Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro
How It Is: Selected Poems
by Neil Shepard
June 4, 2018, ISBN: 978-1-912561-00-1, 178 pages
Reading the collected poems in Neil Shepard’s How It Is: Selected Poems (Salmon Poetry 2018), is akin to taking a long, meditative walk through the lush inner landscape of a man who sees and senses all too much. Vivid, evocative, and varied, the individual poems cross time lines and geographic divides to form a compelling, collective whole. The aggregate impact of the works suggests Shepard is not only well traveled, but fascinated by just about everything—as a great poet well should be.
The poems in this book include works that have been previously published in Shepard’s seven earlier publications ranging from 1993’s Scavenging the Country for a Heartbeat to his most recent 2015 Hominid Up. Given this range, the maturation of his poetic voice is expected, as well as his great range. After all, How It Is offers readers a quarter of a century of Shepard’s thinking, experiences, observations, and writings to be savored in this collection.
And savored these poems should be. Shepard is an exceptional and emphatic writer, with a sharp eye for the telling detail, for landscapes both real and emotional, and for hearing the music in words, as well as in the sounds of the natural world. It’s not just the way his poems and his birds sing, but his poems can startle the senses of the reader with their rich scents as well. Consider these few lines from “The Bell Bird” (Matari Bay, New Zealand):
I smell lemon everywhere,
lemon-air and lemon-earth and lemon-trees
and long-leafed eucalyptus. When I arrive
at the canyon’s rim and peer down a thousand
feet to the dusk-silent canopy of trees,
suddenly the Bell Bird sings,
its song almost human, a glissando
across the empty space. It wavers
on the edge of sunset, circling
along the rim or far down
in the gloom or far above
in the temperate air—it’s impossible
to tell where the song comes from.
As that excerpt shows, Shepard is a man much in touch with nature, as well as with the complexities of love, and the distances of loss. He is capable of conveying heartbreaking emotion with ordinary, simple words, yet can ring out a phrase of extraordinary language of great richness. And he can be haunting as in the graphic, pathos of “Sailor on Leave Sailor on Leave Suffocates in Sand.”
His legs were alive.
I remember that. It seems now
they weren’t frantic,
but fibrillating like gills.
The rest of him buried beneath sand
blew out a dark prayer.
There is a splendid energy in reading these poems, no doubt carefully culled from his vast collection. Tucked away in the rich language, there’s a subtle wit, a sly cleverness, and an unselfconscious sense of self and of place. Consider the opening lines in “I Say Nada to Nada”:
- Let’s get Hemingway out of the way right away.
Here’s the gun. Goodbye. De nada.
Now let’s get on with the main subject—
back when there was a subject. Nada.
While some reviewers have compared him to Robert Frost, perhaps because of their shared geography as well as the quiet genus of their works, Shepard stand on his own as a unique and singular voice. His subtle rhythmic phrases, his sprinkling of alliteration, and the sheer grace of his poetic acumen mark him as an American poetic treasure. He also appears to being having fun with his words and the music in them. Consider the sheer pleasure of reading out loud the opening lines from “Oh! on an April Morning.”
Oh! on an April Morning
I’m ready to murder the flowers.
The all-night word-fest left me
in some indeterminate schwa
of sleeplessness, neither long on yawns
nor persnickety and testy,
but stunned, stoned, seemingly
systematically taken apart
by human sounds—verbs, nouns, the little
modifiers, expletives, pronominals,
signs and referents, …
Though Shepard is a Vermonter, and divides his time between New York City and his native state, his lush “Atchafalaya November,” set in the Deep South, is as true and vivid as if he had been born and raised in Dixie.
We quiet the motor,
loop rope around a cypress stump,
and drift in the pirogue.
Snowy egrets circle out at dawn,
widening the compass of the known,
feel in their wings the fall sun
tensing the arrow of flight.
They arc a final time and are gone
along the flyways.
Soon we must give in
to the butterflies, like roses pinned to darkness,
landing on your hair and mine, give in
to the small tongues and tendrils
of the world that prey on us
with such tenderness.
Then we will look North
and hear it coming,
and not be afraid.
In “I Say Nada to Nada,” originally published in 2011’s (T)ravel/Un(t)ravel, Shepard writes “I was twenty, ripped jeans, rucksack, cervezas and chasers.” Yet, by the time he writes “Meadow Cove Cottage, Deer Isle, originally published in 2015’s Hominoid Up, he writes:
Last year I came alone to finish a last draft
of a book with no deadline, the beginning
of late middle age, the osprey cry
overhead for my ears only.
The daughter that was “centered in a cradle” in “Birth Announcement” is now “singing Madonna in the shower” in the poem “Meadow Cove Cottage.” Thus, the readers are invited through this collection to join Shepard in his life’s journey, and the maturation of his vision. Thank you, Neil Shepard for inviting us along. It’s a great trip to take.
About the reviewer: Claire Hamner Matturro is the author of four legal mysteries published by William Morrow, as well as a recent indie-published cozy mystery. She regularly reviews for Southern Literary Review. Find out more here: www.clairematturro.com