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Ekphrastic Poem
SHJ Issue 18
Spring 2018

August 21, 2017, The Solar Eclipse, College of Charleston, SC

by Vivian Shipley

Is the theft of the day like theft of identity?
Luminous umbilical cord eight minutes
and 19 seconds long—the time it takes light
to travel to earth from the sun. Total solar eclipse,

moon covering the sun, a lifeline is severed,
tide of darkness swallows the planet. First totality:
Salem, WA 10:15 a.m, Pacific time. The moon
standing up to the sun over a seventy-mile wide

beveled ribbon was a curtain racing toward me—
1,462 mph in Kentucky where I’m from, picking
up to 1,502 mph arriving 2:50 p.m. Eastern time.
No shadow bands on the ground, nothing. Clouded out.

Weather, a roulette-wheel, I had pictured Regulus,
brightest star in Leo stepping from a robe of twilight
over the sun’s shoulder—then Mercury, Mars
and Venus inching out of deepening gloom. No

first contact with the moon grazing then eating away
the sun. No Baily’s beads of randomly spaced light
in an arc connecting crescent tips, sunlight shining
through valleys of the moon. Second contact. Gloom.

No night slamming me. No black hole blacker than
black fringed like a flapper in white fire. The moment
of totality was the time to scream in ecstasy but not
at clouds to dissolve. No wordless solidarity. What

else could I do but pop open a Corona, the eclipse
beer of choice? C of C students around me, I didn’t
want to date myself, had ear buds in listening
to “Dark Star” by Grateful Dead and “Earth’s Creation”

by Stevie Wonder. Only the best eclipse glasses
for me—Celestron Eclipsmart Power Viewers,
certification ISO 12312-2. I am a child of light.
When the sun came back from totality, I had planned

to cry—and I did, in anger. Veiled, the crescent
appeared, not burning bright as the first line of Genesis:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Heading past Fort Sumter across slivers of wetlands,

the Atlantic, the eclipse ended at sunset near Africa.
No awe, no totality. Language was not ripped away,
no lifeline severed. Ripping off paper glasses, I am
not surprised to find myself standing by a tombstone:

  Near this spot is buried,
Elizabeth Jackson,
Mother of President Andrew Jackson.
She gave her life cheerfully for
the independence of her country,
on an unrecorded date in Nov, 1781,
and to her son Andy this advice:
“Andy, never tell a lie
nor take what is not your own,
nor sue for slander,
settle those cases yourself.”

No birth or death date, Elizabeth, where are words
recording your life? Thirst for your history quenched
by your son’s fame, not even a church dress, when you
died, your friend Agnes Barton slipped hers on you,

buried you on a hill in an unmarked grave about
a mile from forks of Meeting and Kingstree Roads.
Was there nothing to say? Born in Ireland sometime
in 1740, married, you may have sucked icicles

to ease nausea on the ship sailing to America in 1765,
a Presbyterian escaping persecution. Just twenty-nine,
Andrew’s father died three weeks before he was born.
Raising two sons as a housekeeper, never again

in your own home, you had nightly buckets of urine,
scrub rags, stained sheets and iron pots of mutton broth
for your invalid sister, Jane. No granite carving that rain
could smooth. No medals, praise for your courage,

traveling forty miles to Camden, SC with British
prisoners to swap for your sons Robert and Andrew
who had smallpox. No way for your son to find
your bones, even place a rose on a forgotten hillock

for you, a patriot who died from ship’s fever you caught
nursing American soldiers held on prison ships moored
in Charleston’s harbor. I have no wreath to give you now.
Your stone is the eclipse I had not come to see.

—Honorable Mention, the Steve Kowit Poetry Prize 2017; first published in the San Diego Poetry Annual 2017-18 (Garden Oak Press, February 2018) and appears here with permissions from the publisher and the poet


Photo of Memorial Marker for Elizabeth Jackson, mother of President Andrew Jackson
Memorial Marker for Elizabeth Jackson
College of Charleston campus, South Carolina

Photograph copyrighted © 2013 by Wally Gobetz*


*Webmaster’s Notes:

Original image is copyrighted 3 May 2013 by Wally Gobetz; the reproduction above was downloaded from Flickr and appears here under generic license Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0.

For more information about the memorial marker itself, see This history is a mystery by Robert Behre in The Post and Courier (18 December 2011).


SHJ Issue 18
Spring 2018

Vivian Shipley

is Editor Emeritus of Connecticut Review and Distinguished Professor of creative writing at Southern Connecticut State University, where she was named Faculty Scholar three times. Raised in Kentucky, she holds a PhD from Vanderbilt and is a member of University of Kentucky’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni, the highest honor a graduate can receive. She was awarded the 2014 Hackney Literary Award for National Poetry in 2014, 2010, and 2007.

Two of her 17 published books (including six chapbooks) were released in 2015: The Poet (Louisiana Literature Press: Southeastern Louisiana University [SLU]) and Perennial (Negative Capability Press). The latter was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and named the 2016 Paterson Poetry Prize Finalist. Her ninth book, All of Your Messages Have Been Erased (Louisiana Literature Press, SLU; 2010), was also nominated for a Pulitzer; it was awarded the 2011 Sheila Motton Book Prize from NEPC, The Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement, and the CT Press Club Award for Best Creative Writing, and was a Milt Kessler Poetry Prize and CT Poetry Book Prize Finalist.

Recipient of a CT Arts Grant for Poetry, Shipley frequently gives national and state readings. In 2014-15, she gave the Soyka Humanities Fund Reading at Misericordia University and did workshops and readings at the Univ. of Central Florida, Alabama Writer’s Conclave, Villanova University, MA Poetry Festival, and The Poet’s Voice (Darien, CT). Prior to 2014, she gave readings at West Point (USMA), Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, Univ. of Hartford, Sacred Heart University, SUNY-Binghamton, West Chester University, and Salem State University, among others. She lives in North Haven, Connecticut with her husband, Ed Harris.

Vivian Shipley on Her Life and Her Poems

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury