How It Is: Selected Poems
by Neil Shepard
Salmon Poetry, 2018.
Neil Shepard’s How It Is: Selected Poems gathers the greatest hits from six full-length collections by a poet who is both planted and peripatetic. Founder and helmsman for some 25 years of this journal, Shepard has long maintained one base in the landscape of the Green Mountain State’s Northeast Kingdom and one in the urbanscape of New York City. Many New Yorkers think of themselves as Vermonters also but those are green dreams born of summer idylls or afternoons schussing the slopes before lounging by the fire. Neil Shepard has dug in for deep winter over decades. At the same time, as the cartographic map of the world on the book’s cover suggests, like the poet himself, the poems collected here travel globally—the Marquesas Islands to Norway, the Alhambra to Mongolian plains, Chartres to the Atchafalaya Swamp, the complete travelogue of Shepard’s wanderings could on its own fill out this review—and the poems encompass a conception of travel that traverses time, history, culture, literature as well as landscapes.
Selected collections are nearly always arranged sequentially, though poets are divided on whether to begin with the present and work backwards towards the oldest poems—an excavation – or to begin with the earliest work and proceed forward in time, an unfolding, seed to cotyledon to seedling and so on. Shepard has chosen the unfolding and beginning with the first poem, “The Missing Ear,” from his debut collection Scavenging the Country for a Heartbeat, many themes that will recur in all of his books are already apparent, including that theme of travel as both time and distance, culture and geography.
“The Missing Ear” attunes us to hearing acutely, from unexpected perspectives; to the centrality of music and art in Shepard’s life and poetry; and though he does not use that term, to the notion of kintsugi—that enigma of imperfection as perfection, where what is missing is what makes whole. “Inside,” he reminds us, “I could hear perfectly”.
Ezra Pound, that impresario of the free verse revolution, identified three ways that one could electrify (Pound’s word for it was charge) language into poetry: the concrete, sensual image; the musical qualities of language itself—words as song–; and finally what Pound termed logopoeia, words in an unexpected context: parataxis, paradox, and irony. Shepard is an aficionado of all three animating currents. Word play, puns, assonance, alliteration, etymological linkages, and acute attention to rhythms are all hallmarks of a Shepard poem. Take, for instance, this opening of the poem “The News” from his second book, I’m Here Because I Lost My Way:
Numb and number
to the number
of deaths in an hour.
The somber weight of data—
how many struck by stray
bullets, how many
land mines, live
understand fleetingly. How many
dead of carbine fire
on the L.A. freeway,
or under the Golden Arches,
bloodied beside the red-
nosed clown. Lumber-
ing crosstown, what number
fall down man-holes, what number
crack skulls on black ice–
where blood in Rorschach
puddles is anyone’s guess.
The tallying of numbers numbs us, live wires bring death; a line break turns blood red to red-nosed clown, or reveals the stiff-as-death “lumber” within that lightly absurd “lumbering” down the street (that follows the dark comedy of dying by the Ronald McDonald clown figure), not to mention the “cross” embedded in crosstown. There is an intricate interlacing of alliterations and assonances that energize and organize the poem: number, number, somber; struck, stray; and the echoing of how, how, how, numb, numb, numb. I can’t be the only reader to hear in those repetitions an echo of Unetanneh Tokef, one of the central prayers of the High Holy Days services of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah: On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed . . . who shall live and who shall die. . . who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, adding allusion to the techniques being deployed.
How It Is includes a dozen poems from the innovative 2015 collection Vermont Exit Ramps, a collection fashioned from the intersection of the Vermont landscape and a nonce form of elaborate rules of inclusion the poet set for himself, a mashup of the “given” and the “made” not unlike the terrain of exit ramps themselves. Organized by a May journey on the interstates between New York City and Johnson, Vermont, Shepard’s urban / rural polarities, there is a poem for each I-89 and I-91 exit along the route. The challenge Shepard set for himself was to incorporate an invocation of the feral landscapes of the exit ramps—“places ravaged and recovered”–; an understanding of what each ramp exits into, whether village, city, byway to the ski resorts, etc.; some taste of the history of that place before the erasure of highway construction; and like any good traveler, Shepard commits himself in these poems to incorporating found materials: weather reports, road signs, snippets from local pamphlets or the fortune cookie from lunch, scrambled anagrams, making the Exit Ramp poems in some ways the penultimate example of Shepard’s methodology: that admixture of the alluvial layering of allusions to history, culture, literature, along with the autobiographical narrative thread, and a lively attention to the language itself.
The poems selected from Shepard’s first three books not infrequently hike us into the natural world to contemplate where the human fits in, if the human fits in. “Waterfall at Journey’s End (Johnson, Vt),” a selection from This Far From the Source, Shepard’s third book, is a deconstructed ars poetica that acknowledges our attempts to turn the world into language–the metamorphosis born of our hunger for meaning–but recognizes the irrefutability of the evidence of all that will ever escape our efforts: the “granitic kettle holes” of water so deep, so cold as to be “the place of pre- / delight, before the light // blinked on in our fore- / brains and pained us with fore- / knowing” where “the body knows / undeniably, indelibly, // these are the high walls / of journey’s end” where we become “pre- // human: moss-crawler, rock-clasper,/ some thing attached to cold stone / that owns no language—”
By contrast the poems of (T)ravel / Un(t)ravel and Hominid Up wade deeply into the human world, alert to the appetites, the sights, the tastes, the smells, what people want, and what people are willing to do to have what they want. In these smart, tart, clear-eyed poems, his places are people—alive with the Algerians of Paris, the foraging villagers of Marquesas, the vulnerable man on the corner of Broadway & 105th, the squabbling clans of Uighur, Han, and Kazakh on the bus crossing the Taklamakan Desert in China, or populated with “companions” from the past, usually writers, Wallace Stevens at Mt. Snowden in Wales, Hemingway in Cadiz, Keats on Hampstead Heath.
This is a rich collection that rewards re-reading. Some use the trope of travel to examine home but Shepard’s point seems to be that there is no home unless we have the strength and insight to accept where we are as home. Wry and worldly observer that he is, the poet nevertheless acts as guide on a revealing journey deep into human emotion and the ground zero cold of our inherent solitariness. In “My Thesis Is Nature’s Progress,” a poem from his third book that seems to have no faith in “progress,” Shepard’s conceit is the ancient-eyed turtle carrying his shell upon his back, “wherever they wandered, / always, everywhere, at home” while “Hominid Up,” the title poem from one of the most recent collections, imagines the atavistic in the brain as a hominid figuring hovering there, acknowledging the millennia of history encoded in the DNA, all that is extant at once, how it is:
. . . We’re kin for sure: the old beast
in me sleeps lightly or barely sleeps.
I wake often and watch him scratch himself
with a twig that could pass for a pencil
or poke at a moon-lit line of ants that
resembles this scratched pentameter.
Some nights we almost meet at a forking branch
where he chooses silence, and I, this speech.
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