All of Your Messages Have Been Erased, by Vivian Shipley


In April of 2009, Vivian Shipley gave a poetry reading at the Ohio State University at Lima to an unlikely crowd of poetry aficionados. Most of the more than one hundred college and high school students in attendance had probably never read a poem except when coerced. Nevertheless, they were clearly enthralled. Shipley alternated reading her highly personal poems with recounting events in her life that had generated them, including being diagnosed with seemingly incurable brain cancer when she was thirty-two and pregnant with her second son. During both the poems and commentary, she engaged her listeners as though they were personal friends with whom she was sharing — with honesty and intelligence — the central occurrences of her life.

A portion of the poems in All of Your Messages Have Been Erased continue in this conversationally confessional mode, including one about a son fishing, another that encompasses a Kentucky childhood of squirrel burgoo and casual cruelty, and yet another about missing a mother’s last breath. But this is also a collection of impersonations. The poet speaks to us in the voice of historical figures, from women in the lives of famous men (Mary Shelley, Lucia Joyce, Paula Hitler) to accused witches and victims of industrial malfeasance (women debilitated after painting radium dials for Timex) to a former Alcatraz prisoner returning as a tourist, and even a statue of Cleopatra in the National Museum of American Art. Each from his or her particular perspective tells us “how quickly the heart gets entangled, / how impossible for it to go back.”

Many of the poems capture the ambivalences of family life. Mary Shelley’s vigil after Percy Shelley’s drowning is tempered by her anger at his infidelities; Paula Hitler describes herself as “tethered / to my brother by bone, by DNA, I would / chew loose if I could . . .”; and yet, she confesses, her “heart . . . has no teeth / to chew.” Like Shipley’s father’s blueprints for her childhood home, these poems show “how complex simple surfaces can be.” The final poem of the collection, “Mango Season in Cambodia,” speaks to the book’s mixtures: “biting into the fruit, / I found what I was seeking—how it is bitterness which / eventually numbs the tongue and sourness which lingers / in the mouth that changes the way things taste, and how / the sweet becomes sweeter next to sorrow; next to grief.”

To take on voices or compose dramatic monologues is nothing new, of course, but what is remarkable about this collection is Shipley’s facility at imbuing these voices with the same conversational, even casual tone as in her autobiographical work. Once again the reader feels as though we have sat down together with a cup of coffee or maybe a stiff drink, and a life is being shared.