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Vanessa Haley

About the Poet

Vanessa Haley’s poetry has been published in Random House’s Reading Poetry: An Anthology of Poems (1988); The Alaska Quarterly Review, POETRY, Cumberland Poetry Review, Mid-American Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review.

Her books include The Logic of Wings (Cherry-Grove Collections, 2004), a finalist in the Lyre Prize, and an Instructors Manual for Fictions (Harcourt Brace College Texts, 1994).

Her essay, “How I Learned to Count to Four and Live with the Ghosts of Animals,” appears in Robert M. Berlin’s anthology, Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, its Treatment, & the Creative Process (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

Her honors include individual artist fellowships from the states of Delaware and Virginia; the 2001 John Haines Award in Poetry (Ice-floe; Dogwood’s 2006 Poetry Prize (selected by Robert Pinsky); and an Astraea Foundation Poetry Grant (1996).

A psychotherapist in private practice in Wilmington, she also designs and produces innovative curriculum materials for secondary language arts classroom use (


Spring 2014 »
Helen Meets Toulouse-Lautrec in Heaven

Whose azaleas were punctilious and pink, not a blossom
out of place, the thick-pile carpet in her living room restored
to perfection with a child’s plastic rake after my error
of walking across the room to look at the only painting of yours
gracing her walls, a tasteful landscape of the Brandywine, flotsam
floating beyond the frame, willows faintly mirrored
on the water’s surface.   Like Monet.   The opposite of the life you knew
as her daughter, falling short of her expectations, her criticisms
menacing as a snake’s tongue flickering at your blonde
hair, your green eyes. She was the wicked queen asking the blue
depths of the mirror who was fairer, and seething in her narcissism,
forever punishing you for the answer. She was not particularly fond
of me, the woman who stole you four hundred miles away in Richmond.
Once, when she and your father visited, I came home from work
to find our dogwoods cut down, the branches tied in bundles for trash
pick-up. “They were diseased,” you rationalized that night in the dark
as I held you behind closed doors. Helen knew I loved the delicate pink sash
the dogwoods made, because I had said as much when I gave her a tour
of our yard, showing off the crescent-shaped flower beds you designed
for constant blooms: pansies, foxgloves, astibles, and delphiniums.
At Berkeley you walk across campus, observing from the distance of four
earthquakes how light touches the eucalyptus trees while Helen resigns
herself to the hereafter watching Toulouse-Lautrec paint The Two Girlfriends.




Louise’s bible on the nightstand a black
reprimand for our sin, the “love and prayers”
a complimentary closing to cards you stack
in shoeboxes on the closet floor, Hallmark layers
of denial and obligatory recognition not of who
you became but of the girl confined to heavy rises
of a wrought-iron fence, finches fading into a halo
of trellises burdened with wisteria. To disguise
our life, you set up an alarm clock in the bedroom
no one uses, the chenille bedspread an odious
relic from the cedar chest, the faint perfume
Lily-of-the-Valley lingering in every corner, insidious
enough to induce a migraine when I place a Mason jar
(careful with the doily) of daffodils from our garden
on the dresser. I open the window just as your car
pulls into the driveway after the two hour trip. Pardon
me, I think, saddened by the charade. I have no power
against pious pearls, the perpetual Lawrence Welk hour.



It’s Okay

My own mother gone now, buried in my father’s family’s
plot in Maryland, the “last place on earth” she wanted
to be, making me promise her that she would finally
be laid to rest in the new Veterans’ Cemetery. Haunted
by her request each time I see the sign near Summit Ponds
advertising the stoneless yard of the dead, the grounds
keeper riding his mower effortlessly over the bronze
plaques commemorating the forgotten, the lost and found,
I apologize: his authority as your husband took precedence
over your own wishes, unstated in your will.
She left me
her diamond engagement ring, which she had bought, saving
as much as she could on a secretary’s salary,
typing eighty words a minute, short-hand symbols waving
across the steno-pad in blue fountain pen ink. Lady Scheaffer,
tortoise shell, circa 1960. I have that too, salvaged from the box
of “junk” my father wanted to get rid of, as though he’d be safer
with all traces of her gone. Out with the high heels, the faux-fox
collared winter coat, her photo albums of cruises she took alone:
waving goodbye from Honolulu, always waving goodbye. The last phone
message I wish I had not erased months before she died: “It’s just your mom.”
Sometimes I dream of her voice telling me it’s okay,
it’s all going to be fine, and don’t wait to say everything you want to say.




Had a closet the size of a living room full of furs―
chinchilla, mink, ermine, fox, lynx―each on its own
silk-padded hanger, tiny clawed feet a special feature
on some. Death’s chamber of small animals,
letters of an indecipherable language hanging
in the air like subtitles: the silver thimble
the farmer held over my muzzle locked my breath
in a box of light, a translucent puzzle of the sum
of my parts: discarded my heart, my eyes of gold,
everything but my gleaming coat.
What happened
to all of those stoles, jackets and coats after
the former Mrs. Delaware passed on to the exclusive
section of heaven reserved for people like her?
People who seem never to age until they are well
into their sixties, who remain slender and poised
and Republican, who call their cleaning lady, ironing
lady, cook, and gardener by their first names, slip
their pay into embossed stationery envelopes
as though anything utilitarian would bring them down
a rung or two on Jacob’s ladder? Beverly’s School
of Beauty and Charm promised to transform daughters
into Town & Country debutantes who would marry well
and live in Westover Hills, who would pop pills
to stay forever slender, a size 4, who would never wait
for anything they ever wanted, the whole world whirling
whirling within their reach, strong enough to resist
the other women in tennis whites, the country club elite.



Miss Gee

Small town where the only thing to do on Friday night was watch
farmers gathering on the bank steps, talking the price of pork belly,
soy beans, whose well went dry, who poisoned the salt licks, why
their Rhode Island reds were pecking the dust bowl’s edge.

And so when I saw that Starry Night poster on her bulletin board in 10th
grade homeroom, I tumbled into the swirls around the stars and later
into her car for the worst ride of my life, trapped for 10 years
with the woman who taught “A Rose for Emily,” “The Minister’s Black
Veil,” “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” so thin and pale not daring
to eat a peach. Me in my plaid skirts and matching wool sweaters,
tasseled Weejuns, and knee socks; my polite, quiet ways,
nothing like my classmates who made barnyard sounds, whose eyes glazed
over when she read aloud “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the grandmother
sitting in a pool of her own blood, the Misfit all philosophical:
the empiricist polishing his gold-rimmed glasses on dead Bailey Boy’s
yellow shirt with bright blue parrots on it, described three times
exactly like that in the story. Gee decimated my straight “A”
average, giving me a “C” on my essays on Capote’s “Miriam”
on The Catcher In the Rye, on The Great Gatsby floating,
no one showing for his funeral and I stayed after school to ask why.
Just what she wanted. Her jewel, her blue ribbon, her fly.
A decade of alcoholic rages before I realized she had groomed
me for her own amusement, the witch holding Rapunzel in a tower,
lonely as the moon. The Stockholm Syndrome personified.
Everything she taught was death and darkness as though
she invented Goth, was Queen of Dank Cellars and Suffocation.
Twisted Sister. Black heart beating like wings of a sphinx
moth, like Van Gogh’s crows descending into fields of gold.


Vanessa Haley ~

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