Review of Nathan Shepherdson’s “Sweeping the Light Back Into the Mirror”

[A shorter version of this article was first published under the titled “A stretched agony” in Catalonia Today magazine, June 2016.]

small children trade the world for distraction
deal in statements with the grammar of a road sign
they’re happy to put the sun in the top corner of the page
count backwards from 9 and arrive at the end of this sentence

These lines from Nathan Shepherdson’s newly-reprinted “Sweeping the Light Back Into the Mirror” are an example of what this award-winning poet does so well: he uses memory to compress sentiments that are without sentimentality and self-revelations that are not self-obsessed.

In one moment he is inside the mind of himself as a child: the innocence, naivety and then using exact nuances of expression to capture that uncomplicated kiddy outlook. On another page early on you get the distinct impression that he is having a (one-sided) talk with his dead mother. This is confirmed later with the lines:

pawing through lists of diseased miracles
i search for one that is less ambitious
one titled something like
‘telephone conversation with dead mother’
And it is his mother that is obviously the focus. The opening stanza includes:
the first thought thinks of everything
convinces consciousness to be its mother
The author not only dedicates the book to Noela Mary Shepherdson (who died in 2003) but he also continually shows a deep understanding of women in general, including an appreciation of women’s clothes and ‘finery:’

her brunette speaking hair…her high cheek bones elegant as the rind from a star

But the poet’s skills go much further than mere observation. In fact almost every page in this book has a line or two where I thought: “I wish I’d written that!” His brilliantly gothic portrait of two crows near his mother’s grave is sixteen lines of the best poetry I have ever read, and his use of personification is equally as deft because it never seems forced or misplaced.
grief runs around painting every bone black
vacuums the blood into bruised vats

Shepherdson also has a way of reminding us of what he calls the ‘tribunal of memory’ and how it can make the settings of people we have been fond of so poignant and emblematic.

I also share his obvious fascination with the insect world (especially ants) and enjoy his regular references to plants, animals and nature in general. It would be wrong though to say that this book is in any way a breezy affair. There is barely a moment of lightness. When it appears it is the bleakest of dark humour (remindeding me of an episode with a waitress in Bob Dylan’s song Highlands.) Shepherdson recalls his mother this way:

you drew a straight line on the wall
laughed and turned
and declared it a self portrait

Every parent would surely like to be revered with such devotion by a son or daughter, though it has come at a price. Here is a poet filleting his nerves:

this is where I murder truth
cut the bowels out of the clock
this is where you pay the bill

the one you kept under your left breast for years

you had faith
i had you
The final part of the book is a like a doctor’s chart that puts graphic images on top of one another. It gives snapshots of the brutal physical and mental decline of an emotionally-generous woman, and is a kind of stretched agony. I found tears stinging my eyes while reading the last pages of this book:
take a marking pen
and draw infinity around the eyes of one just departed
you have just created two black holes
marked them out with a warning for light to turn away… 

i wish i could draw your fingerprints from memory

exhume entire landscapes from an archive of touch

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