This program, The Poet and the Poem,” was recorded at the Library of Congress, and distributed via NPR satellite, 2006, to all public radio stations. Grace Cavalieri interviews award winning poet Vivian Shipley, author of twelve books, who holds, among other honors, the 2004 Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement.
This is the Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress. I?m Grace Cavalieri. Our guest is from Connecticut, Vivian Shipley. And she is here with an opening poem.
For The Unnamed Woman in a Photograph
at the New Haven Colony Historical Society
Fixing dinner fit for a preacher, there?s no slow syrup
hours on Sunday for you. It?s not Pulaski County,
Kentucky, but Fair Haven, Connecticut. Exchange
squirrels, hog feet and brains for your fish and clams,
you?d be my Grandma Todd in an apron trimmed
with rickrack bent over a soapstone sink holding strainer
and knives. Spare time?s for fixing. Rocking while a stove
heats to red, your fingers have to be busy shucking raw
oysters in pans set on a square table or turning collars
until pots of water fog the windows. Like my grandpa
who took off for the cow barn before dawn, tomorrow
your husband will be out with first light. Squirming
like an eel out of water, mornings he smells for stench
from low tide before it turns. You?d like to pan fry a mess
of dough for his lunch pail, but all he wants is mackerel
as he storms at you to dock your nonsense, shake
a leg or overtime will be paid to his boat?s crew. Sleep
only widens the space between hours that are tweezed
of pleasure, of friends that will not be given back to you
on this earth. If you did not corset days with work,
what would you do? Nets to mend piled by the door keep
you inside. There?s no way for you to pull yourself from
the catch your husband takes from the Quinnipiac River,
any more than the lobsters struggling on the mud-caked
linoleum can save themselves from your boiling pan.
Vivian Shipley is originally from Kentucky, and she?s here with us. She is now the Connecticut State University Distinguished Professor, and Editor of the Connecticut Review from Southern Connecticut State University. She is one of the finest narrative voices in this country. Vivian is known throughout the states for her hard hitting book. And what is this new title?
What does it mean?
Hardboot is a term used on racetracks all over the world. Jockeys and stable hands on the tracks that will call only one state, Kentucky, home are called hardboots. They are like old boots that conform to only one foot and they take their identity as Kentuckians with them everywhere.
And someone had asked, could that be a computer term? Or, it must have to do with a shoe. So now we know. We?re at the Library of Congress, and we?re going to be hearing a lot from her new work, because Hardboot has just won another award. And I must say that Vivian has written some, twelve books and chapbooks of poetry. Hardboot is the seventh book. And this is just out, from Louisiana . . .
Southern Louisiana State University Press. That?s in Hammond, Louisiana and the Editor is Jack Bedell.
Let?s have one more poem before we talk about the book.
Friday Tea:Opening the Manuscript Vault
at the Elizabethan Club, Yale University
Afraid I will sneeze, I won?t touch a First Folio
of Shakespeare offered by Beinecke Library?s curator.
Should I explore-as an academic question, of course-
the purity in Elizabethan speech of people confined
to Appalachian cricks and hollers? Leaving Kentucky
for New Haven, I knew my syllables would unwind,
spill to entangle and mark me like a blue ribbon stuck
on the prize pig at a state fair. Trying to forget the lope
of my accent like a pink shawl crocheted by my Aunt Hazel
I deliberately left on a chair, I shortened vowels,
at imaginary strings with my tongue, extended diphthongs
with a tuck of my jawbone. Still, like signals from men
trapped in Harlan County mines, there were words clawing
in me. In the club library, I watch a man drink Earl Grey tea,
his little finger a comma, and I think of my Uncle Paul,
with a soft rag of voice but no nobleman?s British accent,
who was so polite he held a cup to his lips to catch
tobacco juice instead of spitting. I want to hear the hillbilly
in my voice, reclaim parcels of my life that I needed
to keep tied. A real gosh darn it, this afternoon I might say
a-sittin? and a-rockin? without explaining that the use
of the a prefix strictly before verbs ending in ing turns
out to be consistent in mountain dialect. As I describe
that ole woman stumblin? up that there hill with a poke
and a pig walkin? right beside her, my father saying, let me
ride behind you on that, meaning save me the sure bet,
all the members surely will circle me in the garden to hear
a fur piece
no ready mades
a handed-down story
tomorry at sunrise.
If I don?t lose my audience while reading my new
about our outhouse, using an old Sears Roebuck catalogue
for toilet paper, maybe just one Lizzy will cry out
I was going to ask you, what you wanted people to know about your poetry. Or what you would like the listeners to understand about your work. But I think, now they know. After that poem, there?s no further explanation.
The poem is an attempt on my part to put parts of my life together. I grew up in Kentucky, spending a lot of time in the country with my grandparents, and
my parents. When I came to New Haven over forty years ago, I tried to hide my identity, my accent, and I finally learned the importance and the beauty of my heritage, and have learned to embrace it.
