by Reginald Shepherd (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007)
Reginald Shepherd's latest collection, Fata Morgana, is a book that conjures up a number of associations. The past vs. the present. Memory vs. desire. Appearance vs. reality (the title is certainly suggestive of that). All these features are important, no doubt. But to focus on an area of the book that's of particular interest to me (and to draw on a cross-section of the book, and to explore it in more detail), I want to take a look at some of the classical influences that the book exhibits. I think these are especially revealing--the influence of mythology, in particular.
From the outset, the mythological presence in Fata Morgana is obvious. The first three titles of the book invoke Orpheus, Orpheus (again), and Persephone, respectively. Later poems revolve around (or make mention of) such characters as Narcissus and Echo, Osiris, Eve, Ulysses, Hector, Ajax. References are also made to major classical writers: Hesiod, Ovid, Heraclitus; meanwhile Homer is invoked in the title of the poem "Homeric Interim."
With features like these, we might be a little concerned about the contemporary relevance of the collection, since even in cross-section the mythological is such a large part of Fata Morgana's focus. (By my count at least half of the 48 poems in the collection deal with myth in some way.) The poems largely work though. There is a sense of commitment to the themes, and a boldness in Shepherd's treatment that make the poems more than just a recasting/retelling of old stories--he makes them relevant.
This happens in a number of ways. First of all, we see it in Shepherd's adaption of mythological elements to personal experience--as in "Orpheus Plays the Bronx," or in the series of lyric poems that draw on "Petrarch" and "song." Second, we see it in the particular elements he selects--the focus is often on the less central (or well-known) features of myth. In "Persephone's Celestial Sphere", for example, the focus lies almost entirely with the after of the story. First Shepherd shows us Persephone's perspective on the situation, then he gradually shifts to a meditation on (the unnamed) Hades:
If he were a hand he would open five petals, offer
these snapped-off starfish, iridescent beetle
carapaces, stippled eggshell tessarae (smashed
glass bits, lapis pieces), rusted sprays of
pine straw. "Here are some things
love might be."
Atmospheric and brooding, this poem is a good example of Shepherd's skill with the narrative, his ability to evoke a scene with a minimal number of words, and the right details.
In other poems, Shepherd's identification rests squarely with the victims/objects of the gods' obsession, hardly with the gods at all. These poems explore what happens to them (the objects), how they become frozen-in-art (in time, in a pose, metamorphose). And how, just prior to that, they are used. This is what we experience in the poem, "Boy, Allegorically Deployed," where Shepherd dwells at length on one particular obsession:
Kiss the past until it's bitter, his
unexplored expanse of skin; cold coinage
of brass nipples kisses his chest tender
to the abrading tongue. He is what snows
in it is snowing, precipitating indecision
and a sea of wavering white fields.
Even though there is no god here (not one that's spoken of, at least), there is "the boy"--one thinks of Ganymede or Hyacinth or one of those other boys from Greek myth--although this boy remains nameless. He is, in fact, "[t]he most beautiful boy," the one who "can't remember," who "lies / down in a field of broken leaves / and shattered grass" and is soon "on his way to being blazon." Interestingly, though, the sex act itself (which in mythology usually means rape) is not actually rendered in the poem--directly or otherwise. Presumably it's already happened (before the poem even starts) or else it's over so quickly (relative to the long haul, the immeasurable horizon of history) that the "event" is not even of significance anymore. The poem ends rather abruptly, seeming to suggest that not much has been taken from the experience, either way:
. . . We have loved something
and moved on, carnage of pink balls
and buttocks, the world when looked at
properly, a game of names and places
no one's seen. Caress cold breath
until it rains (we've spoken of
the rain already), drown the day.
Then you'll be music too.
The gods come under Shepherd's focus, too, but when they do it's not Zeus or Apollo, typically, that we meet, but a peripheral god--one like Eros, for instance, whose character is explored in the aptly titled, "Probably Eros." The poem begins:
The whole is not his fault, elegy
full of small birds and the light
starting to starve. Gods are sucking off
gods in alleys and I call it spring,...
Appropriate to the title, much of the emphasis in the poem is on the erotic: bees and birds, "gods in alleys," "good fruit." However, the language doesn't feel erotic--there is "dry grass," "old news," "dead ladybugs." Here, Shepherd seems to be suggesting that although the erotic is attractive (and the mythological by extension is attractive), it can become wearying (can be false to us, or let us down) if we expect too much from it. If, for example, we interpret our lives 100% sexually, if we overhype the pursuit too much. This is one interpretation that I think the close of the poem points to:
. . . The beautiful
boys ruin my sky, raw meat wrapped
in silk and spoiled milk: boredom's
ache in the shoulder blades, arms
raised in the epiphany posture.
