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The Poems Of Vivian Shipley: Bearing Witness To Struggle

Vivian Shipley, a Connecticut State University distinguished professor, has published 10 books of poetry. Her 11th collection, “An Archaeology of Days: Old & New” is due out later this year. Her poetry is featured in 70 national anthologies. Along with many other honors and awards, she has been presented with the Library of Congress’s Connecticut Lifetime Achievement Award for Service to the Literary Community, and she received the Connecticut Book Award for Poetry twice.

Poetry came to her after a shocking brush with death in the 1970s. Pregnant at the time with her second son, she experienced seizures and was rushed to the hospital, where labor was induced and her son was born. Doctors then discovered that she had a large non-malignant brain tumor. Her survival was in doubt. A surgeon was able to remove the mass, although it required replacing part of her skull with an acrylic plate. She recalls, “I had just completed my PhD in Victorian Literature from Vanderbilt University and I’d never written poetry before, but when I returned to my family after an extensive stay in the hospital, I could not stop writing poems.”

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Much of her work is poetry of witness about people who have been silenced by forces beyond their control. She often writes long series of poems to detail lives of women, such as the one about the Radium Girls of Waterbury Clock Factory, girls who were poisoned by the radium-based paint they applied to watch dials.

The power of poetry is clear to Shipley.

“Poems can bear witness to struggles of the heart, the mind, and the body ensnared by powers that cannot be understood or controlled,” she says. “I believe that poetry can help the heart come to terms with what the mind can understand, but the heart can’t accept.”

Shipley lives in North Haven with her husband, Ed Harris.

-- Ginny Lowe Conners, former poet laureate of West Hartford

The Radium Girls (excerpt)

February 1, 2004: Mae Keane, 97, Speaks to Men

Cleaning Enterprise Apartment 507, Waterbury, CT

Wear white lab coats, plastic masks and rubber gloves

while you vacuum radioactive dust from wooden floors,

scrape then scrub radium from the ceiling and walls,

but you will still inhale my history. This Cherry Street

room was a radium dial studio from 1919 to 1927.

Waterbury Clock Company owners dressed like you

inspected this room, knew radium could kill me

and my 17 girlfriends who died with bones crumbling,

jaws rotting. 1926. I had just turned 19, thought painting

glow-in-the dark watch faces would be respectable.

Paid 8 cents a dial, my boss said work faster, sharpen

bristles with my lips. Lip-pointing bitter taste of radium

made me gag. The day I made 62 cents, he growled,

find another job. I wanted to trample dials underfoot,

let him know I was on the way to better things, but I

was dazed, a toad. To breathe clean air, take a break,

go to Timexpo Museum just a few yards away. Sure,

you’ll see 150 years of timepieces, Timex’s torture test

commercials, but you won’t find a word about us,

the Radium Girls. Timex never has admitted we’re part

of its history. Out front is a 40-foot Easter Island statue

but no black marble monument chiseled with birth

and death dates for girls whose futures contracted, who

dreamed in past tense: Elizabeth Dunn, Marjorie Domschott,

Louise Pine, Mildred Cardow, Marion Demolis, Helen Wall,

Ann Mullenite, Ethel Daniels, Edith Lapiana, Mabel Adkins,

and Florence Koss. 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.

Perseus and the Gorgon (c.1898)

— Musee Camille Claudel, Nogent-sur-Seine, France

Catalogue in hand from the museum built in 2017

around your childhood home, I sit to rest my knee

before starting through forty-three of your sculptures.

I linger by Abandonment: two lovers cling suspended

in an embrace. Placed so close together, a bronze bust

of your lover, Auguste Rodin, is jarring. His head

is severe, menacing. At the end of a tower, I confront

Perseus over 6 feet tall, brandishing Medusa’s head

you sculpted with your own features. He is gazing

at what was a bronze shield used to mirror Medusa’s

paralyzing stare and petrify the Gorgon with its own

reflection. Camille, were Medusa’s snakes already

writhing like tortured thoughts inside your head?

1883. Rodin became your teacher: not quite twenty,

you his muse, his mistress. You must have made

the forty-three-year-old hands that molded The Kiss

and The Thinker shake, the clothes melt from his body.

A fever jumproping and tripped your heart, he called

You Mademoiselle Say for C. Later you labeled him

The Ferret from Latin furittus, meaning little thief.

He taught you to drink with your mouth around

a wine bottle to arouse him. His body said Trespass

even though he would not leave Rose Beuret, mother

of his son. Never obedient, the student Rodin wanted,

your style wasn’t turbulent as his with pocked surface.

Was he your Perseus, freezing you into a living statue,

the perfect model but never quite a woman with interior

need he would not fill? No way to prepare for his erasure.

