Thursday, December 17, 2015

On Shaving Off His Face by Shane Neilson

Okay, forget “accessible”.  All I want is to be alert enough to what’s on the page to eventually understand or more deeply feel “something”, to find my sea legs in the bump and swell of busted rhythms and disparate images so I can say, “You know, this ain’t bad; from here it’s actually pretty smooth sailing.”

For sure there’s no end to roiled waters in Shane Neilson’s latest book: fracturing our attention along elided or conflated syntax embedded with strong, associative images in rapid fire, tightly compressed succession. “Rigid, stoic, mask: broken bone face/gun-shot face, son-dead face.” Eventually these and others images coalesce into a larger metaphor for the poet’s personal experience of violence and loss.  Unable to reconcile his son’s pain with the medical system of which he is a part Neilson retreats into something larger than ambivalence: despair. Even the smallest manifestations of love seem futile in the face of pain and disease.

“Consider the Pain Face:
love on your lip, love sliding sideways
to make a silly face of pre- and post.
Profess systems of belief, of research: 

corollary, corollary, sing. Agreeably sing
of pain as shadow cast by this edifice: 

the love face.” 

Now we’re in new territory, where syntax and images conflate: a “silly face” for a child with hard science; a ratiocinative concept jammed up against song; love relegated to an isolated fragment at the end of the section. It’s all functional: pitting a rational, systems-based world against the human and throughout it all our moral obligation to examine pain, to know it in all its detail and dimensions, to feel its unwavering presence; to think of pain’s power and our futility in soothing it as troubling as the power and futility of death. 

“Pain’s place is pictorial, a hundred thousand
atlases of your face: tear-stained, unfathomed

by intense algorithms of validated claims.
See the Pain Face. Underneath is no face.” 

Whether it’s his careful linking of images and ideas or fragmenting them to underscore human or institutional frailty Neilson is at pains in Book l of this collection to avoid giving the whole game away. Even his most difficult poems become a conduit rather than impediment to thought and feeling, however. And in both uses of image the charge comes from the progression or “push” towards something larger, a symbol or revelation that is definitively personal and almost always powerful and compelling. 

“Your face a firefighter entering a burning building, a fire-eater
swallowing gasoline, a Hindenburg erupting against the sky. She touched
your face and felt the pressing why, the need of space filling immolated
distances, the urge to erase fire. Were you beautiful? Remember yourself
as an effigy to burn and forget.”  

Equally compelling are verbatim remarks by Charles Darwin from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals and which preface Book ll. The passage is absorbing less for Darwin’s clinical examination of human pain and expressiveness than for Neilson’s ironic use of it within a book of poetry on the same subject. Says Darwin: 

“Our early progenitors, when suffering from grief or anxiety, would not have made their eyebrows oblique, or have drawn down the corners of their mouth, until they had acquired the habit of endeavouring to restrain their screams. The expression, therefore, of grief and anxiety is eminently human.” (Italics Neilson’s). 

Tautologies like this are absurd prima facie. More striking is how Darwin’s dissection of his progenitors’ screams and expressions of grief and anxiety - in language wielded much in the way a surgeon wields a scalpel – becomes uncomfortable, even painful for the reader.  Neilson’s promise:  to explore pain and to make it as real and as trenchant as he can for the reader.   

Do the poems which follow the Darwin passage fulfill that promise? Before you can answer that you need to understand the risk Neilson ran in using the piece at all. Remember William Carlos Williams’ inclusion of a newspaper report in Paterson? His risk was that readers would condemn him outright for using “unpoetic” materials. Neilson runs a different risk in that his inclusion of Darwin’s prose might be deemed more interesting than Neilson’s verse, a handy substitute for ingenuity in the absence of poetic inventiveness and imagination.  

Along the way Neilson runs into the same difficulty Williams ran into in Paterson: ensuring his theme and rhythmic structure possess sufficient momentum to carry the reader to the end of the book. Riffing off the photos and histories of mass killers Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook), Jared Loughner (Tuscon) and Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech) may not be your cup of tea. A bigger problem is for so much work to have gone into compressing the language of their pain into the language of poetry only to feel it mired in over-worked diction and pallid rhythms.   

