Review by Todd Davis
by Neil Shepard
4324 12th Avenue
South Minneapolis, MN 55407
2011, 96 pp., $13.00
In American letters there has long been a tension between the idea of writing grounded in one’s local experience–a notion often associated with a rallying cry for an authenticity founded upon a daily and long-lived relationship with a place–and art that grows from the catalyst of travel, from one’s immersion in cultures and regions radically different from the accustomed security of the writer’s homeground.
Any person who has journeyed away from home knows the sense of wonder (or sometimes its pejorative equal) in being confronted with a new language and customs, a new climate and its accompanying flora and fauna, a new diet for both the body and the soul. Such dislocations can be disconcerting, even mind-altering, forcing upon the traveler a weltanschauung in metamorphosis.
Neil Shepard is an American poet whose new book portrays physical and spiritual journeys into distinctly different landscapes while suggesting the material and philosophical conundrums such travel creates. In richly textured language and arresting narratives, he underscores the porousness of borders, the artifice of the security we long for, and the pleasures of engaging the physical, elemental world that sustains us.
In (T)ravel / Un(t)ravel, Shepard’s fourth collection, the poet establishes with the title poem the unraveling dislocation of “travelers half- / returned from afar,” the “vertigo” as “the other world / spins into view.” It is in this moment, when the tangible immediacy of the present collides with the constructed world of memory, that “a white flash of surrender” comes upon the sojourner, reminding him that experience cannot be cordoned off, set aside to be forgotten, like photos in a dusty album.
Rather each of the book’s five sections literally thrusts us into new territory, immersing the reader in radically different landscapes, as diverse as Paris and Corfu, Bali and Hampstead Heath.
Dislocations of all kinds characterize Shepard’s dazzling and thickly layered poems, and the poet’s encounter in “Monkey Forest Road” is representative of such disruptions:
Pinned under mesh netting, I awake
to mosquitoes and geckoes, brash anjing
howling outside, fighting cocks bruising
the air. The market’s squawk is a block off,
where women smelling of raw fish, their breasts
burst from their shirts, and men hawking
and emptying their nostrils on the sidewalks,
shout Mister, mister! This morning I can
roll over and refuse it . . .
But, of course, he cannot actually refuse this new place, try as he may. As the poem moves forward, the poet continues to protest his journey into the displacement on Monkey Forest Road, saying again and again that he “can refuse it all—the toothless woman / / who drapes her stained sarong around my waist / and hisses sixty rupiah, the scarred guard /blocking entrance to Monkey Forest. . . . // even the holy men // of the island who subsist on sunlight and quiet, teaching the body bathed in sensation that being blinds us, // distracts us from the world behind the world.” And within the melee of this swirling commotion, dizzying both to the newly landed traveler and the reader, is the question carved from his protestation: “will I always arrive scarred and fearful, // my meditations unraveling?”
While (T)ravel / Un(t)ravel is not a book-length narrative of a singular physical journey, it may well be read as a philosophical narrative in response to the questions of how we might arrive and to where ultimately we may be traveling. Halfway through the book we find ourselves in North Wales, considering on Snowdon, the highest mountain in this region, our own worth in relation to other objects:
Count me one object among many
as I stop to strap on a hood
and jacket, cover a pack, and bend
again into misting rain. An object
passing objects probable as sheep
or stone, possible as gravel fill
or wooden rail, definite as nettle
Notice the way Shepard carefully crafts the sound of these words around the physicality of the objects themselves, nesting one within another, and in doing so emphasizing ultimate questions to be articulated as the poem closes:
…if one wanders
beyond what is sensibly revealed—
if not palpable as an object,
then a piercing sound from a high
invisible place, not quite object,
not void, not song, not human
word, but human made, for certain,
and recorded in the human mind.
And those questions continue to surface in Shepard’s textured vocalizations in such poems as “Lush Life,” “The World Goes Away,” and “If I Have to Die, and I Have To–.” Through the artifice of poem-making, and the artifice of the landscapes represented in the poems themselves, Shepard illuminates these vital questions without suggesting any final answers. As he says at the conclusion of “Biographers,” set in the Borderlands of Northumbria,
the romantic excess that drifts away
in mist, rinse the chapters of character-
making in a bracing solvent, distill all
rosy gaiety and gray sobriety, all terror
and aspiration, into a single equation
of longing on earth…
In (T)ravel / Un(t)ravel, Shepard has crafted a book of great beauty, comprised of poems of spiritual and physical longing and seeking. Here is art that recognizes its debt to the earth and to all that toil and create upon it, an art of exploration, of travel that will lead its readers away from any false sense of security their homeground might provide, leaving them forever changed.
Todd Davis teaches creative writing and environmental studies at Penn State University’s Altoona College. He is the author of four books of poems, most recently The Least of These (Michigan State University Press, 2010) and Household of Water, Moon, and Snow: The Thoreau Poems (Seven Kitchens Press, 2010). He also edited Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball (Michigan State University Press, 2012) and co-edited Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets (State University of New York Press, 2010). His poetry has appeared widely in such places as Poetry Daily, Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Iowa Review. When he’s not working on poems or reading other people’s poems, he’s deep in the 31,000 acres of gamelands above his house, tracking bobcat and bear, turkey and grouse, and taking photos of the wildflowers he seeks out all spring, summer, and fall.