HOW IT IS: SELECTED POEMS
Reviewed by Claire Matturro
"Reading Neil Shepard’s How It Is: Selected Poems (Salmon Poetry 2018) is akin to a meditative walk through the lush inner terrain of a man who sees and senses all too much. Vivid, evocative, and varied, the individual poems cross time lines and geographic divides to form a compelling whole. The aggregate impact shows Shepard is not only well traveled, but also fascinated by just about everything—as a great poet should be. The poems in How It Is include works previously published in books ranging from 1993’s Scavenging the Country for a Heartbeat to Shepard’s most recent 2015 Hominid Up. Given this span, How It Is offers readers a quarter of a century of Shepard’s writings to be savored.
And savored these poems should be. Shepard is an exceptional and emphatic writer, with a sharp eye for the telling detail, a deft hand at conveying truth, and a musician’s gift for hearing the melody in words. His images and language can startle our senses and wake us to mystery, as he does in “The Bell Bird.”
I smell lemon everywhere,
lemon-air and lemon-earth and lemon-trees
and long-leafed eucalyptus. When I arrive
at the canyon’s rim and peer down a thousand
feet to the dusk-silent canopy of trees,
suddenly the Bell Bird sings,
its song almost human, a glissando
across the empty space. It wavers
on the edge of sunset, circling
along the rim or far down
in the gloom or far above
in the temperate air—it’s impossible
to tell where the song comes from.
While some reviewers have compared him to Robert Frost, perhaps because of shared geography as well as their quiet genius, Shepard stands on his own as a valued and singular voice. His rhythmic phrases and the sheer grace of his poetic acumen mark him as an American treasure. He also appears to be having fun with his words, as illustrated in the opening lines from “Oh! on an April Morning.”
Oh! on an April Morning
I’m ready to murder the flowers.
The all-night word-fest left me
in some indeterminate schwa
of sleeplessness, neither long on yawns
nor persnickety and testy,
but stunned, stoned, seemingly
systematically taken apart
by human sounds—
While the collection offers richly textured works of homage, personal insights, and social commentary as well as a poetic travel guide, Shepard truly shines in his nature poems. A Vermonter, Shepard divides his time between New York City and his native state. Yet his lush “Atchafalaya November,” set in a Louisiana swamp, is as true and vivid as if he had been born and raised a Cajun.
We quiet the motor,
loop rope around a cypress stump,
and drift in the pirogue.
Snowy egrets circle out at dawn,
widening the compass of the known,
Soon we must give in
to the butterflies, like roses pinned to darkness,
landing on your hair and mine, give in
to the small tongues and tendrils
of the world that prey on us
with such tenderness.
Then we will look North
and hear it coming,
and not be afraid.
Shepard’s poems not only traverse from Atchafalaya to Corfu and beyond, but they range from when he was “twenty, ripped jeans, rucksack, cervezas and chasers” to being “of late middle age.” The daughter that was “centered in a cradle” in “Birth Announcement” is now “singing Madonna in the shower.” Thus, in this fine collection, readers are invited to join Shepard in his journey and in the maturation of his vision. Thank you, Neil Shepard for inviting us along. It’s a great, glorious trip to take.
PUBLISHED IN THE ALABAMA WRITERS' FORUM www.writersforum.org
VERMONT EXIT RAMPS II
Dante Di Stefano of Arcadia Magazine writes, "Vermont Exit Ramps II, a sequel of sorts to Shepard’s 2012 chapbook, Vermont Exit Ramps, dwells on the kingdoms of cloverleaf, the backwoods of empire, overlooked in everyday life. 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."
VERMONT EXIT RAMPS I
Poetry Quarterly editor Brian Fanelli writes, "Anyone who has ever hopped in the car for a cross-state or cross-country road trip will find familiarity in the images in Neil Shepard’s latest effort, Vermont Exit Ramps. The poems feature rumbling construction vehicles, ATMs, quaint art galleries, and other staples of small town America. However, what moves the poems beyond the familiar is the personal and state history Shepard included. Like a passenger riding shotgun, the reader is invited along for a wonderful ride that is engaging, informative, and entertaining."
Seven Days book reviewer Keenan Walsh says, "Proving wrong any reader who thought these poems would bore by virtue of their subject matter, Shepard opens with a subtle, rhythmic eloquence. His absolute command of language draws readers in, making them suddenly, surprisingly intrigued by the (perhaps familiar) Stowe/Waterbury exit ramp. Scattering this poem and the rest with geographically appropriate historical allusions, anagrams of town names and quotes from signs, Shepard shows his awareness of place and of how one territory can act as a setting for so many different events. In their historical imagery, linguistic cleverness and poetic grace, these poems rarely disappoint. This panoramic “postpastoral” collection will intrigue the Vermont poetry connoisseur as it begs us to pay attention to even the smallest details of the least-acknowledged patches of land.
Todd Davis, writing in Rattle (online), says, "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. 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. 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."
