Vivian Shipley

Anne Faith Nicholls

Why an Aging Poet Signs Up for Yet
Another Summer Poetry Workshop

I’m inspired by Red Pollard who was also told
he lacked the talent to justify the torture. Red should
have been a poet, not a jockey poring over Emerson
and Omar Khayyam. Too tall, he starved himself

until he fainted, put on a rubber suit and buried
himself in fermenting manure piles to sweat off
pounds, swallowed eggs of tapeworms that hatched
to eat the food he squirreled away. Less squeamish

or light enough to race, I would have been called
hardboot, a name given to Kentuckians on tracks
all over the country. Like an old shoe molded
to only one foot, I do have a thick hide that’s held up

through years of nettling by tongues of other poets.
Unlike my sonnets, villanelles, Red somersaulted
into history on August 16, 1936, a jockey, down
to twenty-seven cents and a flask of bow-wow wine.

Red gave a sugar cube to Seabiscuit, a battered
racehorse, a kindred soul like one I hope to find
on the conference faculty at Wesleyan. Like ham
curing on a hook, my heart still swings from

Connecticut to Kentucky. Writing poems about barns
holding wood shavings from my father’s knife,
stains of tobacco he spit on the floor will be like
spitting cherry stones out to breadcrumb my way

home to hills of Howe Valley. In workshops, I will
maintain Red’s dignity and smile, not be defeated
by being labeled easy to read, plain of speech,
or ordinary. Unlike Red, I was not abandoned

at fifteen on a racetrack cut into a Montana hayfield.
There has never been any need for me to thumb
through Job to cheer up. Because my feet grounded
in bluegrass generations ago, I’d had my chances,

but never rode bad horses by day or slept in their stalls
by night after getting punched bloody by cow-town
boxers. So, Red would be my subject for the list poem
on the summer syllabus: chest crushed, left eye blinded,

leg almost sheared off, teeth kicked out, back and skull
fractured. Until Seabiscuit’s last race– March 2, 1940
at Santa Anita–Red said they were a couple of old
cripples together, all washed up. They rode to victory,

drawing a crowd of 78,000. I can picture myself reading
poetry to them. A hardboot like Red, I refuse to believe
my hopes exceed what nature and fate bestowed. There is
always revision, change in literary taste, The New Yorker.

from Hardboot: Poems New & Old 

Digging Up Peonies

Overcoming fear of stalks that are too close,
I remind myself it’s Lexington, that mist

on fields meant rattlesnakes in rows of corn
would be cold, sluggish. Like prying out

potatoes with my fingers, I dig up tubers
as if I could lift my father, seeded with cancer,

if only for a day from gravity, from ground.
My parents know what I know–this is the end.

They will not return to this house my father built.
No refugee in Kosovo, wheelbarrowing

his grandmother to safety, I will bring as much
of Kentucky, of their dirt as I can carry with me

on our flight to Connecticut. A bride, moving
to New Haven over thirty years ago, I have

not taken root. I cannot explain this urge
to go to creekstone fences my father stacked,

dig up box after box of peonies I will bank
into granite piled along my side garden.

My father will see pink, fuchsia, blossoming
from his bed. Is this what revision is, change

of location, spreading, to retell my story
another time, in another soil? Unable to untie

what binds me to Kentucky, to bones of all
those who are in my bones, I will save what

I can of my mother, of my father from this earth,
from the dissolution that binds us after all.

from Gleanings: Old Poems, New Poems

Black Hole

Was your mind vacant like Harlan county mine shafts or dark
as the lake in Mammoth Cave when the tour guide flicked

off light? I grabbed for you, Uncle Justus, but you leaned back
in the boat’s seat. Your silence taunts me; I can’t let go of

the quarrel you would not join in last summer when I blurted out
I couldn’t help it you were a father of girls, that I was not the boy

you wanted. Showing how much science I had learned anyway,
I repeated a lecture about black holes, dense clumps of mass

in outer space with a gravitational force so strong that stars,
meteors, gas clouds and even light were sucked in, as I was

by hope of just a nod from you. You were fingering the top
you’d whittled, but I continued right on hoping to startle you

with a list of statistics, how the holes might contain well over
two billion suns, that Albert Einstein predicted them in 1915,

even though he had no way of proving the identity of one
until the Hubble Space Telescope could spot distant whirlpools

of stars as they were snuffed out. Certain as the scientists
of density I couldn’t see, sure there must be a black hole behind

leathered creases above your eyes, I tried to settle my hook
with talk of Star Trek, how time and space could be stretched,

twisted, torn or looped to take trips in other eras and dimensions.
Not even waiting to hear my grand finale, how the only way

to escape a black hole was to travel faster than the speed
of light, you called out to Uncle Paul, in from the back field,

that, finally, you had figured out how to pick out Queenie’s
hunting mouth from her treed mouth. When you slumped

gray faced over the tractor, you made no sound, left no word
for me resting on the tip of your tongue like communion cubes

before the preacher gives the congregation a signal to swallow
the bread, transformed into flesh by the human need for love.

from Gleanings: Old Poems, New Poems

Connecticut State University Distinguished Professor and Editor of Connecticut Review, Vivian Shipley teaches at Southern Connecticut State University. Her eighth book of poetry, All of Your Message Have Been Erased, was published in 2010 by Southeastern Louisiana University. Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, it won the 2011 Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement and the CT Press Club Prize for Best Creative Writing. In 2010, her sixth chapbook, Greatest Hits: 1974-2010 was published by Pudding House Press. Raised in Kentucky, with a PhD from Vanderbilt, she was inducted into the University of  Kentucky Hall of Distinguished Alumni in April, 2010 and was awarded a CT Arts Grant for Poetry in 2011. She lives in North Haven, CT with her husband, Ed Harris.

Vivian Shipley’s website

Vivian Shipley on Her Life and Her Poems

Vivian Shipley at NPR

Vivian Shipley’s books 

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