Review by Todd Davis

by Neil Shepard


Mid-List Press
4324 - 12th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55407-3218
ISBN: 13: 978-0-922811-72-4
105 pp., $13.00

In his third book of poems, as the title suggests, Neil Shepard seeks after the source, the thing itself, not the language for it. His is a struggle against the imperfect linguistic gestures we make, and the ways poetry both aids and thwarts us in our search. Here are poems of rural beauty, many set on the home ground of Robert Frost in Vermont, and, like Frost, Shepard knows where to find the seep of the stream in the pasture, the source of the water that he diverted with "a simple / lead pipe out to the field." Wisely, Shepard also recognizes that "every living / thing falls down into the watery spaces / they've abandoned" (The Source, 54). Despite this he has not abandoned language--his skillful devotion to the poetic arts clearly attests to that fact. Still, a dis-ease and dis-association surfaces and resurfaces as we move through this wide-ranging collection, hunting after the things of this world that connect us.

Waterfall at Journey's End begins the book, reminding us that notions of linear time are as artificial and fallible as the very language we use to represent time. Here as readers we begin, despite being told it is "journey's end"; here language is both a window to look through as well as an object of artistic devotion itself. "Yet another metamorphic / swimming hole, waterfall / where language fails," Shepard explains, telling us that we “can hear nouns metamorphose to verbs,” words like "gnarl, shiver, split" (3). The poet describes the primacy of this place and its ways of knowing as "the place of pre- / delight, before the light // blinked on in our fore- / brains and pained us with fore- / knowing" (3). But he does not allow us to get lost in the dizzying desire of linguistic entanglement. He acknowledges that "words can sink // their cleats, pitons, / grappling hooks" into the "high walls / of journey's end" (4), albeit tenuously. Yet the very thing that ultimately must fail him is also the thing that offers some degree of hope. The tongues that allow us to form words are surreally transformed into something "pre-human":

moss-crawler, rock-clasper,
some thing attached to cold stone
that owns no language--
micaceous, gneiss-spark,
fissle schist, granite-fault--
that goes on climbing
as if it were stone-dumb,
attached by its tongue
to the very thing, the very thing. (4)

And Shepard's poems are filled with these very things: box turtles, ovenbirds, black-and-white warblers, phoebes, sunflowers, fiddleheads, cottonwoods, chokecherries, and blackflies. His landscapes are populated with the flora and fauna one might expect from a poet living in rural Vermont. Yet Shepard's poems are not provincial: settings as exotic as the Acropolis or Montpellier, France, are used to great effect, as well as the lives of other writers, like Hayden Carruth and Gerald Stern, ghostly mentors that move behind the lines, creating textual density and intertextual play.

To this end, This Far from the Source is divided into six sections, and, while at first glance the rather distinctive content of the poems may appear to create a dissonance, eventually it is a beautiful harmony we hear, a finely layered and intricately woven selection of multi-tiered poetry. On one level we have philosophy drawn from nature (My Thesis Is Nature's Progress, Hunger, and Romanticism in Virginia); on another, an aesthetic created by movement away from the comfort of homeground (Sunflower Sutra, The Red Stick: White like Me, and Youthful, I fell Off the Temple of Apollo). Then there is the relationship between a father and a son and the son's struggles to grow out of his father's shadow (The Secret Lives of Birds, Weed Whacker, and Teenager: 19). Other poems establish a kind of familial structure for filtering the unwieldy experience of a husband and a wife, as well as a return to the primacy of desire in the form of a daughter's birth and the ensuing bond between father and daughter (The Language Tree, Amniocentesis, Night Feeding, and Prayer for My Daughter).

The book fittingly concludes by revisiting the earth, the local, suggesting an acceptance of rootedness and passion in "trusting the land's pure curve," as Shepard names it. It is the culmination of these lives and deaths--the father that has gone before, the writers who have done the same, the present moment in which Shepard finds himself as husband and father--that frame an aesthetic of acceptance and celebration. Yes, this volume offers complaint at times: against the ridiculously absurd proliferation of commerce, against the harm we do to each other and to the earth. But, as he says in his elegy, On the Occasion of Paul Carriere's Death, he hopes this neighbor-farmer, who he knew "passably enough to know the depth of our differences" is traveling...

to the place I've always imagined beyond imagining,
where he can perch on the crown of those hundred-year
cottonwoods, sing for all he was worth,
and I can let him go. (92)

It's this kind of peace, or hope for peace, that Shepard's book has been negotiating all along, one that is hard-earned yet never fully gained. What a gorgeous journey it is, and how glad I am we have Shepard's verse to remind us, to cajole and exhort us, as he does in the volume's final poem:

Fall in love
with your wounds. Follow us into
the sun, and embrace, yes,
life's bloody feast, these open wings,
the sultry fury
inside whatever really lives. (Black Fly, 103)

Shepard's poems really live and in doing so allow us to see the possibility of the same.


Todd Davis teaches creative writing, environmental studies, and American literature at Penn State University’s Altoona College. His poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, have won the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, and have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals and magazines as The North American Review, The Iowa Review, West Branch, River Styx, Arts & Letters, Indiana Review, Quarterly West, Green Mountains Review, Rattle, Poetry East, and Image.  He is the author of two books of poems, Ripe (Bottom Dog Press, 2002) and Some Heaven (Michigan State University Press, 2007).  Poems from Some Heaven have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac and in Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry.







Note: Reviews may not necessarily reflect the opinions of RATTLE's editors and staff.