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SHJ Issue 18
Spring 2018

Open, Sesame

by Vivian Shipley

My birthday dinner, I’ve given up stilettoes,
even Manolo Blahnik’s Amiela shoe,
its elongated pointy toe, rounded tip
like the beak of a swan, spindly heel flaring

at the base to resemble how my champagne
flute’s stem widens as if to blow bubbles.
Last to go were Manolo’s brick shoes,
heels of cork covered with black patent leather,

green inserts for my feet, toenails scarlet letters.
Yet, I persist in believing I am still decadent
like the sesame seeds I pick at on my roll—
think how much pure life is in each one!

Deep and intense as existence itself,
1.2 million different seeds are like caviar
before me, glossy fish eggs containing
the entire organism of their origin.

Why in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,
the order to a seedpod, Open Sesame,
unlocks a treasure cave. I know Greek myth
blames winter on Persephone for eating

pomegranate seeds in Hades, but pomegranate
seeds, by legend,  number 613 and in Jewish
midrash, The Just eat each of them to fulfill
the 613 good deeds ordered by God’s oldest law.

Over 70, it’s hard to stop thoughts from being
morbid: when crops failed, the last thing
humans ate were seeds. In the Great Famine
of 1315-1317, thousands of English, French

and Germans starved even after freeze and flood
passed because grain seed had been eaten.
During Ireland’s potato famine, the 1847 harvest
was blight-free but produced only a fourth

of what was needed because most seed potatoes
had been eaten in the previous wretched spring.
Just a year shy of 75, it’s high time I examine
my moral fiber, character. Would I have been

like brave Russian scientists in 1934,  inspired
not by patriotism but by their leader Vavilov
who had collected the seeds himself? They all
starved to death in a St. Petersburg vault

with the world’s largest seed collection rather
than allow the hordes to eat them. Or, reaching
for more butter, would I ask like the Roman stoic,
Seneca the Younger, When shall we live if not now?


—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


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