How it is, Selected Poems by Neil Shepard. Ireland: Salmon Poetry, 2018. 178 pp. $25 (paperback)
Neil Shepard’s How it is, Selected Poems, is drawn from six previous collections and represents a quarter of a century’s work. Its tight-lipped title would seem to imply a stoical acceptance of the ways of the world, something which is borne out by a closer scrutiny of the poems and has been reinforced perhaps by his familiarity with the farming community of Vermont. In “The Missing Ear,” the collection’s opening poem, one is left in little doubt as to Shepard’s strengths as a poet. Stretching out over three pages and written in the sinuous free verse that Shepard tends to favor, the poem is expansive and richly textured. Essentially, it explores a medical problem which dogged the poet’s childhood: “I remember winters of surgery / wan doctors glossing their smooth fingers / over last year’s scars.” As is so often the case in Shepard’s work, there is an accumulation of precisely observed detail, which nonetheless transcends the merely confessional and acquires a meditative depth. Exploring the opposition between his “good ear” and the “stunted one,” Shepard pursues the various dichotomies implied by left and right, dark and light, the blessed and the inauspicious and, taking a hint from Paul Nielsen’s poem “Lobes,” explores that “ loss of heaven” that “gave us art.” There are some dazzling transitions where what is observed or remembered takes on a metaphorical significance:
I knew the sweet nothing of drugged sleep,
one fat pill every four hours …
And I awoke to twenty years
of sweet nothings: words whispered into an ear
Several of the poems from Shepard’s earlier period are rooted in marital breakdown. In “Easter at Whedons” the poet seeks refuge from the “drifting, white uncertainty” of his separation in the company of friends: his assured depiction of the natural world and the quiet insistence of his rhythms suggesting that somehow life goes on.
We walk their twenty acres,
rehearsing this season of plenty –
mark the hummocks and brooks rising,
the moss rising and the bog rising,
tadpoles and water beetles swelling,
the white larvae too numerous to count
swelling like stars in a dark pool.
In “Mid-Winter Thaw, Vermont: A Visit from My Wife” he charts love’s “descent / into bittersweet friendship.” In “Autumn at the Farm,” another poem of separation, Shepard explores the duality between what is known and familiar and the wider world beyond it:
You will return to the tropics
to work the mist-nets along the flyways,
to sack bats in the fatal air of guano caves …
All summer I sweated to make things grow.
Yet as fall comes on, I watch mulberries droop,
Fat with magic.
There are tensions, too, in the relationship between a father and his son, particularly if they do not share the same goals. In “On the Coldest Day of November We Tee Up at the Frozen Waterhole” there is not only a coldness in the air when the father suggests: “Never too late to take over / the business” only to be answered by the son’s: “I’ve got a life you never ask about.” Such poems, however, are counterbalanced by those dedicated to the poet’s daughter. In “Birth Announcements” the fragility of a new-born child is suggested by the “little cards that broadcast your birth” and which “feel so flimsy in my hands.” “Prayer for My Daughter” is a Yeatsian litany, while “Anna’s Apples” is a celebration of the growing girl’s exuberant curiosity: “she’s sinking / her teeth into the green world.” Nevertheless, even the doting father has to accept the inevitability of separation and death:
Lazarus could not have tried harder than I will,
darling, to burst from that dark room
back into this one, this brightness
I’m still living in …
It is Shepard’s understanding that the impermanence of love is merely one aspect of the impermanence and uncertainty of the human condition that lies at the heart of this volume. This is the backdrop against which a farmer is forced to keep going or give up and which is the theme of “After the Wishing Star Goes Down”:
Last month we feared dry soil,
so we planted barley
because we had to plant something.
But then after heavy hail “the barley’s busted down to dross.” In other poems human endeavors are set against the backdrop of Pascal’s espaces infinis as in “North Platte to Chicago, November Nights, Route 80”:
Through the windshield,
I feel the smallness of far lights
set in the vast black onyx plains …
In “Astronomical” the protagonists “watch from wheat fields / bits of comets exploding.” In several poems, such as “November Oracle” and “Crows,” the poet seeks meaning by contemplating the natural world, but has to accept, finally, that the only certainty is human mortality. This is explored in the collection’s title poem, “This Is How It Is” where the poet is seen first “inhaling flowers like there’s no / tomorrow” but which concludes with one of those sudden shifts of perspective that he is so adept at:
… Today, I’m burying my face
in flowers, trying to smell from the living side
what it’ll be like when I’m swimming
in flowers, and I don’t smell a thing.
With his 2011 collection, (T)ravel/(Un)ravel, Shepard widens his scope in the poems that range around the globe, opening up vistas that mark a strong contrast with the earlier volumes, which are more rooted in the farmlands of Vermont. From China to Europe there are too many places to give more than a few indications of Shepard’s brilliant reportage. In “Square Vivani,” Paris, his swivel eye moves from the “lovers who melt into one mouth” to “the filthy ones, unhoused, unhouselled.” In Corfu he observes ghastly lepers. In “Keats House, Hampstead” his long, loping lines evoke the spring and not the doomed poet’s “drowsy sounds of nightingales.” Across China, Bali, the Marquesas, Shepard captures sights smells and sounds with an almost visceral clarity. However, if one were to pick a couple of favorites they might be “Duzi,” with its “seven hours of irritable, ass-hard, desert bus ride,” or “Whitby Abbey,” a homely and touching portrait of Caedmon, the first poet in the English language.
Finally, in Shepard’s more recent work, Vermont Exit Ramps and Vermont Exit ramps II, it’s as if, like Eliot in “Little Gidding,” the poet has come full circle: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” In spite of their somewhat unpromising titles, these two collections prove to be a triumphant return to the local, reminding one of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem “Epic” or Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns. In fact, consciously or unconsciously, the opening couplet of “Vermont Exits” is reminiscent of the first poem in Hill’s sequence:
Who will claim the kingdom of exit ramps and clover leafs
on the hillsides of 1-89, these realms of birch and pine …
Moreover, the opening line of “1-89, Exit $: Randolph (Routes 66 to 12)” would seem to be an intended echo of Shepard’s great predecessor, the former poet laureate of Vermont: “There’s something open and honest about the exit / ramps of Randolph.” Elsewhere in these poems he indulges also in a certain amount homespun wisdom: “one generation plants the trees, and another gets the shade,” “He who throws dirt is losing ground”; while in “1-89, Exit 10: Stowe/Waterbury (Route 100)” he widens his scope by delving into the past. Above all, however, the poems are distinguished by Shepard’s enviable powers of description.
Authentic, eloquent, and moving, How it is, Selected Poems, is a volume that one can wholeheartedly recommend and deserves to be widely read. A poet of rare, one might even say, unfashionable seriousness, Shepard is ambitious and insightful. A seeker of ultimate truths, he aspires to “widen the compass of the known.” The attempt may, of course, fail but has resulted in some outstanding poetry.