Sandy Shaffer VanDoren Memorial
Sandra Shaffer VanDoren was born in Honolulu on September 2, 1940 and passed
away on the
morning of February 23, 2010, following a two-year battle with ovarian cancer. While she will be missed, her words
remain and are a
tribute to her talent and craftsmanship as a poet.
Her husband of 44 years, Charles Fowler VanDoren, survives her, along with
their daughter Alexandra Kirk, their son Jonathan Fowler VanDoren, and five
Until she retired in 2002
(she called hers a "wonderfully iambic retirement"), she worked as a
professional archivist, first in Philadelphia, then in Detroit.
It was not until she and her family moved back East in the late 1980s
that she really began to read and write poetry, which she described as a source of
joy." She was published—another source of
inestimable joy!—in such journals as Measure, Iambs and Trochees, Pivot, Edge
City Review, The Lyric, The Mid-American Poetry Review, Medicinal Purposes, and
several others. She was the winner of The Lyric's Fluvanna Prize in 2007 and its
Leslie Mellichamp Prize in 2008. She also published a book of poetry,
Dialogues, in 2003.
A graduate of Cornell University and Wayne State University, she served on the Board of West Chester University's Poetry
Center, and belonged to Pennsylvania Poetry Society, Phi Kappa Phi, and Phi Beta
Kappa. She wrote reference book entries for Scribner's Encyclopedia of
American Lives and Dictionary of American Lives, articles for Journal of Archival
Organization, reviews for American
Archivist and Midwestern Archivist, and over 30 archival guides and registers.
She wrote hundreds of poems. Her poems
"Shadow Play" and "Watcher from the Shore" can be found in
the Pennsylvania Poetry Society's Prize Poems. During her illness, she chose 41 of her poems for her most recent
collection entitled "natural gases", a legacy project dedicated to her
husband "Charles, my dearest friend and my dearest love." The
participants of poetry seminars she led at the Malvern Library presented her with a tribute book the last summer of her life, and copies of
"natural gases" were her gift to them. She donated her private
library of poetry books and all her published work to the Malvern Library, along
with a stipend for accessing volumes and establishing a poetry center there. Love of dance was also
significant in her life. She danced into her 60's and choreographed
and produced liturgical dance pieces. Her enthusiasm for singing led her to
membership in several church choirs, and she only retired from her
study in voice shortly before her death. She originated a Joy Corner at St. Francis-in-the-Fields
Episcopal Church for highlighting the lives of parish members. Along with her
husband, she initiated an informal Seekers symposium. Both she and her
husband are well-known for their prodigious work to raise funds for community
outreach. Those who knew "Sandy" will recognize her in these words from "The
Stuff of Stars," which she wrote in remembrance of her friend Dessa: "I'm told
we're made of the same stuff as stars, and find I'm pleased to think we might be
kin to galaxies, infinitesimal parts of their immensity. For me, indeed, such
cousin-ship is more complex. I like to dream that some great breath propels the
endless dance of sun and earth, the movement seen, unseen, of vast tectonic
plates, the rain that slants against the trees, the wind that ruffles leaves . . ."
Here lies Sandy
full of mirth
whose laughter now
flows through the earth,
from which confines
joy is sprung
with each rising
First published, Dialogues, Beck Publishing, 2003
Trimming Back the Vine
Today I trim the vine from garden walls
where it’s gone wild, with tendrils creeping over
careful trellises pinned tight to keep
the vine’s profusion coifed, barretted, neat,
and wonder if I should allow these green
and tumbling curls to ramble where they will.
Is there indeed some will which forces them
to seek out new adventures, these bold Clarks
and Lewises of cracks and crevices?
Close to the wall are ferns unfurling selves
in shade and swaying in a quiet breeze,
subtly spreading spores in places where
I, the gardener, had not planted them.
Next season, I suspect, I’ll pull ferns out,
engaging in the annual test of wills,
and though I’m sure my garden plan is best,
I know who’ll really win this tug of war.
Over in the corner, near the ferns,
blooms the iris, white and purple-blue;
radiant hues and patterns that Monet
could only replicate at Givenchy
and not in paint. So who’s the artist here?
