March 5, 2011

Review by Stellasue LeeAll of Your Messages Have Been Erased by Vivian Shipley

ALL OF YOUR MESSAGES HAVE BEEN ERASED
by Vivian Shipley

Louisiana Literature Press,
SLU Box 10792
Hammond, Louisiana, 70402
ISBN: 978-0-945083-27-6 (cloth)
978-0-945083-28-3 (paper)
2010, 128 pp. $14.95
louisianaliterature.org

Vivian Shipley’s voice is compelling as she speaks for the women in her book. She gives word to their loss and loneliness, their passion, as well as her own. These poems fill the reader with a sense of wonder at the existence of such ordinary people, their extraordinary struggle and alienation, their grief and rebellious attitudes in the face of life’s tragedy.

Shipley’s allegiance to the forgotten honors them by giving voice to those who can no longer speak for themselves. From Mary Shelley’s long wait for her neglectful, philandering husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was never to return from the sea; to The Radium Girls hired by Timex and told only that the paint was harmless as they ingested deadly amounts of radium by licking their paintbrushes to sharpen the points. What did they know; they were young, and beautiful and paid 8 cents a dial. “Work faster,” said their boss, even though the radium made them gag.

Frances Splettstocher, 21 became the first dial painter to die in Waterbury.

I had lip painted for 4 years, did think it strange that my handkerchief
glowed in the dark when I blew my nose, but church members,
makers of Waterbury’s Dollar Watches, wouldn’t let young girls
like us do anything harmful.

Frances describes her work area:

Next to me racks of altimeters and clock dials waited
like upturned faces of children I would never have.

Eventually, Frances had to have a tooth removed.

The hole in my cheek would not heal; my uncle would pay
me a dime to go away so he did not have to look at it.

The language Shipley uses is extraordinary. At times, a line may leap off the page and become a banner the minds-eye sees and can’t quiet move past. Often, her description is painfully stark, ridged, as if it were happening in the present. The reader can’t help but take it personally, the sudden desire to remove yourself from your chair of comfort and demand justice.

Other places, it’s as if Shipley is talking to you over the back fence about a relative. She leans into her words, gossip-like, while the wind ruffles leaves from the branches of trees overhead. At other times, lines come at you like bits of flying embers from the bonfire that has become her passion, the voices of women who have returned to earth.

There is a quality of music throughout, as an operatic base, a basso profundo like Paul Gerimon singing Ol’ Man River. It sends shivers up your spine, a refrain that carries you along an endless river into the center of your being as these women become as real as your own family.

Interspersed, there are very personal poems, family dynamics, grief, loss, a history of a working family doing the best they know how. Vivian’s father,

…valued silence, never was one to talk much
and it’s no surprise that in blueprints for his house,
there are specifications for pegs to cover the screws
in the hardwood for floors and stairs that do not creak.

And, Vivian’s mother, the image of her “…lifting a hand, mothlike, to tell the stooped man (from the hospital) who sidles in for the trash that today’s her 88th birthday.” Shipley’s family is all of our families. “Orphan,” near the end of this marvelous book, Vivian writes, “Not a word one would apply to a sixty-two-year old,…” yet I experienced this same feeling when the last of my parents died. She touches my heart with her accessibility.

I would be negligent if I didn’t wonder why Shipley has chosen to champion the women she writes about in this book. I am led to believe that deep within her space, she has suffered, felt silenced. Well, we are listening now.

__________

Stellasue Lee was an entrant for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, and is again under consideration in 2011. She received The Poet and the Poem Special Recognition for Excellence from the Library of Congress in 2003. Dr. Lee is the author of five books in print: firecracker RED, Crossing the Double Yellow Line, 13 Los Angeles Poets, After I Fall, and Over To You. Her newly released book, firecracker RED, deals with issues of loss, recovery and redemption. Her poetry has been published in numerous anthologies and literary journals including the Connecticut Review, Cortland Review, Margie, Paterson Literary Review, and Quercus Review. Now Editor Emeritus of RATTLE, a literary journal, she teaches privately. (www.stellasuelee.com)