A Review by Dante Di Stefano,  ARCADIA MAGAZINE (online)

Vermont Exit Ramps II (Green Writers Press, 2015)
by Neil Shepard (poems) & Anthony Reczek (photographs)

Hominid Up (Salmon Poetry, Ireland, 2015)
by Neil Shepard


This past September, physicists and astronomers came one step closer to confirming a part of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity when they observed and recorded evidence of gravitational waves. The evidence consisted of a single chirp that resulted from a collision of two black holes more than a billion light-years from our spot in the universe. Further proof of Einstein’s vision of a universe in which space and time are interwoven and dynamic, able to stretch, shrink, and jiggle might be found in Neil Shepard’s two most recent collections of poetry, Vermont Exit Ramps II and Hominid Up. Both books provide an anti-bucolic view of contemporary American life, ranging from the golden cattails in the culverts outside of Brattleboro, Vermont, to the pelican-brown marshlands and mudflats of the South Carolina low country. Shepard pounds out lines the way Duke Ellington pounded out wrist-snapping arpeggios on the piano; the broken chords and blue notes of his poetry jump as if paralleling the secret rumbling phonemes of a Gullah patois and revolve with the gyroscopic motion of an osprey circling its nest.  At the center of both Hominid Up and Vermont Exit Ramps II is a bighearted and generous view of the lively cosmos that rolls out beneath the poet’s feet like the unending asphalt of a highway and the infinite verdure of the green mountain state.

Hominid Up commences by acknowledging the primal energies animating the work of the poet. The title poem begins: “I write at night when the old hominid/ climbs up to the highest branch of the brain.” A few lines down, Shepard notes, of his beastly interlocutor and other self: “He’s glad I’m civilized and live indoors,/ far from the tooth and claw. Glad my central/ plumbing works, my TP dispenser’s full…” Here, Shepard initiates a critique of privilege that expands as he explores civilization and its discontents, focusing primarily on income inequality in the United States.  Shepard’s poetry exposes economic disparities by traveling to the corner of Broadway and 105th Street in Manhattan, sojourning among the fabulously wealthy in Easthampton, witnessing the Occupy Wall Street movement, vacationing below the Mason-Dixon line, and winding through the harbors of Maine. These locales offer a backdrop against which Shepard dramatizes “what we don’t notice in the normal push-/ and-pull of human action, or what we read, unconsciously/ in the silent language of the body.”

Vermont Exit Ramps II, a sequel of sorts to Shepard’s 2012 chapbook, Vermont Exit Ramps, similarly dwells on the kingdoms of cloverleaf, the backwoods of empire, overlooked in everyday life. Anthony Reczek’s exquisite photography expertly compliments Shepard’s poetry, building its sympathetic pictorial vocabulary from rusted harrow, state police cruiser, dilapidated brick, guardrail steel, corrugated silo, and small town farmer’s market. Reczek’s lens, even when aimed at the ordinary gray stone of a bridge pier, yearns for the idea of greenness articulated in Shepard’s poetry. Shepard’s Vermont is still gouged with pastures and shot through with fiddlehead and ribgrass, but it has also been infiltrated by the logic of strip malls and big box chain stores; this is still the countryside from which Robert Frost conducted his lover’s quarrel with the world, but the design of its panorama has become a bit more cluttered with Subaru Foresters zigzagging between Domino’s Pizza, Walmart, and Bed, Bath and Beyond.  Nevertheless, Reczek’s photographs and Shepard’s poems scour the byways, looking for “the sting/ inside blossoming, the black bother/ at the center of the eye bent on spring beauty.”

Neil Shepard’s poetry commits itself to beauty, without ever abandoning a commitment to the regular people living and dying along the exit ramps, everywhere, across this nation.  Shepard culls the rhythms of his lines from the quotidian; he carries too much philosophy and too much apocalypse in his bones, so that we might carry some of the world’s heaviness like dandelion puff and cottonwood spindrift. In poem after poem, he brings us to a “nexus of next act/ and rest stop. Nexus of prosaic and lyric.”  If, as Shepard says, “Charity is a melody/ in a bird’s throat at sunset,” then his aesthetic might be summed up as charitable: forever aimed outward, forever giving, forever seeking the music stuck in the esophagus and mixed with twilight. Shepard’s is a blackfly poetics, caught on the threshold between loneliness and release, swirling from an airy world into the roiling cold, plunging into the depths and resurfacing “to bring back the bite and sting of all that bothers us.”