by George Drew
There is much to recommend the poems in Neil Shepard’s just-released collection, Hominid Up: their beautiful lyricism, their range—from the blues to political and social concerns, both current and historical, to geographic diversity (Manhattan, the South, New England) to homage (jazz- and blues-men, poets, artists of various sorts, uncommon common folk) to natural and urban landscapes to the personal—and their sheer poetic intelligence. If Shepard has an overarching purpose, it is, as he himself tells us in the last line of the last poem, “to bring back the bite and the sting that bothers us all.” However one interprets that line, that it is serious in its intent is beyond dispute, and is to be taken seriously.
I do, but I’m more interested in how, even at his most serious, Shepard evokes that seriousness. Sometimes, as in “Occupy Wall Street,” one of his blunt political/ social poems, he is, well, blunt:
before Bank of America, cops sweep in, sweep us up
for arrest if we lie too long.
And these lines, from “No,” a satirically ironic poem about willful avoidance:
up bodies we’ve seen on the big screen
or laser-guided missiles a luminous green
as they fall on Baghdad or Tripoli on CNN;
file-footage of charred tanks or human bone,
earthquake, tsunami, meltdowns in Japan;
wrapped in wreckage, the clothes of fishermen,
the fishing boat in a tree, the fishermen gone;
a red Toyota truck atop a Yamaha piano,
a crumpled father traveled from Tokyo
to shout into the tumbled house, Yoko, Yoko,
for a daughter swept out to sea, his mouth an O
that should make all clean-shaven men say No.
Their positively lyric rendering aside, no one who isn’t of a serious disposition writes lines like these.
That said, seriousness doesn’t negate playfulness, and playfulness doesn’t equate to reductive humor. While Shepard is certainly capable of the overtly comic (which a reading of “A Little Corny,” a pitch-perfect rendering of the irascibility of the late great Hayden Carruth, will demonstrate amply), there isn’t much of that in Hominid Up, nor should there be. It isn’t that kind of book. But there is play. Often it is more a lightness of touch, even in seemingly somber poems.
Take “Blustery,” a short poem that really is about human frailty, our “fur of a different nature” that can’t protect us at a temperature of “25-below,” unlike the fur of animals surviving “in their snowy lairs.” The play here comes in a delightful channeling of Whitman and the imagery itself: “O Walt, I wouldn’t go/ And live with animals tonight—/ Or anytime soon; O we are hothouse flowers, Walt,/ Naked and limply alive in a narrow/ Equatorial zone.” Even as it is denying a foolish pantheism, it echoes Whitman’s in its expression and tonality, and even the arrangement of images mirrors Whitman’s use of catalogs, albeit on a much reduced scale.
Shepard’s lightness of touch is evident throughout Hominid Up, usually subtly, but there even in its more obvious manifestations—such as in “Crazy Quilt: Double Acrostic,” which is exactly that, an acrostic in which the first letter of the first word of each line and the last letter of the last word of each spell out a word, reading vertically down the page. Again, it’s a serious poem, slavery its topic, but Shepard is busily at play, too. Play in the sense it’s meant here is very much the “serious fooling” that Robert Frost so famously ascribed to himself and his work, which of course amounts to an aesthetic and philosophical stance as well.
Like Frost, Shepard is capable of word play that gives an impression of spontaneity. Surely diction and its manipulation is one characteristic of play in his poems. That, and as we have seen, carefully manipulated imagery. Add to that mix the time-honored poetic spice of metaphor and one has a tartly playful poetry—tart in that the playfulness never subverts the seriousness. It heightens it. Aptly, the opening poem of Hominid Up, which also happens to be the title poem, illustrates this perfectly:
I write at night when the old hominid
climbs up to the highest branch of the brain
and crouches there in a leafy crotch
listening to the night-sounds snarling below…
his heart outracing the big cats of the savannah.
He’s glad I’m civilized and live indoors,
far from the tooth and claw. Glad my central
plumbing works, my TP dispenser full,
so he doesn’t have to shit off a limb.
And though he loves roosting with birds,
the wind rocking him, talking through the mouths
of leaves, he loves also how the birds have
been stuffed into the softest down pillows
where he may lay his head and dream. Dreams
are scarce as water-holes where he’s from,
one eye always open for danger, one
for hunger. 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.
Conjuring as it does the primordial image of our evolutionary ancestor, an ape-like creature crouching on the “highest branch of the brain,” the poem from the outset is tweaking our sense of play, while retaining a dark seriousness. The image is by now standard, a cliché, but employed here more as a metaphor is what gives it light-hearted clout. At first, given the “snarling below” and the dreams that “are as scarce as water-holes” and the “one eye always open for danger, one/ for hunger,” readers might shudder at what seems to be a dark poem.
