Three Poems

by Vivian Shipley Issue: Spring 2018

Dust Rag

          bound / by countless silken ties of love and thought
                    --Robert Frost, "The Silken Tent"

Today, I say I don’t swipe ceiling corners
so cobwebs can veil the moon. I can

finger dirt on my picture frames, write
my name on table tops, blow a cloud

from the fireplace’s mantle. My mother
would wipe not write about dust, not sit 

at the kitchen counter as I do, light like
my tarnished pewter, or lead of a pencil

before erasure. My mother punctuated
all her days, ending in a period or question

of what had she done to suffer so. When
she took my sister and me to the beach,

she’d tie one end of a rope to each of us
and the other end to her leg so we could go

in the water while she sat on shore. There
were no exclamations. Surely, she must

have had stories she kept hidden, knuckles
bent as if snowed under by flour. I have

no memory of my mother playing hide
and seek or doing anything other than

ironing, hemming and frying chicken.
The click of my jaw was almost audible

when on her final visit, she bottom scooted
on my floor to clean the baseboards, used

Comet cleanser on the bathtub I had just
gotten in to scrub before she’d even stand

up in it to shower. I was her first born:
yearbook editor, Homecoming Queen

Valedictorian—it was her due. There
never was any question of who was

the sun, and who was the earth. Wadded
up, paper I throw in corners is big as 

rags she used to rip and quilt. Why am I
still threading her veins through my text?

"How much time he gains who does not look
to see what his neighbor says or does"

                                                  --Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Sunflowers are promiscuous, don’t respect borders,
even those with fences, migrate, say, from Mexico
to Texas. Burrowing willy-nilly, they encourage
cross-fertilization, even thrive on energy from

the African diaspora. A sunflower’s life is full
of aggravations: rust beetles, moths, bears rolling
in them for fun,  midges, weevils, and blackbirds.
Thoughtful refugees, sunflowers need little fertilizer

and don’t need irrigation. Resettling, they scavenge
nutrients left in soil by natives who cultivate grains
like wheat or rye.  Given a chance, sunflower roots
can go down 8 feet, renewing a new neighbor’s soil.

A heritage of their own, archaeologists found seed
caches in Tennessee dating from 3000 B.C. Binding
the globe, they don’t stick to a species: cardinals
and  grosbeaks crack the hull of seeds and little birds,

chicadees and goldfinches, prefer hulled seeds.
A cultural barometer, Spanish like the recreation
of crack-and-spits but Japanese label sunflowers
in shells as bird food—give them one and they

will not spit it out. A Russian can outdo everyone
with a Khrushchev shoe pounding approach, cracking
a steady stream of seeds on one side of the mouth
dislodging kernels with his tongue and spitting hulls

from the other. The French think crack and spits are
as uncivilized as eating corn on the cob. No need
to build a fence, sunflowers are a taste all can share.
Never cranky but happy multiculturalists, there is

no rift or rupture over color—Hopis made purple dye
from the seeds—called Sola Indianus, but not confined
to North Dakota like Hidatsa Indians. Humans are tribal
but sunflowers show how porous boundaries can be.



I just know I can be a good role model.
Nothing can be as bad as the bully
in 7th grade—not even this--having

my sourdough starter die. Resilient,
I will not let it become a metaphor,
a setback, sure, a part of the journey,

but not a career ending failure. In fact,
with sourdough, I had deliberately invited
tension into my life, believing as a human,

I needed stress as much as bread. Kneading
it, I take breaks like I do in weight lifting reps.
A bit of fermented flour, a microbial jumble

of bacteria and yeast, sourdough not only
is uplifting but also gives anything baked
a complex tang.  No philodrenden I can

forget to water or a low maintenance
goldfish, sourdough’s health is a reflection
of my maturity, ability to take responsibility.

My dead starter could have been from, say,
a rare bloom of mold, too much time
forgotten on the kitchen counter in August—

or what I feared—lethargy, neglect pure
and simple neglect on my part. I see
the starter’s death as a chance to rethink

my life goals and find what truly fulfills
my spirit, not just my stomach. I swear
sourdough’s demise will not be in vain!

It will inspire me to get out of my comfort
zone—maybe not climb Mount Kilimanjaro
or run a triathlon, but I might share my secret

poetry journal at a slam. I will be an optimist.
Sourdough starters are sturdy, can live long
untragic lives passed from mother to child

to child and back again. Why, I know one
in Brooklyn that celebrated a 60th birthday!
I’ll get a packet of dry sourdough starter,

mix it up, feed once a week with flour, milk,
let ferment overnight—but I will not fail to
think ahead. Forget to reserve some airy mass

for next week and my optimism might vanish.
There will not be another batch of pancakes
as thick and even as a layer of birthday cake

to anticipate. I’ll even give a part of my starter
to everyone I know. Share don’t hoard will
be my motto—it ensures survival. Make rolls,

dust with cinnamon sugar. No matter what
happens between today, and the days ahead,
something sweet I can create will be waiting.  

Vivian Shipley

Connecticut State University Distinguished Professor, Vivian Shipley teaches at SCSU. The Poet (SLU) and Perennial (Negative Capability Press, Mobile, AL), nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and a 2016 Paterson Poetry Prize Finalist, were published in 2015.  All of Your Messages Have Been Erased, (2010. SLU) won the 2011 Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement, NEPC’s Sheila Motton Book Award , and CT Press Club’s Prize for Best Creative Writing.  Shipley won 2015’s Hackney Literary Award for Poetry and has also won the Poetry Society of America’s Lucille Medwick Prize, the Robert Frost Foundation’s Poetry Prize, the University of Southern California’s Ann Stanford Poetry Prize, the Marble Faun Poetry Prize from the William Faulkner Society, New England Poetry Club’s Daniel Varoujan Prize, and Kent State’s Hart Crane Prize. Most recently, her poem, “Cargo,” won the San Diego Arts 2017-18 Steve Kowit Poetry Prize. An Archaeology of Days is forthcoming from Negative Capability Press in 2018.