It is a journey. But what you?ve added to it is that, you become the anti-hero. You have a little bit, in your poetry, of the Charlie Chaplin, where you are being very distinguished, and winning all these awards, I think I counted forty nine of them today, and yet you keep this sense that you could still trip over the log near the fireplace. And it is a wonderful quality in your poetry. People love it.
In fact Grace, it?s funny that you should mention the word trip.” I?ve always had a good sense of humor about myself, because I trip a lot. The first day I started teaching at Southern Connecticut State University, which was in 1969, I?d just come from Vanderbilt fresh with a Ph.D. thinking I was really hot stuff,” My first class, I tripped coming in the door, fell and spilled all my books. Everybody was laughing. I looked up at them from the floor and said, Hi, I?m your teacher.” That remains with me.
I gave Hardboot to my husband to read, and he sat down and read the whole thing aloud because it is like a movie. Your life is really like a movie. And I think you were just wired with words when you were born.
Well, my mother claims that I started talking when I was eight months old, and I haven?t stopped since then. People have prayed I?d lose my voice, but no way.
And in this world, where no one writes letters anymore, you still carry on an epistolary relationship. When I get a letter from you, it?s five pages. It?s about the lab dog, it?s about shrubbery. It?s about the things of this world. Writers must write.
I enjoy writing letters. I?ve got a Ph.D. in Victorian literature, and I think perhaps that?s where the letter writer comes from. Letter writing is one of the great pleasures of my life because through letters I make friendships such as the one I have with you, even though we?d never met. When you write a letter, you feel as if you?re sharing your life with others and have a sense of communication.
Let?s have a poem.
I didn?t start writing poetry until I was thirty-one years old. Right after I gave birth to my second son, I discovered I had a huge brain tumor. I almost died. I did live and recover and I began writing poetry. So, this next poem is about the experience with the brain tumor, which took me quite some time to actually be able to write about.
When Your Number?s Up
Rocking on the front porch with eyes closed to feel
my grandmother preached to her congregation
of dogs, cats, chickens, The hairs of your head are numbered.
I pictured her hands, fingers layered between
knuckles, and thumbs twiddling like blades of a reel mower
cutting hay, as a barber shaved my head with an electric razor.
Piling around me like stacks of wheat
before it is gathered and tied in Brueghel?s The Harvesters,
my hair was red then gold in the air
as it dropped. Way too pretty to throw away, the orderly
said as he gathered it in a sack for me to keep. The night
before the meningioma was removed,
I had to translate the medical word for brain tumor
to my kin
as they circled around me. Holding
hands while they sang hymns, their trust was in the mighty
fortress of god not the surgeon. Folding my fingers into
my palms, index fingers and thumbs pointed to
heaven, I used to play Here?s the church, here?s the steeple.
Open the doors and here?s the people.
During the operation, my hands were strapped
I couldn?t pray without them. I lived. I could add.
the bag I brought from Gaylord Hospital, I counted
each strand of hair on my bed, told myself: Hustle! Ink
your lucky number on an arm, go to Lighthouse Deli,
buy a fistful of Quik Pic, Daily Lotto, Play Four and Power Ball.
Vivian Shipley. She is the author of Hardboot, Gleanings, When There Is No Shore, Down of Hawk, Fishing Poems, Echo, and Anger Still. Her poetry is made up of units of energy. I call her work Spirit as Ground. Ground as Spirit. She writes about very downhome things, but they really take on laughter, energy and all the things that make us vastly human. I think you?ve probably heard that before.
I have, and I?m very complimented by it. For me, normally a kernel of emotion stimulates a poem. My work appears to be autobiographical, but much of the work I?ve done is fictional. In other words, the incidents, the details in it, are fiction. I?ve written many fishing poems for instance, I?ve never caught a fish in my life. I happen to be terrified of worms. But I do try to unite the heart and mind when I write, and the conflict that is created between the two often might be what will arouse me to write a poem.
and I often tell my students it?s all fiction but the feeling.
So true. The feeling.
That?s the only thing that cannot be fiction. It can be with a novelist, but with a poet, we cannot fake the feeling. And let?s have some more.
Because my own voice was almost silenced by the brain tumor, voices became a dominant theme throughout my work. In my own life, I started to learn how many things besides radical illness and death, could silence you. I have three sons, and while I was trying to raise them, for awhile as a single mother, and work full time, I found mainly I was exhausted, and my voice was in a sense silenced. The writing, there was no time to do it. I often felt that with Sylvia Plath - perhaps it was the exhaustion that she experienced with two children in the coldest winter in Britain that led ultimately to her suicide.
How Many Stones Weighted Virginia Woolf?s Pockets?
A bather rising from Long Island Sound, dripping
breasts, it has taken me a long time to surface
through gutted chickens, shucked corn, carrot scrapings,
bean husks and potato peels. To have no sons, dogs, cat,
house or garden still seems natural; it?s a shock
to find how far gone life is, how widely I have drifted.