But rereading, we realize, starting with “He’s glad” and continuing through “Glad my central/ plumbing works, my TP dispenser full,/ so he doesn’t have to shit off a limb,” that something else is going on, something which is made clear in the last three stanzas—made so with a precise and playful direct comparison (or in poetic terms, a metaphor): The ape-like hominid that is alive inside him, in his brain, prefigures its opposite, the civilized poet—but a poet who, when in the rapture of composition, is more like the ape living by its instincts. The beast scratches himself “with a twig that could pass for a pencil” and “poke<s> at a moon-lit line of ants that/ resembles this scratched pentameter.” Immediately, and wonderfully, a major difference is drawn, that the beast “chooses silence, and I, this speech.” Immediately, too, “this speech” rounds the poem back to its opening, “I write.” Delightedly, we realize the poem is an ars poetica, but one unlike any we’ve encountered before. This, too, is play at its finest, a bit like a whodunit in which the identity of the killer is embedded in the detailed clues that accumulate until the very end. Ah ha, we think, that’s what this was all about!
Structure and the details contained within are always key to a poem, certainly in this one. Talk about play—Just look at the overall structure, those couplets reaching out to left and right like limbs horizontal to the ground, the humorous details of a “civilized” (the irony of the indoor plumbing and pillows stuffed with bird feathers not to be dismissed) life, the manipulation of line break (“central/ plumbing”) and emphatic word placement (“brain,” “crotch,” “mouths,” “Dreams,” “pencil,” “speech”), the active verb use (“shit,” “poke,” “scratch,” “crouches”), and again, that opening “I Write” and closing “this speech.” Notice the title, too: “Hominid Up,” besides its obvious double meaning (literally, up a tree, and more connotatively, hominid superior), sounds a lot like “hamming it up,” which in his own subtle way Shepard is doing, only with skill and grace. If this poem, besides its serious application as a title poem, isn’t playful, what is?
What is, is another poem, “Sugar Maple, American Beech, Poison Nightshade, as Andy Goldsworthy Projection,” a short poem with longer lines and a long title:
Yes, the bolus of limbs and vines twined into a woody
ball had intention written all over it. But would he,
like a swinger of birches, bend the nearby beech
into faux arches going back and back into the forest,
until the eye was tricked into seeing every bent stick
as semiotic? Limbs fallen sideways against their trunks,
were they natural or marshalled? I could not say. And would he
have stacked twigs in the hollows of sugar maples
along the trail, or was that the trajectory of a tree,
the natural path of its downward spiral? I could see
nothing clearly, not the forest for the trees,
nor its inverse. It was the curse of a Goldsworthy
caper, as subversive to the system as the nightshade
I came upon, finally, in a pasture beyond the woods—
housed in a small gambrel structure, like a latticed
barn, no screw or nail, just piled together, as if planed lumber
had fallen from a tree. Through the trellis, I could see
the poison nightshade uncoiling its tendrils,
squeezing its berries through the lattices
into the oldest disguise—come eat of the fruit—
toward what design I could, for once, foresee.
Right away, the play is obvious—the sheer fun of such an extended title. Plus, rather than ruled couplets, this poem is more a verse paragraph, unrolling down the page, a full and flowering shrub of a poem, architecturally substantive. Such a poetic flourish of form and structure is playful, too, for the poet in its actualizing on paper and for readers its adventurous and necessary unraveling into not just sound but sense.
Like “Hominid Up” this poem has imagery and metaphor and a diction that teases with its suggestiveness—“installation,” “bolus,” “faux,” “semiotic,” “spiral,” “curse,” “subversive,” “gambrel,” “design,” and so on. Again, a verbal playfulness that enriches the poem and the readers’ experience of it. Its subject, which is nothing less than the confusion that so often attends what we see, especially in the apparent randomness of the natural world, or what we think we see: “Was it really there, the installation in the woods?” That question, opening the poem as it does, structures what follows—a stumbling attempt through twenty-one more lines, to answer it.
The speaker specifies that he is looking at a “bolus of limbs and vines” that “twined” as they are “into a woody ball” has “intention written all over it.” Next he mentions beeches bent “into faux arches,” and farther on, a “gambrel structure,” “latticed barn,” “planed lumber” and “lattices.” So the metaphor that structures and develops the poem is architecture—specifically, the natural landscape art of Andy Goldsworthy, a brilliant Scottish artist whose designs made of leaves and roots and branches and stones are stunningly beautiful. As the speaker walks in the woods everything he sees, every “bent stick” seems “semiotic”—symbolic. His eyes are “tricked into seeing” what might not in fact be true. All the designs very well could be random, but he “could not say” and “could see/ nothing clearly.” The double meaning of the line break is playful, if grimly so.
