other poets as in the long poem
“Upon Looking at James Merrill’s Poems” (Pg. 138) and “Visiting with James Merrill at his Grave” (Pg. 141.)

From that piece:

“…My concern is not about
the surface, or that your spot will be forgotten, but that
shoveling from the flames, your body, which left so much
in this world, should rest in sun that lights Sandover’s end.”

One has to enjoy one’s craft to speak with other poets so well and it tests the writer’s spiritual mettle to converse freely with the greatest who have lived among us, and to be unafraid of the reader’s cynical response.

This book is a museum to walk through, with room after room of tintypes, representational paintings, surreal musings, house and garden magazine covers, imagist imaginings, lovescenes, Chagall moments, photos from the family album; and a heart compressing all these into a locket around the speaker’s throat. Inclusive is the word that comes to mind; all that is significant to our author is channeled through words, no matter the source of content. It reminds us of William Carlos Williams writing of a broken green glass seen on the ground outside his hospital. What can we write of? Everything. Everything deserves to be the subject for a poem.

I share from the last Section, ‘A Burl, a Gnarl, a Bone” the poem WINDOWS.

                 Windows  (Pg.177)

Painted shut, warped, no question
of replacing them, what am I to do

but razor panes, smooth abused edges,
and rebuild frames too rotten to strip

and sand. Casements, layered like a cave
with skeletons of mice, are the diary

of my childhood. No screens, my mother
sealed these windows to shut out night

air, cicadas, racheting, pollen and dust
of the day. Quilting me through every page,

every adventure of Nancy Drew, she kept
me safe from men like my father who

lived life out of doors. Moated by shop
tools in the basement, he taught me how

to worry with boards. Touching the wood,
I was a blind woman freed from books.

What I liked most about our work on the table
legs, on backs of chairs, was the secret I kept

from my mother: days of labor that remained
hidden, that no one except my father and me

would ever understand. Change, revelation
does come, not just at crossings. My father

is dead; my mother is gone. I am free
to pull out each and every rusted pulley wheel,

and the counterweights, black canvas sacks
I watched my uncle stuff with lead shot,

tie off with rope. There is a way of making
this long story end: my windows will slide

up, then slide down at a touch, like a zipper
opening my life. I wait for crape myrtle

to explode, wisteria, a trumpet vine to invade.

This poem’s success lies in its lack of adornment and its clear edge framing a clear eye. The content is bolstered by the simplicity of couplets -- the right form for this particular story.

Vivian Shipley is a Professor at Southern Connecticut State University, and Editor of the Connecticut Review. She has written ten books and chapbooks and holds more than 8 national awards for writing.
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