I stop to rest again, transfixed by your Old Age where

you mirrored the final rupture with him: a young woman,

naked, stretches out on her knees, arms lifted imploring

the nude man in the center who has dropped her hand

and turned his back to be led away wrapped in cloaked

arms of an old woman, Rose Beuret, with features like

a vulture. Creating Perseus in 1898, were you announcing

the end with Rodin and of your career as artist by replacing

Medusa’s face with your own self portrait? Unlike Perseus,

who held your face crowned with snakes up in his hand

like a trophy, Rodin could not sever the talent in your head

thrumming behind your eyes, pulsing into your fingers.

No Apogee

The wait for dawn over, a heron is pulled into flight, a word

like Alzheimer’s that I do not understand. In Morgan Point’s

cove, oval stones are washed by tide, helpless as I am pulled

by habit, by love. Long Island Sound is corrugated. There is

no way for water to resist wind, or for me to keep from dialing

my mother every morning in her bee hive of white heads.

No apogee. Nothing changes except position of her recliner.

Watching her future contract, I know she is no work in progress.

Moved to North Carolina near my sister, my mother does

not phone me in Connecticut. Long distance charges still mean

something to her. Hearts of Queen Anne’s lace have taught

me how blood knots, why I call, start each day with hearing

she cannot hear, see, walk, how eggs are always scrambled

and the toast cold. Each day she remembers less and less.

My evenings close by learning she’s gotten through one more

day, what I should have chiseled on her gravestone. I reply,

Each day will come and go, but not again. My words never

stay. Each night, I repeat: Eat Florida cantaloupe, have

a Georgia peach while they are in season. I send horehound

drops to soothe a cough, to show her a taste of the past can

bring pleasure. When I visit, I promise we’ll fill a bucket

with blackberries, bake a cobbler. No Tennyson, I can’t create

a Ulysses who will seek and find the world again. Of motion,

she knows less and less, but there is grammar, a geometry

in her course: her walker circles on her circles and hours

in the atrium are punctuated by meals. September 11, 2001.

She watches twin towers of the World Trade Center collapse.

Be grateful, I say, that you never lost a child, but my mother

thinks only of what’s been taken from her. She does not

understand DNA, does not care that thousands will not have

even a body to mourn as she did when we buried my father

in Kentucky. I cannot undo my mother’s corset of memories.

Newly young, a widower who joins her table for breakfast

will not pluck an April day from her. Lips sealed to song,

she has nothing left to say of my first steps. I want to move

through my mother again. Without her I will be an orphan.

Am I afraid to say goodbye each night because I may say

goodbye to myself, from the breath I drew from her heart?

The heron stalks, spears. It is the hour for eels, the hour

for me to call. Like a cricket I cannot find, unsettling me

by lifting wings with its shiver of off rhythm, thoughts

of my mother will madden me if I cannot let her world be.

Cargo

A plover with a broken wing flops

on the granite outcropping abutting

my seawall. At my computer, I cannot

avoid seeing it if I look out the window.

I can fold the newspaper on slaughters

in Syria, Kenya, faces of children who can

no longer recognize their unveiled mothers

blown into concrete barricades or wedged under

car tires. To blot out this bird, I must lose

my view of Long Island Sound, my beach.

The bird hops, stumbles dragging feathers.

Closing my blind, I block out not only glare

but thought of the plover like the truck driver

in Laredo, South Texas who slammed rear doors

of his 18-wheeler on 73 illegal immigrants who

had crossed the Rio Grande by raft to stash houses.

Late July, 2017, the trucker knew air conditioning

did not work and the four vents were blocked.

On the interstate, sun-flash of semis, the cab cool,

in the back air was stale as a kiln, motion baked

out of it. The “King of Country,” George Strait’s

All My Exes Live in Texas on the radio drowned

heels of hands pounding like ball-peen hammers

on the metal wall. No way to torch the doors open.

Stopping at Walmart in San Antonio to relieve

himself, the driver opened trailer doors to pitch

black. Clobbered by light, bodies were birds that

scattered like a pack of cards thrown up into air.

One man lurched out, ran to a customer to beg

for water. Too late to shut doors, the trucker feigned

surprise at the cargo. Ten people dead, those too weak

to stand, did not leave. I open the blind, my bird

is gone. Then, like the human tide from Mexico,

back over the wall of rock it comes. I can block out

the sight, but now like the trucker, I can’t ignore

its wing. What if the plover won’t go away to die?

I’d like to believe I have a heart, unlike the driver who

shut that tractor trailer door. Drawn by the bird’s cries,

my dog leaps, straining to get on the beach. Knowing

what he will do, I’m tempted. Should I open the gate?

Poems copyright Vivian Shipley. Work for CT Poets Corner —a monthly feature highlighting the poetry of Connecticut authors — is selected by invitation.

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