“The scapegoat of face as ineradicable as hate.
For all the faces in mourning...” (Lanza) 

“The killer’s face slides into a smirked pudge of abraded, ventilated skull.
Nowadays all faces profess angry health…” (Loughner)

“Oh the happiness I could have had mingling among you hedonists. You could have been great. I could have been great. But what you did to me…” (Cho) 

What is the value of re-working and collapsing the words of killers into poetry as Neilson does, if the tone remains as breathless and flat, the rhythms as punchless and unvarying as the originals? 

“clean the slate, brute-restraint, ravenous rape, Descendants of Satan, single second wasted, the innocent Children, band aid to patch up, wanna perpetrate endless sessions of crucifixions, 88, by destroying we create, pain you can never feel but with our hands, donation money to turn the situation, reverberate throughout.” 

Now that’s painful. Compare this with passages from Neilson’s first book of poems Meniscus, where the undisputed quality of the poetry ends precisely where Neilson’s larger experiments in structure begin.  

Bird Men

No portals, and little
wisdom. Men jump from ledges,

hitting the sidewalk asleep
and dreaming of remote

perches. They grip metal
rungs and arch backs in practice,

perfecting pre-flight posture.
Trinkets fall from pockets, 

cell phones trill on belts
tightened against this leathered  

morning and handkerchiefs
billow in the wind. Drained

wallets strain against seat-seams
and the cries of the birds sound 

softly. Men stretch arms
into albatross wingspans,

then hit earth with a thud.
Like crows that fly

from barren nests in search
of gallows to rest on 

or cardinals that shed scarlet upon
the corpses of brethren, men balance  

on railings and teeter. 

This poem is every bit as hard hitting as the ones above it. What you won’t see is the careful winnowing the poem underwent between its magazine publication in 2003 and book publication in 2009 and how instructive this is of the kind of care which seems to be missing from Book ll of On Shaving Off His Face. A care for the dexterity of rhythm. For bell ringing audio effects. For the kinds of connections between image and thought that unify the poem and make the reader eager to read the next one. 

Too hard? Maybe. Neilson has worked diligently; his determination to wrestle hard experience into evocative, thought-provoking poetry is unflinching. And the structure of these poems is certainly ground shaking if not breaking. But then so is a lot of poetry by poets who work diligently toward the next epiphany in poetic form, only to find the path well-worn and very tough going.  

Happily, Neilson recovers in Book lll by combining the purposeful drive and rhythmic interest of the best poems in Meniscus with the condensed, associative quality of Book l. 

“Lithe, sleek, the discharge clamours past
the synapse that seeks to spark a resonant
wave. Reap the curve of the scythe:
the cortex a sundowning effect,
the crescent blade cutting past what we dream
and know how to be…”  

Readers can’t help themselves. They want to be touched by emotion directly, something not always possible when poets occupy themselves exclusively with what poems are made of instead of what they do. At bottom Shane Neilson’s most emotionally evocative poems in this book about pain are those which have as their immediate touchstone his own pain. 

“I’ve watched you die, and die again, in dreams.
My son, they say in dreams we meet.
That promise met, and one cry. I rhyme in dreams 

meant not for me. But not you either! The seams
are sweet excite, the clench of arm, Humpty’s empty seat.
I’ve watched you die, and die again, in dreams. 

Humpty on the balancing beam, a father’s eyegleam,
the king’s horses and the king’s men lofty and great.
That promise met, and one cry, I rhyme in dreams.”

(From “The One True Cry.”) 

Now that’s love. No longer inadequate in the multifaceted face of pain. In language that contrasts powerfully with the language and tools of science: “sweet excite, the clench of arm.” “I’ve watched you die, and die again in dreams.” Compressed. Rhythmic. Eminently readable; above all else,  eminently human.

On Shaving Off His Face, by Shane Neilson, The Porcupine’s Quill, 2015. Ed. Jim Johnstone. $16.95 

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