top of page

Shelley Scott—In Memoriam: California Poets Part 4, Five Poems

Shelley Scott

December 29th, 2021

California Poets: Part IV

Shelley Scott (1949-1998)

Five Poems

In Memoriam

What I can say about Shelley is that she was vivacious, beautiful, fun, flirtatious, often outrageous, that she had a great warmth about her, a bawdy sense of humor, and an inviting, quick laugh.

I was angry when she ended her life. I didn’t understand that her medical issues as a result of her 1981 car accident were worsening. What she feared most was being hospitalized and disempowered again.

A while after Shelley’s death, I saw her in a dream. She appeared in a gossamer sky-blue dress, so like the sensual Shelley we knew. She told me that leaving was right, that she had stayed longer than she should have.

The possibility of any consciousness beyond this life would have been completely contrary to Shelley’s views, but I like to believe that the dream image and her words defied that.

—Patricia MacInnes-Johnson

In Memoriam

My friendship with Shelley began while we were both students at San Diego State University, continued through our time together in the MFA program at the University of Montana, and culminated in California and New York with her untimely passing.

She was sexy, funny, intelligent, and proudly flamboyant to the point of being provocative, both in dress and attitude, certainly in her writing. One instructor in the MFA program used to refer to her “X-rated poems.”

After her move to West Hollywood and her terrible accident there, we all tried to support her as best we could, but who could really understand what she was suffering? She carried on, loyal and generous to her friends; she even treated me to a stay at The Pierre Hotel in Manhattan. It was a shock when I learned that she’d taken her life. She had such a vivid presence that it’s still difficult to fully comprehend her death.

Even so, her wisecracks and wisdom come back to me often. Maybe she’ll meet me at the proverbial gates of Heaven when my own time comes. Shelley herself would scoff at that. As she once said to me, “There’s as much chance of that happening as me opening up a 7-Eleven on Mars.”

The photo and poems here evince Shelley’s intensity as well as her vulnerability, her belief in spare, hard-hitting words. Some of the poems suggest a more tender, nostalgic side, such as her “Incantation,” addressed to a lost lover, gone but immortalized on the page.

—Daniel Shapiro

The City Opened Like a Woman —for Amy Smith The city opened like a woman I took her straight rode the slender thigh of the highway glowed flesh under fluorescent On the streets she looked good thumbed me down Santa Monica and Vine her shawl of hair caught yellow neon Tommy’s No. 5 fading She hadn’t eaten three days “A quarter, miss?” I flipped her 25 her face painted Kabuki white blue dragon wings curved her eyes Hung at the Zero Club did lines one a.m. till dawn took Laurel* numb I came so easy down her canyon opened to the Valley the city opened like a woman and I took her *Laurel Canyon running from Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley

Six Months Six months now I’ve watched shadows streak had my belly sucked went sleepless for six nights and watched my breasts pale as moons shrink to the bone while you hitchhiked to L.A. a ruby in your ear poems folded in your back pocket and never once did you look back. Now I’m tired, hole gorged I could lie on your belly stab your flesh with my hips kiss the blood from over-ripe lips I could forget that I am a woman bite your neck drag my nails down your back I could let this body go. I want out no more these nights vodka pure, gin bitter no more this love licking this knife that bitch consumes me she won’t let go I wear teeth marks on my hand. Six months my heart in a coma I’m a stand-up comic a corpse with a smile a vampire who rises at dusk. I’ve had enough there is no more.

Before the Crowd —for Víctor Jara, Chilean folksinger killed after the overthrow of Allende He stood before the crowd blood jetted from his wrists there was no pen on the table where his hand lay there was no paper beneath his fingers he stood naked bullets foamed, the people rose heat rays in the dry, dead sun the wind was red the grass lay wet fingers throbbed hot on steel the people rose glittering bayonets, voices cracked women fell, the men twitched he watched his people feed the earth

Incantation Finger to the wind the cold of an early frost my bones cracking the creek freezes the hearts of fish I feel the rise knees, thighs, chest constricts on my knees I circle the fire eyes gold, hair bristling behind me the mountains hulk I swallow my spit, hiss in the dark. We stood on the Left Bank arched above us gargoyles grinned if they smile for you a spell is cast we knelt on cobbled streets incantations, le loup exist candle low in your hands a white flame seared our lips wax melted into the sea. You stare to the West do not hear the waves there is a drought in the Alps first time in twenty years from St. Jean you send me pieces of snow I want to tell you my mouth glued, hands buttressed, We met in Ostend the sun low a red sea pulsed one white wave foamed every hour the ships left took pieces of me to California. Now you say from Firenze the Statue of David grimaces his marble chest shattered.

About Death What I hate most They never ask permission Just die before you can say goodbye And thanks for the love You carry your grief Nothin’ worse than leftover Love used time’s up No place in your heart Hand-me-down Second place love No fillin’ that hole No comin’ back All the poems above except “About Death” (1994) are from Shelley Scott’s collection Peeling (Baltimore: The New Poets Series/Chestnut Hills Press, 1989). “Six Months” was published previously in the journal Images.

Author Bio:

Shelley Scott took many poetry workshops throughout her academic career, studying with poets who included Carolyn Forché, Richard Hugo, and Colette Inez. She traveled extensively through Europe and parts of Brazil and in later years did volunteer work for the National Organization for Women.

In February 1981, Shelley was in a car accident that resulted in subsequent brain surgery and two years of rehabilitation. The event irrevocably changed her life. She stated that for the first time “I knew what it was like to suffer.”


bottom of page