Into the simplest places

Poetry Review by Louise Waller

 

Sweeping the Light Back into the Mirror

Nathan Shepherdson - University of Queensland Press
ISBN 0 7022 3569 5

 

This is the third UQP publication from the series of Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize winners. Nathan Shepherdson's manuscript 'Sweeping the Light Back Into the Mirror' was the 2005 winner. That year he also had a manuscript highly commended in the same competition. In 2006 Shepherdson received the Newcastle Poetry Prize and the Arts Queensland Val Vallis Poetry prize. He won the Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize in 2004 & 2006 and was runner-up in 2005.

I was fortunate to be in attendance at the Judith Wright Centre for the Arts in Brisbane, during the Queensland Poetry Festival 2006, and was present for Nathan's Val Vallis award acceptance speech (I was runner-up to him that year). I also had the chance to hear him read at the launch of this collection. Shepherdson was confident, yet slightly perplexed by his success in poetry competitions. To paraphrase him on this, the following; "I don't really know why this is happening.". I'd suggest that he keep on doing what he does, as he continues to produce work that raises the bar for Australian poetry.

The book's back cover comments offer praise for Shepherdson's first published collection. Judith Beveridge states, "I love how he crystalises both beauty and pain."; Thomas Shapcott calls Shepherdson, ".a powerful talent.". His work is so clearly remarkable and worthy of praise. Poets reading Shepherdson's work might find him a 'poet's poet' (and I think that he is), but he just as easily offers the ordinary reader a poet to believe in, a poet they can trust. His poetry captures, with clarity and unusual strength, our imagination and our understanding. His is a landscape of extraordinary transcriptions. This collection, in elegiac mode, contains so many wonderful lines and images that are delicate yet probing;

 

we buried the sun as well as your body

(No. 04)

 

thoughts become hands after they die
reach into the simplest places

(No. 18)

 

Shepherdson dedicates the collection to his mother, who is also the subject of these poems. The book-length sequence consists of epigrammatic poetry fragments and longer poems numbered from (No. 01 - No. 72) each accounting for a year of his mother's life. These poems present his robust and energetic vision. Shepherdson distils moments of clarity using meditative retrospection, and rethinking mythic portent and symbolism. He works with surreal and commonplace imagery avoiding the containment of linear narrative. Shepherdson, with this collection, massages mind and heart with precisely the correct amount of pressure. The fact that his work is truly contemporary, that he is using experiment and technique that is sometimes unproven and new, as well as traditional attention to lyric, enhances his work. Throughout the collection, numerous examples can be found that attest to a process of mastery and skill with poetic form. He is also attentive to the impact of precise and well crafted lines.

Some of the poems contain empty parentheses or they contain a series of directional arrows combined with text, pointing east and west, north and south. I'm not entirely sure what to make of these, but guess that the former is a matter of emphasis on words that can't be said, or an emphasis on the person no longer there who could say them; and the latter is an association of timing, related to the material content or moment within the poem. I also found that some of the longer poems in the collection tended towards an excess of information, which seemed somewhat at odds with the brevity of the majority of other poems, although, this does not detract from the collection overall.

Nathan Shepherdson is the son of the painter Gordon Shepherdson and he writes on the visual arts, so it seems logical that he would be adept and competent within a creative framework. He is a poet who can use the word - soul - without sounding clumsy or dated; "post death / the envelope will be received without the soul // you will unfold the single white page" (No.37). I think his belief in language, in making poetry achieve or attempt to name aspects of his poetics and his vision is what drives his craft and technique. From poem (No. 05), "shoes are the most unforgiving statement left by the dead". And an image of shoes again;

 

your brown suede shoes are still at the front door
or should i say
still outside the front door
or still near the front door
or still by the front door
they are still anyway
as still as a maybe in the mourning

(No. 34)

 

Shepherdson's work can be difficult to interpret absolutely, but it is possible to appreciate his positing of ideas; (No.35) "no heart is sucked in the wind / as it blows through tunnels of words / that were meant to last forever". In seeking to inhabit and illuminate loss and grief, Shepherdson is courting a reader's faith;

 

he found his own head on the beach
partially colonised by oysters
he picked it up
pushed both eyelids back with both thumbs
and found his mother's eyes

(No. 65)

 

i attach a parachute to my head
throw it off the cliff at Kangaroo Point
float it down on the dissipation of your last breath

(No. 23)

 

whisper the black into its deafness
press collected skin together like plywood
walk on frangipani flowers in a dark room
bathe in the spelling of any prayer

(No. 36)

 

In poem (No. 21) Shepherdson allows himself to extend the experience of having to examine the contents of his mother's wardrobe. The poet notes how "it is always night in the wardrobe" as he surveys the wardrobe's landscape, his images and projections, his altered perceptions discover "the dresses don't talk to the shoes any more / they have forgotten how to wait to be chosen". The poet examines the arrangement of garments noting those worn most often are hung in the middle and those seldom worn are hung at each end, "these are the ones stiffened with a slight bitterness". In this wardrobe all the clothes and all the colours are grey with his mother's absence, "this absence smoothed and petrified by the absence of need / this absence that is quietly forced to forget your shape".

One of the unexpected surprises in this collection, when read as a whole, is the sense of somehow being uplifted on the journey; of being involved with the intimate particulars contained in the poems. Great writing can have this impact on a reader and something important happens when a reader trusts a poet's vision. In poem (No. 24) Shepherdson intuits, as much about life as death, an insight as 'knowable' as anything that we might say or want to say on the subject of loss; "love chews on its fabled arrows with satisfaction / it buries the dead and the living with the same smile / places an intimate universe on the head of a nail".

Shepherdson creates such wonderful poetry, the kind of poetry that delivers so much more than it should be possible to express in a handful of lines. So much of what resonates for me when I read this collection, is the degree of honesty and the degree of risk that the poet is prepared to take, so that not only memory and facts are transcribed, but something other and additional to those elements. It becomes possible to forget the wisdom and rules of various schools of poetic practice when poetry which is intended to represent and contain meaning, so clearly pulls it off, and does so without any loss of rigor. Shepherdson, in poem (No.72) says; "memory is the god that prays to us" but the truest thing, within his construct for this collection, is surely what he tells us himself in poem (No.70) "when beauty speaks /i listen".