A body that could not stay shut, my job description
read birth with veins breaking to feather
the back of my knees in crimson. Yellowed sweater
stretched tight over my stomach, it was not just my life
that weighted me like a split shot crimped
on my fishing line. In chem, I?d learned why I shouldn?t
bite lead sinkers with my teeth, but not to avoid habits
that seeped in, hardening to mold all the life
I could hold: milk rings, cereal bowls to rinse.
for oatmeal as I bent over to brush the underside of my hair,
all three sons sat, impatient. To get my attention, one
swallowed a penny on a bet with his brother. My voice rose,
a hand swatting air as flies, shut up like my desire, swarmed
inside the Jackson Press over the peach cobbler
leftover from supper, and beat their wings against its doors.
We?re at the Library of Congress with Vivian Shipley, and she has just been awarded a prize from Connecticut. It is in tribute to her contribution to the world of literature, fostering an interest in books, and an interest in writing and reading throughout the state. She is honored for advocating Connecticut?s literary heritage. Is that the Connecticut Prize? There was one in 2003.
That was for When There Is No Shore. I won the 2003 Connecticut Book Prize for Poetry from the Center for the Book, which is housed here in the Library of Congress. Connecticut has a chapter in the Hartford Public Library. Most states have chapters affiliated with the Center for the Book here at the Library. It?s a major national treasure.
This is new.
Yes. It?s the 2005 Lifetime Achievement Award for Service to the Literary Community. Wally Lamb, the novelist, won it last year.
And it?s called the Lifetime Achievement Award for Service. I think service awards are something to be especially proud of, because it means that we?re spreading the light.
I have to tell you that I had an old hound dog named Goldie, who?d sit out underneath a tree with her mouth open, sure that if she sat there long enough, a squirrel was going to drop. So this award goes to show if you keep your mouth open long enough, something good?s going to fall into it.
It did! I?m Grace Cavalieri, and we?re going to go on. Are you reading from Gleanings now?
I am. After having children, I also experienced a divorce, which was very devastating, and then formed a new family. And so I?d like to read a poem about my husband now of twenty-five years, who took on the responsibility of three small boys.
The Step-father Speaks
Do years add layers as silt does, filtering down
through a river,
flowing quietly, sure of its direction as we have been for fourteen
years? There was no ritual for becoming a family when I married
your mother. Our three last names stayed separate, were not
blended into one word we could stencil on the mailbox. I did not
understand your mother's anger at the years she could not erase
by removing monograms from silver, by changing your initials
to her own. At times, her rage was a fire, scorching all ground
around us. Peace like the dandelions we dug out year after year,
jagged spears of green spreading out to yellow carpets, crept in,
pushing back the blackness farther and farther. One day it was
faint, a ring surrounding us, and then it was memory. Because it
is easy, the metaphor of planting comes readily. So common, but
I can?t think of another comparison that would not be
that would be natural for a step-father's love that is not. What
I did not seed, I can harvest; the earth has been
deeded to me.
Yet, as I stand at Sachem Field waiting behind the
I sometimes fall silent, not screaming out Yes! as
other fathers do
when their sons score a goal. Another man?s name broadcast
over the P.A. system slaps my ears. At the fall sports banquet,
after being picked all conference and MVP, you called me up
to the podium. While we stood posing for the North Haven Post,
need to see my name engraved on you for a plaque I?d mount
in the hall fell from my heart. With no words in our vocabulary
for blood, own, or real, we each grasped a handle; there was no
step or hyphen labeling love bridging us, the trophy we shared.
The basic soundness of your life makes your poetry trustworthy. We trust your experiences. And that makes us feel the poem is true. Do you teach your students this approach to poetry?
Yes, Grace, but I also tell them that to get the feeling of truth, I do a lot of research so that the details of my work, even if I haven?t had the experience myself, the details are accurate. If I do poems about fishing, I will have really read about, researched fishing, and the attitudes and emotions of people who actually do it. And then I gather those into myself and try to write about them.
You had me fooled. I thought you were really a fisher person.
Okay, were you lying about the shrubbery too?
No, the shrubbery is true. In Kentucky, I grew up loving the farm, loving to get my feet in dirt. So, I?ve moved some trees ten or fifteen times. I find it very therapeutic.
And it?s also in the work. I think Gleanings won a Paterson Prize. And that was an achievement award.
Yes, a 2004 Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement which I shared with Martin Estrada. It was given by Maria Gillan, Editor of the Paterson Literary Review, and Director of the Paterson Poetry Center and creative writing at SUNY-Binghamton. I?m very grateful for that, for the acknowledgment. I won an individual book Paterson Poetry Prize for Crazy Quilt earlier but this one was for lifetime achievement.
2004. I remember that, actually. Not from a submission, an appointment?
Maria Gillan was familiar with my work, had my book Gleanings, and she sends a number of books from major presses every year to the judges, and it was chosen.