Part of the play of this poem is precisely the “curse of <the> Golds- worthy/ caper” that the speaker blames for his plight. That such an obviously intelligent and perceptive person could ascribe his dilemma to a “curse” is humorous in itself—but ironically so, in that he is experiencing what Goldsworthy is as he randomly creates a temporary order of design out of randomness, that of the visible natural world. The play is in the discovery, and in the freedom of being unshackled from a priori notions of perception. Likewise, the speaker is casting about, unsure of what he is seeing, and free therefore—free to see what he sees, not what he thinks he should see.
Poetry by its very nature is playful, and when that sense of play is brought to bear in a poem of serious intent, play heightens the serious and the serious informs the play.
Finally, after much hemming and hawing, the speaker stumbles on that “gambrel structure”—technically, a roof with two levels, both sloping—which he compares to a “latticed barn.” But this time he knows the simile is just that, a comparison to a barn, not a real barn. Goldsworthy might not really have constructed it, but what really anchors the speaker is the poison nightshade he sees “through the trellis” of the structure, the tendrils of which, “uncoiling,” are “squeezing its berries…/ into the oldest disguise” (disguise itself implying mask, costume, literally play). Then comes clarity: “come eat of the fruit.” This reference to Genesis, the importuning of Eve by the snake and of Adam by Eve to partake of the tree of knowledge, turns the speaker “toward what design I could, for once, foresee.” That design is, of course, one humans, fallen creatures that we are, know intimately: sin. That sin begets more sin is easy to foretell. Still, it is design and one about which there is no doubt. The speaker has arrived at certainty, even if the design is not one worthy of Goldsworthy, or ascribable to him. Implicitly, too, there also is the certitude of making art, whether Goldsworthy’s land-scape art or that of the speaker’s (Shepard’s), poetry.
So in “Sugar Maple…” the very progression of the speaker’s argument with himself, which is the progression of the poem, is playful; the speaker’s uncertainty and final arrival at a structure, or design, he can both see and foresee, an adventure, a serious adventure certainly, but playful, too, in its structure, its diction, its metaphor and its imagery. But there is one other element that makes of the poem great fun, allusiveness—something Shepard is quite adept at.
As Eliot and the other early Modernists demonstrated so unforgettably, allusion can be very effective, enriching a poem and giving it depth and texture—if it isn’t overdone or done for its own sake or for the wrong reason: an intellectual game, a showing off, a flaunting of one’s own supposed brilliance. To be truly effective, allusion must come off as a natural part of the poem’s structure and content, as natural as Keats’ leaves on a tree. In “Sugar Maple…” Shepard achieves this seamlessly, with the whole Goldsworthy inclusion obviously, but if a bit more obliquely, equally so with his allusions to another poet, not only in the natural flora and topography he references—sugar maple, beech and birch, pasture and woods, paths and trails—but in his subtle (though perhaps not to a knowledgeable reader of the canon) referencing of specific poems.
The poet is, not surprisingly, Robert Frost; the poems, “Birches” (“like a swinger of birches”), “The Pasture” (“in a pasture beyond the woods”), “For Once, Then, Something” (“I could, for once, foresee”) and, though not through any one similar phrase or line, “Design.” That any of these allusions is not intentional is not arguable. They are too precise, too structurally exact. But they aren’t forced, and never just window dressing, always a danger to an unwary poet. Neil Shepard is not that poet. Their easy synthesis with the overall structure and detail of the poem renders these allusions crucial, and playful. Their purpose, like that of the poem itself, is serious, but their essence is play. They are, in short, one element of serious fooling.
Poetry by its very nature is playful, and when that sense of play is brought to bear in a poem of serious intent, play heightens the serious and the serious informs the play. This is what Frost, with his serious fooling, was getting at, and in Hominid Up Neil Shepard does more than pay it lip service. He puts it into action, hamming it up, making it an integral part of his poetics, and like the crows in “The Perch,” another very fine poem in which play figures large, he sends his poems “sailing/ off in black armadas toward the day’s ordinary treasures…” Only, his poetic armadas are not entirely warlike, not entirely black, and his poetic treasures are anything but ordinary. Indeed, Shepard’s poems return to us again and again the “bite and sting that bothers us all.” Only, they don’t always bite and sting, or if they do, not with the same level of ferocity, and they are no bother at all.
Please, Mr. Shepard, keep hamming it up. Keep hamming it up…