Kevin Oderman, writing in Provincetown Arts magazine, says, "You've met them, you've probably been them. Travel, it used to be a prerogative of the rich, globetrotters, but now that's you and me, traveling, we're all of us traveling. We've gone, come back, and gone again. What's that about, really? What are we doing out there? Neil Shepard, in his most recent book of poems, (T)ravel/Un(t)ravel, takes up the question, not to answer it—it's not a question that admits of a satisfactory answer—but for the illuminations posing it provides. The poems in (T)ravel/Un(t)ravel are shot through with such illuminations, bright if transient flares that light up Shepard's travels and the reader's as well, because the experience of travel is, in the best Whitmanian sense, common. We are all one traveler on the road, away from home, understanding in fragments at best the world we're passing through. Although unraveling haunts this book, the poems themselves are extremely well made, strong with an American idiom sometimes delicate and sometimes brute. Sometimes ironic, funny, irreverent and earnest. Erotic. Scatological and mythological. What can't this guy do?"
Judith Slater, writing in Rain Taxi, says, "The title's the tip-off: this is no ordinary adventure. In Neil Shepard's fourth book of poems, we're snatched up as if by the fabled Roc and dropped into one far-off locale after another, subject to travel's transformative power not only to delight and excite the senses, but also to overwhelm and disorient. Shepard thereby challenges our very sense of self, jolting us into new ways of seeing."
Andrew Mulvania, writing in American Book Review, says, "In a volume as varied and compelling as the destinations Shepard describes, the poems of (T)RAVEL / UN(T)RAVEL would make good travelling companions for your next around-the-world voyage—or even for your next trip to the local coffee shop."
George Drew of Easy Street Magazine, says, "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.'...[But Shepard's] seriousness doesn't negate playfulness, and playfulness doesn't equate to reductive humor... Often it is more a lightness of touch,even in seemingly somber poems."
SCAVENGING THE COUNTRY FOR A HEARTBEAT
David St. John says of his first book, Scavenging the Country for a Heartbeat, "In his powerful and poignant first collection, Neil Shepard overlays the dark map of the troubled human heart with the luminous pathways and passages of an incisive, compassionate mind. And so, with these eloquent and intimate sketches, he has let us glimpse the true geography of the American soul."
Booklist says of Shepard's first book, "There is a solid maturity about these poems that belies the fact that this is a first book. Shepard is, in fact, solidly mature, both in person and in craft. His subject is common enough: a man's progress from love and youth, through loss, to a mid-life rebuilding. But what might be commonplace in other hands is stirring and complex in Shepard's. His special gift is the expansive narrative of image, a sort of hybrid of true narrative with emotionally crisp, almost lyric snapshots. There is both a pleasing directness and a pleasant musicality about Shepard's work. Let us hope we see more of it soon."
I'M HERE BECAUSE I LOST MY WAY
David Wojahn says of his second book, "Neil Shepard's I'm Here Because I Lost My Way more than fulfills the promise of his fine first collection. He is a deft and empathic observer of human behavior and human folly, and in his engaging sequence of poems set in the Marquesas he is especially compelling, combing a Bishopian sense of observational wonder with a sure and steady mastery of free verse form. Shepard is a poet of considerable talent."
Alice Fulton says of the same book, "From the bitter stuff of history, the filmy stuff of memory, Neil Shepard makes phoenix poems of resurrection and second chances seized. His work bears brilliant witness in a language free of polemics and rich with the sustenance of art. Few poets understand-or restore-so much: the oddity and wonder of encounters with others; the consolations and disconsolations of language; the rigors of the pitiless natural world. These beautifully reticent poems, 'songs at the edge of vanishing,' elegize the waning century and sense the days to come. They exist in unknowing with a wisdom forged from the frictions and salts of lived experience."
Mark Doty says of the book, "The poems of I'm Here Because I Lost My Way construct a history of self in context-in memory, in love lost and love discovered, in friendship and in landscape, and in the strange new mirrors of travel. 'What can't I imagine of impermanence?' he asks. In these poems realms of loss, the self is also appearing and disappearing, vanishing even as these patient and scrupulous lyrics discover its traces."
And Naomi Shihab Nye, says, "Neil Shepard writes essential, elegant poems. As much about recovery as loss of any kind, this work is rich with evocations and layers, a stunning interplay of language and scenes. 'The News' is one of the most breathtaking, perfect poems I've ever read."
THIS FAR FROM THE SOURCE
J.P. White, writing in the Notre Dame Review, says, "Neil Shepard is an accomplished poet of place, and some of his most stunning poems such as 'Hayden's Writer's Shack's Latest Occupant' are set in Vermont, but he's also a refreshing globalist, at home in the world, seeking everywhere to reduce the distance between the source of the land's original clarity and our experience of it. When Shepard lets the land speak fully through him, then we enter a consequential world where the elements themselves become the characters who dictate the terms of our human drama."
Todd Davis, writing in Rattle (online), says, "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.'"
And John Freeman, writing in Seven Days, says, "At his best, Shepard sees through ideas into the truth behind them. This means that most of his best poems are almost naturalistic, like the exquisite, bog-ridden 'The Source.' But there are also some terrific poems about the language of memory. 'I'm from Leominster, Couldn't be Prouder, Can't Hear Me Now, I'll Yell a Little Louder' recalls a long-ago high school cheer, how it was performed 'In megaphones, in unison, the fans / chanting with the cheerleaders, building, building / the round vowels—prouder, louder—and the /two-line rhyme itself endless until its pitch / raised the rafters.' This is about all we can expect language to do, Shepard seems to be saying: to raise high the roof beams so we can get an eyeball at the world around us. Like a carpenter, Shepard sidles forth in these poems with his pencil and ruler, diagramming 'the underside' of sentences that nature has made, all the while aspiring—and sometimes succeeding—to make some as beautiful himself."