Well, we have here a woman who is a Distinguished Professor at Southern Connecticut State University, and also the Editor of the Connecticut Review. And that brings me to the question of how much a presenter can present, and still maintain the poetry in her heart. Because I know by the time we write blurbs, by the time we review other people?s books, by the time we teach, by the time we do letters of recommendation, sometimes we feel like, ?I might as well be marketing fertilizer instead of light.â I mean, marketing is marketing. Don?t you sometimes just have to take a deep breath and go hide?
Probably writing poems is my way of hiding. I find that writing poetry is a fairly lonely experience, and it?s also very personally preoccupying. My roles as a teacher, an editor, get me out into the world and let me help other people, or involve me with other people. Then I feel much better about my self-absorption when I write. I would find it very difficult to write, and not have a life where I?m privileged to be able to help others.
Well that?s a very good balance, since life is a balance. And I bet you get up at five o?clock like I do to write.
Now, I?m sleeping later. I don?t know why. I?m hoping that I?ll start getting back up at five.
It works. Here?s Vivian.
This is a poem that I wrote about taking my son fishing.
my son would whisper as I pictured netting dark,
not our bait darting into tide pool moss.
Twilight was best with shadows
crossing and uncrossing like legs of cheerleaders
seated on bleachers at a home game.
Brushing sand lice from my knees
and thighs, I?d lecture to myself, There is a limit.
Our insurance against lures, Matthew scooped
kellys into a pickle jar, but fearing
for his thumb I hooked them onto his rod. I turned
away when the bluefish struck, knowing
what I would have to do, that my son
was still too young to handle a knife. My fingers
wrestling its insides, guts over my wrist,
I was grateful no sun gleamed in
the fish?s eyes. Rubbing my index finger?s knuckle
under my nose, a habit I couldn't break,
I would inhale the smell for days.
Like squid left to dry that curl and stick to the deck,
scales of the fish I cleaned fell to silver
grass. Staying put through winter,
washed by spring rain, scales glittered on asphalt,
rolled as if on the bluefish?s flesh leaping off
the hook to forgive, to resurrect my hands.
We have three books in front of us. What are the names of these books?
I?m reading from Gleanings, from Hardboot and from When There Is No Shore.
Gleanings was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Yes, that?s right.
And also When There is No Shore was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. We?ve been here an hour and you haven?t won a prize. Are you getting antsy?
Oh, I am!
The mailman hasn?t come yet, so don?t give up.
Being here with you is a prize.
When I read your letters, I just absolutely die. Now Vivian?s got a Labrador who weighs a hundred pounds who thinks he?s a lapdog.
Bear is actually a labradoodle, which is a cross between a Labrador and a poodle. It?s a new kind of breed.
We don?t have a poem about him.
Well, hopefully we will have. Bear occupies my life, but he chews up things. So if I wrote one, he?d probably chew it.
I think that poets offer a more conscious relationship to the world and to people, such as the poem about fishing with your son. Even about divorce. And there are some very painful poems in your book, Hardboot. And I think they point to a reality that you don?t find outside of poetry. It?s a more conscious reality of being with another person.
I agree with you about that. I think that?s a very sensitive observation about poets, hopefully about my poetry. I suppose I try to use myself as a laboratory filled with test tubes, to experiment with mixing the reality of emotions and experiences that I may have altered. What I hope to be able to do is to write a poem that will share my joy, my grief, my anger, so that others can relate to it. Perhaps the poem will make the human dilemma a little bit easier for others... perhaps offer understanding...make the passage through life a bit easier. I hope that my poems, where I share myself and my feelings are grounded also in other people?s lives... that the poems reach out to them, and offer a bit of comfort along the way.
The quest for reality. Here it is.
While I faced the daily reality of taking care of my children all those years, I wrote a lot of poems about my Kentucky heritage, trying to come to terms with it. And this is one of my favorites.
Walking back from services in the sweat of evening,
and I stopped to be civil. Just by sitting, Uncle Alvey possessed
his porch, dog. I felt cork in his leg, an old war wound, making
sure my birth paid for the pain of woman mother used as a whip
to make me behave. Past the age to admit my fingers tightened
her glove, I stood while mother told everyone that I was bound
for Lexington that next fall. Our preacher had warned me about
strong drink, shouting: a train, a beerbelly, hands puzzling over
the body. I had already learned from cousins to pay him no mind.
Deciding to tie one on, I found barrels and copper
out by the corner shed. Drinking from a still with condensers
made of automobile radiators that left lead salts was as deadly
as selling to strangers. I had heard Uncle Lanny's prohibition
stories about neighbors who had drawn big claims, sometimes
as much as thirty dollars, to witness against a friend. Hard times,
everybody needed money. Government set people on each other.
Trusting my father to have sense enough not to use
joints, that I wouldn?t be blinded, I drank. Climbing to a man's
world, Jack, flinging red and yellow beans, I got higher, higher,
putting miles between me and women smothering in oilcloth.
Another drink, one more and I was sitting with men
on a bench
inside Alexander's grocery: crock, bare floors, charred coffeepot.