Can random beauty be an act of will
and, like exploring vines and ferns that spread,
design its own plans for a garden bed?
Iambs and Trochees, Spring 2006
My Mother's Glasses
She hated them, the wretched things,
those glasses slipping down her face,
pretended often she could see
(when I knew better—so did she)
without them pushed once more in place.
She didn’t need them all the time,
it’s true, and thus she compromised:
she’d wear them on her head, on top,
and when she wanted them, she’d stop
to pull them down before her eyes.
The trouble was, she loathed them so,
she’d soon forget where they now sat
and then would spend an hour in search
to ferret out their latest perch
till she remembered her glass hat.
As she aged, she used them more
or kept them safely by her side,
abandoned, finally, her resistance
to their much unloved existence,
wearing them the day she died.
I keep her glasses near me, too—
they watch me from my window sill;
she’s looking through them, I suspect,
and through them I think we connect,
since each is with the other, still.
Iambs and Trochees, Spring 2005
Even in the empty church, they all
are here, and sitting in the wooden pews,
repeat the old, familiar ritual
of prayer. I hear dead voices faintly lose
themselves in those of yesterday and those
to come, while marble hands reach out to touch
a newly-baptized cheek. And I, infused
by this community of ghosts with such
a vital faith, accompany them in much
uncertainty to altar rail, where dead
and living jostle for a place, and watch
them eagerly consume the wine and bread.
Though I had met it, earlier, in the prayer,
who knows what other Ghost is present there?
Iambs and Trochees, Spring 2004
The Close-Kept Lives of Closets
I delve into my overcrowded closet,
intending to discard its massed debris,
which seems, when viewed, not junk, but slow deposit,
an encrustation, something in the sea
like barnacles, perhaps, that cling to piers,
their secret lives expanding with the years.
But as I scrape, or rather, start to peel
the layers, like an onion, back, I sense
I’m looking at a sort of movie reel
of my old self, a history condensed
in boxes, folders, suitcases and files,
while I today exist outside those piles.
I find a book unwritten, lessons drilled
in French subjunctive, the preserved remains
of a career in archives which now fill
the closet floor, and think, what is germane
in this? What should I keep? What speaks of me?
The who I was and who I’ve come to be?
I feel in fact a stranger to myself,
not knowing what should stay upon the shelf.
The Lyric, Summer 2008
Walking on Watered Silk, or,
Hiking in Arches National Park, Utah
The hot, dry sea of ancient rocks is rippled
smooth, like watered silk, as breathlessly,
we slip our way around the static, stippled
waves of ochre, pink and verdigris.
The day for us is sunburned noses, laughter,
reaching each to each with sweat-soaked hands,
with noisy sharing—though we sense that, after,
silence will roll in, like surf on sand.
Despite our energy, our life, our talk,
our very here-ness, all too well we know
that we, like skiffs, are skimming just the silk,
the tip of time, which still will ebb and flow
without our leaving wakes.
And yet, I find
for me, this scene’s now gouged across my mind.
Iambs and Trochees, Fall/Winter 2005
Reassessing the Garden of Eden
Lord, that squirrel there thinks he is a bird.
Today he’s chewing on my feeder—see
him hanging by his teeth? (which is absurd,
for surely he can’t eat, you must agree,
with both his jaws immobilized by wood
that way)—I ask you, Lord, what use is this
annoying beast who wants to feast on food
forbidden as the fruit in Genesis?—
and though my garden’s not exactly what’s
described (well, hey!), I’ve tried to find delight
in all your little jokes—like mites, black spot,
the beetle things that chomp the buds at night.
Yes, patience, Lord, I know, for your dear sake.
But still I think that squirrel’s a bad mistake
—just like those nauseating slugs and snails
which fashion sieves from every leafy plant,
extruding round the holey relicts trails
of slime—gee, Lord, I’d thought your covenant
with us, despite our minor sins, was based
on fairer terms, and I am positive
your tree was not beset with such distaste-
ful creatures (after all, one can forgive
a snake or two—for though they crawl, they munch
those beetle things, while larger ones might eat
a silly, inattentive squirrel for lunch,
but none, I’m sure, enjoy a sluggish treat.)
