“Poetry Workshop” by Vivian Shipley

Vivian Shipley


for Nicole

I don’t have to ask how a town is doing 
when I walk past store after store 
with undressed mannequins in windows,

some missing an arm at the shoulder,
a leg at the hip. I don’t want to stifle
your creativity so I lead class discussion

as if your poem were fiction, even though
when you unzip the hoodie you hide in,
I see knobs in wrists and how collarbones 

protrude. What I can’t see is if gashes line 
your forearms, inner thighs. There is no way
I can transform your description of cutting 

into metaphor. Beginning with a Popsicle stick
sharpened like a pencil, you scratched wrists, 
trying to erase insecurities. Seeking emotion

you could control, you inflicted pain to bleed
out depression that numbed you. Watching
Pink’s music video, learning new places

on your body to hide scars, you found secret 
friends in tabloid interviews with Johnny Depp,
Princess Diana, and Angelina Jolie who 

talked about cutting. I did not understand
why you kept razor blades like sacred objects
in a black velvet box, but details about forcing

yourself to vomit, spitting out ounces were 
only too clear. Shedding blood did not stop
your obsession about pounds that might

be hiding in your tonsils. You heaved
and heaved as if you could escape your cage
of bone. I pictured a beached whale, ribs

jutting from sand, you on all fours, a dog
above a toilet. In our conference, neither
of us has anything to say. I want to ask you

to show me your arms, but don’t. To break
silence, I resist suggesting a skeleton
costume, but I do say eating food is not

like swallowing injustice. Slicing skin
to mine your body, were you digging 
for a fossil of yourself? To help you 

find a better way to soothe yourself, find
pleasure, I read William Carlos William’s
This Is Just to Say. I offer my yellow plum, 

a stone fruit, to show how flesh clings
to the seed no matter how hard it is pulled.
A child, you liked erasers more than pencils,

would cut your face out of photographs, 
probably stayed spread eagled in snow
until you were covered. What if you begin

to believe there are calories in the air you
breathe? I don’t know how to create a body
you won’t want to cut or try to shed, and I

realize there’s no point in writing, “Please 
see me if you want to talk.” Even though 
death dangles, I don’t know what else to do.

from Rattle #69, Fall 2020


Vivian Shipley: “Many of my poetry students write poems about cutting themselves and eating disorders, which often go hand-in-hand. My concern for the student makes me want to ask if the work is based on actual experience. However, to teach creative writing, I believe I need to pretend all work is an act of creativity and not confessional. Otherwise, I may prevent students from sharing experiences that they don’t want to be seen as personal. In fiction class, this is not a problem. Everyone assumes fiction is, well, fiction, but that poetry is ‘true.’ In my poem, I try to express my conflict about not knowing how to help students who write about self-harm.” (web)

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