Fried ham from fingers still holding the smell
of livestock, there
was enough for feasting but nothing left over to clean up, store
in a press for breakfast. No ceremony, no grace, a sleeve to wipe
gravy with, one plate to clean, there were no women to hide me
from men, the real life lived out of doors. No Kentucky rain.
It's Connecticut dropping like thirty years that have run together.
Leaning right up against the bar at Rudy's, I don't
have to hide
behind lattice work under the back porch as I drink Jack Daniels.
Marty fills my glass: a shot; a beer; a shot; a beer.
Again, and I
lift white lightning in a dipper. Rust freckled tin drains to hooked
rugs, Clabber Girl barns, beans rattling on strings, chicken heads,
the scraps from my grandmother I try to hide under a crazy quilt.
Great wisdom. Traditions of Kentucky. Now did you have to do research to write that poem, Vivian?
Well, I had to do a lot of research in bars for that one, Grace. Of course, it was all research.
But look, somebody has to keep the poetry tradition alive.
Somebody?s gotta? do it.
Let me ask you how you start a poem. I have studied your poems, and I think that what is remarkable is the specificity, the detail. And now I know that you do a lot of prep work, that you really look into the subject before you write. But how do you begin a poem?
Well, the next poem I?ll share after I answer you, is a poem that I wrote after the first day my oldest son went to first grade. I came home and cried. And I read this quote from a very famous Kentucky poet I admire: âIn separateness only does love learn definition.â That?s by Robert Penn Warren. And this started me writing this poem, which I?ll read for you.
In separateness only does love learn definition
- Robert Penn Warren
We stand at the bus stop. Eyeing my son and me,
the other children are quiet and they look hard.
It?s not their first day of class. My fingers tighten
over my father?s hand at six years: cowbarn, outhouse,
cornbread, woodpile, chickenhouse. He rode a plowhorse
named Snip, no big yellow bus. A greyhound, Queenie,
uncurled from under a forsythia bush outside the kitchen,
leaping to race him, but my grandmother held her collar.
Before Daddy rode off, Grandpa told him about the
horses in Kentucky. Scoured out of hills, they were roped,
tied down, nostrils clamped shut. Their neck veins pulsed
like salmon jumping upstream. The mares all aborted.
I know beyond that word. Hanging limp as morning
wet grass, my son?s hands are smooth not toughened from
milking a cow as my father?s were by the time he went
to first grade. I want to double fence a pasture to protect
him like Daddy did to keep stallions apart in order
to keep them spirited for breeding. Eric waits, but strains
to see beyond the corner. I pull him back, fearing roads
I cannot see him travel. The day must come when I
his snowsuited body out, without immunity, into January
mornings so cold milk jugs would freeze if I left them out
on the doorstep. Can I be ready with a message to pin on him
as his boots scale snow, tracking maps I have not traced?
Boarding the bus, Eric twists around to me from the
and I reach out to touch his shoulder, then stand waving him
out of sight. My stomach cupped in my hands, I bow my head
and let my son go. Knowing how wild horses are broken,
I pray to him: remember the soles of your bare feet
through bluegrass blooming over hills in Hardin County.
Since poetry is the opposite of being private, then I have to tell everyone the secret- that you were an ex-beauty queen. And you?re the second one this year on my radio show. I really went through many dry years without a beauty queen. And we had Patricia Gray on this season, too. She was Miss Western Auto. What were you?
I was the Homecoming Queen at the University of Kentucky. But my story has sort of a strange twist to it. In front of fifty thousand people, U.K.?s President crowned the wrong girl. And so I was standing in the middle of the stadium, and my escort was screaming at the president, You?ve crowned the wrong girl.” He crowned the girlfriend of our star basketball player. So, on the sidelines, again in front of fifty thousand people, they took away her crown, took away her roses. By the time I got them they were broken, and I was sobbing. Every newspaper in the country picked up the story. My picture was underneath a headline in the Star in New York City, Hooker Arrested in Midtown Manhattan.” And there I was. So, that?s my beauty queen story.
The caption was under the wrong picture?
Oh, yes. I had a man in Oklahoma write me a long letter saying he?d like to come to Kentucky and save me. He figured I was just the kind of girl that needed it. He probably was right about that one.
And look, you wound up being the Distinguished Professor at Connecticut State University. That just shows them. A worn out beauty crown, it was hardly used.
Well, it was a little broken. I didn?t return it to the Kitten Club, though. I was a real gosh-darn-it.
And a few broken roses. I love that story.