And so I ask, with all respect, dear God:
don’t you now regret the gastropod?
Pivot, Winter 2001-2002
In an interview about self-censorship, writer Mian Mian
said “All Chinese writers are born with a sword in their heads. ...My dream is to
pull mine out...”*
...And so she does, slicing fiercely through
her own traditional calligraphy,
setting lower parts of words askew
to gallop off, like fleeing cavalry.
Now stationary tops cannot agree
on what they mean themselves, but cling to page,
while senseless horsemen circle, slash and rage.
But as she pulls the sword from skull, a wound
a grievous wound appears, whose blood in streams
spills over paper, pooling to surround
the remnants freshly cut, so as to seem
no longer language of the writer’s dream
but amputations from a nightmare.
maimed perhaps, they still remain a threat.
*International Herald Tribune, September 27, 1999.
Pivot, Winter 2001-2002
I remember walking down the beach,
deserted on that gray-etched, sultry day,
with lines of seaweed script strewn casually
among the punctuation of old shells.
Were they a message brought by courier waves,
the language of opaquely literate depths,
tidings from the mermaids of Atlantis?
And as I thought about those dripping voices,
pondering their indecipherable notes
in sand, I came upon an old lighthouse
roosting on a tiny spit of land,
a seagull on a post. Deserted, too,
this day—and every day—its candle-power
snuffed, door locked, with walls paint-chipped and pale
as a drowned face. No sound but nesting birds
which fluttered in and out of eyeless windows.
Once this building throbbed with light, which beat
like a heart in rhythm with the rhythms
of the sea, pulsing in a syntax
even the illiterate could read.
Sometimes, indeed, the signal came too late
and human shouts then blended in the murmur
of the deep, and in the ebb and sigh
of constant-speaking waves.
Now, of course,
the darkened lighthouse is a hieroglyph,
almost as meaningless as seaweed scrawl,
except it is a harbour for the gulls,
who shriek their daily stories to the sea,
while plovers scratch mute foot-notes on the shore.
The Lyric, Spring 2007
My Delightful Luisa
Marchesa Luisa Casati, the blood-thirsty, green-eyed
mistress of poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, declared, “I want to be a living work of
art,” and, to that end, wore ornamental
eye patches, monkey furs, a tiger-skin top hat, and,
once at least, a necklace of live snakes.
A wild disorder in the dress
May sign a certain recklessness
Within the wearer; and ‘tis true
That my Luisa has a few
Eccentricities of garb,
Which is less liquefied than barbed.
Her kohl-rimmed eyes, an acid green,
Are almost always half-way seen,
Because the left is shadowed by
The living wings of dragonfly.
Some evenings, I think I hear,
With an odd joy, the shrieks of fear
Of monkeys trying to escape
Becoming her new opera-cape,
Especially if worn with that
Yet growling tiger-skin top hat.
And when in snakes Luisa goes,
I do adore her, Heaven knows!
Remain enchanted her own art
Is so alive in every part.
The Lyric, Summer 2008
In the Wind*
He is either dead or “in the wind.”
If not dead, then was he lifted, like a cloud,
and blown as bits of sand by fierce, fast puffs
across the hills, around the plains, to settle on
the roofs of little huts, inside their doors,
his grit now etching messages on table tops
Perhaps, instead, he is the wind,
pretending to inhale before expelling air
in sharp, cold coughs, a prelude to the snarl
of winter. Or, as wind, perhaps he’s hiding out
in caves where lashing tail, where bellowing
betray a raw impatience to rip free and race
unheeding down the mountain side, a gale
that rushes headlong into any opening
and flattens all uncertain-footed gods.
On reflection, maybe he is none of these,
not “in the wind,” nor is he wind himself,
but, mimicking the cyclone’s eye, is like a nothing
tucked between the turnings of wind’s fury,
slyly come to judge the impact of its wrath
and supervise the final desolation.
*Recent military expression indicating “whereabouts unknown.”
Iambs and Trochees, Spring 2005