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Bob Sward's Writer's Friendship Series

Book Reviews

Need to Know



Issue 11: The Necessary Eye

Issue 10: Out on a Limb

Issue 9: The Missing Body

Issue 8: The Lily

Issue 7: Passages

Issue 6: No More Tears

A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Melissa Ahart

Sommer Browning

Sarah Busse

devin wayne davis

Karen D'Amato

Yaakov Fichman

Donna Johnson

Vera Kroms

Li Bo

Li Qingzhao

Ander Monson

Christopher Mulrooney


Todd Samuelson

Maria Terrone

Mihai Ursachi

Sophie Wadsworth

G.C. Waldrep

Martha Zweig  

Sound, Unsound

Otherhood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 99 pages)
by Reginald Shepherd 

Reviewed by Adam L. Dressler

Through a breathtaking panoply of Grecian gods and Latinate terms, Reginald Shepherd weaves an elaborate mesh of language. The fascinating fabric of the poems in Otherhood is soundplay, and Shepherd is a virtuoso. Lush with allusion, syntactically scintillating, and versed in a variety of vocabularies, Reginald Shepherd's aptly titled Otherhood reconstructs the past by personalizing it. Feast your ears on the book's first poem, “Reasons for Living”:

We're walking with the backwards
river, sluggish water dialects
spell out spilled lakefront's
tumbledown babble of dressed
stones, nervous dogs and “no
swimming” pictographs: the land
washes ashore with under
clinging to it, undermining
crumble, halted fall. We pick our way
to level rock, watch out for oblique
angle slabs, it's so hot
we take off our pants, we lie down
and are grass, that green
and spore-filled, well-adapted
to be carried on the wind.

Mold-colored water dulled
by use (pastel, muddled
nephrite, more common
than true jade, less highly prized,
its luster oily rather than vitreous,
a scum spilled across perspective)
with a turquoise line to build horizon
out of: prehnite, andradite,
alkali tourmaline, a seam of
semiprecious chrysoprase: anything
but true emerald, a grass-green beryl,
smaragdos, prized for medicinal
virtues: uvarovite even rarer
among garnets, its crystals typically
too small to cut.

A broken landscape (man-made)
says to its place, “I don't
remember you,” unphrased,
grooved by the gaze, chiseled
into being unseen, a glancing
blow: incursions of the geometric
(cement no place to rest your head),
naked economy, awkward skin
on green towels. And then a stirring
at the other side of when,
complicit blood flows back
into the stem, in retrospect
unfinished: we stand up
erect as grass, xylem, parenchyma,
epidermis, leaf blade and sheath.

The w's, r's, and l's of first three lines subtly accomplish a mimetic effect—the very slowness or “sluggish”ness the lines themselves describe. Sound and sight are fused. The same can be said of the syntax and structure, as is easily seen here in the first three line breaks, each of which contains/creates a strong grammatical suspension—between modifying adjective and modified noun, subject and predicate, and possessive and object, respectively. Performed less deftly, this might produce a halting or plodding feel, but Shepherd's nearly peerless ear tempers the pacing, using assonance, consonance, alliteration, and rhyme to keep things slowly yet steadily flowing, like water over the ends of the lines.

But sometimes the sound is so dense that the poem's subjects (and objects) disappear beneath it. The ear rejoices, but the mind reels. For example, the “we” of the first stanza is abandoned in the second, and with it any semblance of connection to what precedes or follows. The entire second stanza is, as signaled by the period at its end, meant to stand as a single sentence. In fact, it is a fragment, and the lack of active verbs (here one finds only an infinitive and perfect passive participles) is sometimes ponderous.

The shift in punctuation from the first stanza to the second is also problematic. In the former, it is spare and articulate, effectively conducting the pacing of breath and the unfolding of comprehension through the progression of syntax. But in the latter it is overgrown and confusing—what is the thought behind the three consecutive colons? Are they meant to signal some hierarchy of listing? And as for the lists themselves, of semiprecious substances, why are they here? What relation do they bear to the setting of the riverbank (or is it lakefront?) other than a flight of fancy?

The third stanza attempts to address some of these issues. “A broken landscape (man-made)...a glancing blow” can be interpreted as a glossing of the second stanza: how the human view affects its object. The long-absented “we” also resurfaces here, harkening back to the first stanza, as do the closing images of grass. But the third stanza also introduces new sources of confusion. “(Cement no place to rest your head)” is unnecessarily elusive, as is the syntactically stuttering “at the other side of when.” Even if these lines were clearer (and cleaner), the cohesion is too little too late. Narratively, the progression of the poem is straightforward—“we” are walking by the river, lie down, and then get up. Whatever greater meaning the poem possesses must be found in the progression of its thought. But the almost complete absence of active verbs, the surfeit of punctuation and lists, the discontinutity of the “we,” and the pervasive presence of lines that are not so much mysterious as they are merely confounding make it difficult for any greater meaning to emerge. This structure of comprehensible beginning, muddled middle, and diffuse finish is present in other poem and not always redeemed by the language itself.

A less prevalent problem with Otherland is its occasionally awkward treatment of sex and sexuality. Rather than exploring these topics in interesting or emotionally charged ways, Shepherd sometimes seems content to dwell matter-of-factly on the physical details themselves, most notably semen and sperm: “semen wash” (from “Wing Under Construction”), “sperm smell over everything” (from “Apollo Steps in Daphne's Footprints”), “sperm-scented old world” (from “Wicker Man Marginalia”), “semen taints the atmosphere” (from “The Practice of Goodbye).

However, Shepherd can also illuminate sexuality in profound terms, as in one of the book's strongest poems, “Hygiene,” the first section of which is given below:


how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

e.e. cummings


Some men wash their hands five times
a day and still feel dirty. Ablutomania,
mysophobia, who can be clean
enough? Just look at your fingernails!
Everyone in this town's still washing his hands
of Jeffrey Dahmer, it's
1993, fifty degrees at noon
in May.

“For a lot of black guys it's a treat
to sleep with a white man.” I'm sure
there's no one who wouldn't go down on death (your
blueeyed boy
), forget to come up
for air: I have been half in love
myself. He's dead by now, found them
at the Grand Avenue Mall, the unfashionable
Club 219, where white men sometimes go
to pick up hot black numbers (never mine).
Couldn't you just eat him up right there? Come
here. Eleven skulls, one skeleton, a freezer
stocked with body parts. They found bones
in the basement they still can't identify.
Identified with him. I found myself.

Every white man on my bus home looks
like him, what I'd want to be destroyed
by, want to be. (I thought I would
abuse myself for love or any damage:
I was wrong.) The man next to me
wouldn't touch me, moved away
when I sat down. One day I'll wash my hands
of this, a waste of all that circumstance, waste of
my good time. His more than one hundred pages
of confession note “my consuming lust to experience
their bodies.” Every white man
I can see. What's it like not to want? It's late
May in Milwaukee, thirty degrees at night

Here, tethered to an emotional weight, Shepherd's soundplay and syntactical twists gain depth and power. Here is an accomplished fusion of sound and sense of the original and the allusive (the nod to Keats in the second stanza is especially nice). Poems such as this demonstrate how effective Shepherd's work is when sound and sense are given equal attention, reminding us that beauty is revealed in balance, when there is, in the words of Terence, "ne quid nimis"—"nothing in excess."

Adam L. Dressler graduated from Harvard with an A.B. in Classics in 1997. Since then he has received an MA from Boston University and is currently attending the MFA program in poetry at Columbia University.


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