Right now I?d like to read you a poem from When There is No Shore. It?s the book that won the 2003 Connecticut Prize for Poetry. After my sons left home, I had more time to myself. I was fifty years old, and I actually was able to start concentrating on my writing. Also I began actively sending my work out for publication. I?d written all along, but I couldn?t find the time or the energy to do the work involved in sending poems out. Because my life was relatively calm and did not give me subject matter for poems, I turned to writing about other people. I found it very interesting to try to write about other people whose voices did not surface. I wanted to preserve those voices, to keep their spirit, and to release their spirit into the world. For the first time, I wrote very long poems about Vasyl Stus, Charlotte Mew, and Bronislawa Wajs, who were all poets whose work was destroyed, or whose poetry didn?t surface the way it should have. I wrote contrasting poems about Emily Dickinson, whose identity obviously was preserved, because her poems were in a trunk. One of my students, Eve Cummings, appeared in my class in her seventies, just a natural poetic genius. And she died of cancer before her work could ever get published. I wrote a series of poems about her, to help the world remember her and her talent, and I?d like to read one of those for you.
This Is What Desire Looks Like Unconsummated
A corpse with hair that refused to curl, a face without
or lipstick, Eve, you are shut up inside mahogany costing
more than anything you owned in life. Edging along streets
of Fair Haven, each footstep behind you a glove at your throat,
poems were the scream you didn?t make when three boys broke
your arm in order to snatch your purse. How can you be buried
with so much music, so many words inside? Teaching my class
that black Adidas sneakers over phone wires marked Latin King
territory, you mimed a mouth opening and waiting for crack
to kick in, showed us how to palm the glass vials. Today, Eve,
pages are wiped clean; rough drafts you gave me are blackbirds
swallowed whole. Knowing how important it was not to postpone
what had to be said, be remembered, you described your husband
cradling you before the last sips of whiskey. The square bottle
empty, angry, he talked with his fists, splitting your eyebrow,
your mouth. In January, when the Quinnipiac River was scaled
in ice, only the weather grew sober. Stars in the water, tarnished
by oil spill, were like the quarters that were all you had to throw
in St. Mary?s collection. Listening for New Haven?s harbor bell,
by the time you sat down in my workshop, put words onto paper,
it was too late. You were too old and cancer had already begun.
No arm of a river muscling into Long Island Sound,
bobbing too far out to drift back as wood can do. You taught me
how to make beach plum jam, Eve, how to press rose hips
for scurvy tea, where to dig for cherrystones. Teasing pit bulls,
you wanted a sudden death, not days slowed by chemotherapy,
but a bullet that strayed through shotgun rooms into a crib, a girl,
next door to your Fair Haven house, narrower than your coffin.
I think we?re learning that one of the jobs of poetry is to preserve that ancestry, just as you did. To keep people alive forever on the page, and that, I guess we?d call preserving the beloved.” That would be one of the social understandings of what poetry is, and actually, how it began.
Exactly. After I had this period of relative peace and freedom in my life, both of my parents became very ill. So I spent seven years caring for my father while he died of cancer, and then my mother who had Alzheimer?s. And I wrote about them. During the time I was obsessed about it. Perhaps, it?s a way of talking with the dead, of keeping their memories alive, and it doesn?t make me feel as orphaned if I write poems about my parents. I?d like to share a poem with you, Digging up Peonies, that I wrote when I had to abruptly take my parents from Kentucky and bring them to Connecticut. I had to sell their home-the houses that my father built-and all their possessions. And I wanted so desperately to bring something with me. What I did is related in this poem.
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.
A formal conclusion to your poetry. I was going to ask if you would tell us what mechanics it took to write that poem. We heard what trigger-starts your poems, but what mechanics do you use to get where you need to go?
Well, this was a poem that was like a gift; it really wrote itself. I did literally dig up the peonies, pack them in boxes with dirt; I paid to have them shipped back on the plane with me, and planted them outside Daddy?s window in our house so that he could see them. And blessedly they did grow up in the spring. He did get to see them blossom once before he died, and they?re still spreading and blooming like crazy. It?s a wonderful thing because these peony tubers came from my Grandmother Todd?s farm, and my Grandmother Todd had gotten them from her Grandma Stewart?s farm prior to that. So, they were generations of tubers that had been passed from family to family in Pulaski County, Kentucky. And now I?m giving them to my sons for their homes, so that these generations will pass on. And I?d like to believe, echoing what you said earlier, that this is what poems do. This poem was really a blessing. It was pretty much a literal rendition of what I felt. And I did feel that I was trying to preserve something of my family, something in my family?s life in Kentucky.
You often write in form. If I look through a book of yours I might see any kind of traditional form. I might see free verse. I might see couplets. But another thing which I realize is that you have archetypes in your poems. They might be flowers, your archetypes might be fish. You have recurring symbols that come from the country. And I love it, because I was from Trenton, and I don?t know the names of those things. I keep learning the names of flowers from your books, and the kind of details that someone cannot imagine if they were not raised in Kentucky.
Sure you can. Buy the catalog from White Flowers Farm. Buy all the guides to fish, to flowers, to shells. Actually, reading about something often provides much more detail than actually seeing it. And then go look at it yourself. But you can learn all of this. . White Flower Farms. Beautiful bulbs and flowers.
Louise Gluck got a whole book from that. Wild Iris.
I love her honesty. I remember an interview that you did with her in 2000. Louise Gluck said that she didn?t know anything about flowers other than planting them. And the catalogue is how she learned about them. I haven?t been able to travel much of my life because of caring for my parents or children, and so much of what I?ve learned has been through books and reading, and as I said, reading first hand accounts. But you can travel in your mind and your imagination. You don?t have to be able to go to the Himalayas. You can travel on the page with the word. This is why I think books and writing are so central to our experience of being human.
Sterling Brown called us beautiful liars.”
One of the things that I experienced while I was caring for my parents was also the marriage of my two sons. And I believe that a poet has a responsibility to be honest, and so I will tell you the truth, that when they both married, two months within each other, I was lost. I never experienced the empty nest syndrome before, but I felt abandoned. And this was a case where my heart and mind were warring. My mind was telling me I was being spoiled, not logical, and that I was not being fair. They both married wonderful women, I love both of them, but I felt, I was the one who always bought their underwear! So I wrote several poems about being the abandoned mother. Once I even told my poor middle son, Todd, that I was going to visit my youngest son who was not married, because someone still loved me. Now, how low can you go? So I?d like to read you a poem about this period of my life.
A Daughter?s a Daughter All of Her Life
Stirring, pines at Morgan Point ease me
into the day of my son?s wedding. First light,
swift as thought of God, of Shakespeare?s
searching eye of heaven, cannot scour
darkness from my heart that seizes into a claw.
I think of a tree limb that won?t bear new cones,
how it will snap, but how as the rupture ages, sap
will blacken, seal the break. By tonight, my son
will have a wife, my mother?s locket with
his round baby face will circle her neck. No way
to sandbag my heart, I must learn to bite my tongue,
control my starfish hands. Rooted in needles
they have shed, evergreens fingering my window
are not like me. They?ve spent their life knowing
when to bow, how to touch earth like an angler
kneeling in the rapids to let her shining trout go.
Your starfish hands.
Where did that image come from?
Haven?t you ever watched starfish?
I just wonder how the word was gifted to you when you needed it.
Well, I try to visualize. I think that if we don?t use specific words that create images for other people to relate to, then words are empty. And so I really do try to avoid, for instance, using adjectives and adverbs. And starfish hands just struck me as better than saying clinging, or grasping, or not wanting to let go. Because a starfish can be very tenacious.
Well, poetry is usually about the unreachable. But, buying your sons underwear is
right out there on the table. We know right where you?re coming from, and that?s what makes your work vivid. How did your sons like that disclosure?
Well, I?m not sure that they read all of my work, and there are some of my poems I?m probably just as happy that they didn?t read. However, I would like to say that I finally have recovered, and have also seen the great wonder of having a daughter-in-law because I have my first grandson. So, I would like to read you a poem about him to celebrate their marriage.
For My First Grandchild
Eric Raymond Jokl
æSeptember 29, 2004
You are spring, bluegrass
and hyacinth rending tight crust,
harrowing earth that had chosen
not to be opened. Your faltering cry,
quivering lower lip undoes me.
Shining, not a nick or scratch
on you, I think rattling bicycle,
unraveled shoelaces, rollerblades
zig-zagging my street, you bear hugging
one tree after another, slamming
mailboxes, lurching into traffic.
You will fall. I see it.
I am already tired, knowing it.
I was in Toys R Us buying twin skateboards for my seven year old grandsons, and I thought of that poem. And I looked at the boards and I said, I am tired just looking at these. That great line of yours. Just the thought of what?s ahead. All those skinned elbows and knees you went through. Now you have to look at it as a grandmother. Terrific poem. That?s terrific.
I think often you find that you are hostage to love. Love is a wonderful emotion, but on the other hand, you realize when you first have a child, that you?re hostage to this little body. And the anxiety that you feel, you will never really overcome. I think that you feel the same thing with your parents, and with the loss that you feel with anyone that you love deeply. I?ve been accused perhaps of not ever writing a real love poem. I think I have written several. I see love as one of the central things that we write about. But I write about the complexity of what love is, how it owns us, and the danger of it. It?s where your heart and mind often come into conflict.
Are you going to read us a love poem?
This is a love poem, of sorts, to my mother who had Alzheimer?s, and this is a poem about caring for her in Connecticut. I had to put her into a home where she could be cared for and watched, for obvious reasons, while I had my father at home. So I would go pick up my mother every day, and bring her to see my father so they could spend some time together.
Did they know each other?
My mother sort of did and didn?t. My father?s mind stayed alert until the very end.
The title of the poem is 02-14-99 which was the code I had to punch to get in
and out of her Alzheimer?s unit. If you?ve ever loved a person with Alzheimer?s, you
know that they can?t be allowed to get out, and I was a person who couldn?t
remember my locker number, so this was quite a test for me.
This snow is what I pray death will be.
I am released from myself, from guilt,
from driving across Whitney Lakes to visit
my mother in Arden Courts. I can excuse
myself as easily as I do from a table. Moved
with my father, his cancer, from Kentucky
to Connecticut, my mother gave her past,
her present, her future to me. If I don?t visit
her here in this Yankee state, no one will.
Instead of memories, the lima bean I lodged
in my ear, she keeps a list: emery board, Ponds.
My mother does not search for a way out, press
the code, 02-14-99, to open locks as I do
each day, every day when I lug her to my home
to visit my father imprisoned by his ribs, black
lines on a bone scan. Their fifty-eight year
marriage is forgotten, like a hotel she checked
out of last July. My mother?s path is circular
at Arden Courts: nursing station, hairdresser,
back again. Lost, her feet keep shuffling,
keeping pace with her walker, patent purse
elbowed into her side. I admire packets
of Kleenex she won at Bingo the night before,
how she threads marbles of glass. Unstrung
by the recreation therapist each evening,
each morning is a resurrection for my mother.
Wearing her beads I finger into a rosary
of worries, I wonder if like my golden retriever,
my mother can make a decision, get up
from the rug, walk, think bed. If I hold out
our communion of beaten biscuit and ham
in my palm, will she remember the taste?
I can see why you won the Hart Crane Poetry Prize from Kent State University.
I?d like to read my favorite poem, and this poem is literally true. I must confess though, there?s one item that is not. In it, I say that I want to drink Wild Turkey in my Cousin Jim?s kitchen, but I really am a Jack Daniels kind of woman.
You have Bombay gin in another poem. We noticed that.
Well, I can switch hit.
Unlike my sorrow which has started to scab,
grass has not closed over this raw red
Kentucky clay. Over eight months now.
My father?s plot is still unmarked, a rupture
in my heart that needs to find a name
to heal. I?ve come back to these hills to see
the communion altar the Ladies? Guild
built in Howe Valley Methodist Church
with my donation, to measure other stones
so Daddy?s will not be the tallest. He avoided
standing out, showing off in life, and there
is no reason I can think of he should in death.
Marble I had chosen yesterday is too black,
too glossy; I?ll have to go back in the morning
to Cheneyville, prove Mr. Crum was right,
that it?s women who always change their minds.
What I want is a pint bottle of Wild Turkey,
a jelly glass, to sit in my cousin Sue?s kitchen
and nip at Jim?s country ham. Instead, to thank
Hansel Pile for putting a wreath on my father?s
grave, I head out across Hardin County, a place
so religious even grapevines are tied to crosses.
Sure enough, I find pictures of Jesus, head
wrapped in thorns, cracked linoleum floors,
deviled eggs sprinkled with paprika. Minding
my manners, I admire trophies won by Hansel?s
bulls, linger over the photograph of Sammy,
his Grand Champion at the Indiana Fair. Done
with the judge?s ring, Hansel tells me his secret:
a donkey to lead cattle around, get them used
to a rope. No blue ribbons for the donkey.
All night every night, it walked and walked,
stupid, helpless, tethered as it was to one halter
then another. In winter, Hansel turned the donkey
out to pasture without food. I imagine its cracked
hooves, scraping at what was in frozen ground,
stumbling through February, monotony broken
by breath, a shadow moving from tuft to tuft.
The donkey knew its duty here, knew its worth,
knew its only chance for hay, corn. A small gray
memory, each spring it came back to the pen
as I do to Howe Valley, these hills, to my father.
Braided to reason, to its life, I think of the donkey,
of what we accept if we wear it long enough
like the rope hooked to the bull, like octagonal links
of a gold necklace I finger, like the weight of grief.
And may we have a final poem.
With My Father Outside
the West Wing of Hospice
The silence between us has softened
like the fishing rag you gave me to keep
my fingers from getting finned while
I cleaned bluegills. A squirrel is inching
up the pole of the bird feeder we watch.
It?s a rewind of Buster Keaton playing hero
in The Three Ages, catching a drainpipe
that swings him around a hundred
and eighty degrees to a pole he slides
down. You can?t smile. I think Kentucky,
October squirrels under a black walnut
that will mark your feet when I bury
you in Howe Valley. A rebel like you,
not to be outdone, our Yankee squirrel
grabs the feeder?s dish and flips,
a trapeze artist doing a double whammy.
You whisper, see what can come
of holding on, what not giving up can do.
Just when I thought I had stopped
my heart, you start it beating again.
The voice of Vivian Shipley. This is The Poet and the Poem, from the Library of Congress.” The program is produced by Forest Wood Media. Assistant producer is Ken Flynn. Post production, by Mike Turpin of MET Studios. The series is brought to you by the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry.
You can hear this series on www.loc.gov/poetry/poetpoem
Grace Cavalieri is the author of fourteen books and chapbooks of poetry and 20 produced plays. This is the 29th consecutive year that she has produced âThe Poet and the Poem,” on public radio.
Hardboot (Southeastern Louisiana University Press, Hammond, LA., 2005)
Gleanings (Southeastern Louisiana University Press, Hammond, LA, 2003)
When There Is No Shore (Word Press, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2002)