The target here, though, is not just sex, I don't think, but any activity taken to excess. Excesses of art, for example, the pursuit of beauty. Too much of anything can lead to overstimulation, and ultimately boredom.
Not only boredom, there might even be danger in such an outlook. In "Things Waiting to Be Dangerous," Shepherd shows us how a neglected world, a world filled with the things we turn our backs on, our cast-offs ("paper bags of burned-out light bulbs / and clear bandages, pill boxes, urine / samples, nail clippings, and used razor / blades"--symbolic for what we leave behind in our pursuit of happiness, or just life in general) can ultimately come back to bite us. This can resurface as a direct threat in the form of disease ("retrovirus, invisible catastrophe," suggestive of AIDS) or perhaps some other kind of violence--perhaps self-inflicted. The mental threat is there, too, and may loom larger in the end. We are reminded that these neglected aspects of our life are never really gone from us:
. . . I've considered you
these things I never should have
thrown away, said I was drowning,
but it was never as good
as when you took me down, went under.
Through these details the poem does a wonderful job of exploring ideas of regret and self-doubt. It points to a sense of inevitability, too, even repetition--in that some bad choices are appealing, and we might actually want to repear them. The close of the poem expresses a recognition of something like this:
. . . Whitewater emptinesses
hurl me into themselves, a place
gets tired, gets read too many times:
dawn-burnished lake undrinkable,
raw sewage and dead seaweed, russet
and gold toxins greet the day. Rot
smell lingers all week. I'd love to
go down again.
Shepherd also does a good job of exposing some of the narrative/representational tensions that lie within myth. One of these is a tension regarding tone. Like the stories in its classical predecessor, Ovid's Metamorphoses, the poems in Fata Morgana tend to fluctuate between a high mode (i.e. serious/"literary" mode) on the one hand, and a more casual/literal rendering on the other. This often occurs even within the same poem. In "Waterfront," for example, Shepherd starts out with a grave and portentous claim (also a seeming paradox): "Unless he comes by no means." The sense of gravity is reinforced in the next line when the "he" of the poem turns out to be none other than Hesiod, the famed Greek poet and mythologist. Or almost. For Shepherd's Hesiod isn't hard at work composing verse but "pulling up dandelions by the roots" on his way to meet some girls. From this point on, almost every other line in the poem either feels like a joke, or it feels like the most serious thing in the world. The girls tell Hesiod, "You are irredeemably / ugly, but we will give you something // to sing." A little while later, we are told that "he is a god / and dangerous." This back-and-forth provokes a giddiness not unlike hiking at high altitude, until we're not sure what to make of the unfolding tale. The poem continues with more uncertainties, until it finally begins to converge on an answer that makes a little more sense: fog. Hesiod is the fog or Hesiod is in the fog--or Hesiod is lost in fog, or there is no Hesiod, but just fog. Whatever the case, it appears that the answer lies somewhere close, even if we don't see it right away. The poem closes: "Sent him / from Trace delayed in Phrygia, / if he sleeps he shall dwell."
In the poem "Suture," Shepherd addresses the issue of tone again, but this time a little differently. This poem uses language to break down language, inventing a poetry of parentheticals and fragments, non sequiturs--even puns--mixed in with questions of the utmost seriousness ("Am I paper, am I parchment, / vellum or papyrus, much-crumpled thesis // scrawled away?") eventually to culminate in a "palimpsest" of words:
. . . His glance invents
me, then dismantles me, several
-spoked night crumbles my face: accumulation
of missteps across white lane divider, macadam-
and glass-scribbled palimpsest, kiss for
the brother in the broken-bottle eden.
The poem seems (almost) to eschew interpretation. However, it ends in a "kiss / for the brother"--here, presumably some kind of invalid--which as a gesture can be regarded as a reaching out of sorts. Even as a farewell--goodbye--there is still a chance for communication, however broken.
Other aspects of myth are challenged (and occasionally reinforced) via the modernness of Fata Morgana's details, the industrial settings and contemporary references--in items like Coke cans and clove cigarettes, celebrities like Bette Davis and Keanu Reeves. References to popular music appear as well, and are especially effective where they occur. In the poem, "Orpheus Plays the Bronx," for example, the singers Al Green and Barry White combine to lend a familiarity and realism to the scene:
. . . Al Green
was on the radio. (You were
at school, who's ever even seen
an asp?) It bruised her heel
purple and black. So death
could get some color to fill out
his skin, another bony white boy
jealous of her laugh too loud, her
That's my song when Barry White
The poem says that "without the facts / there can't be faith." And there are facts here. It doesn't seem to matter in particular, though, whether these are the "true" facts (whether Al Green actually was on the radio at the the time--indeed, the poem seems to be grappling with this issue as well, in the speaker's desire to be both truthful to the events as well as to their personal significance to him, the myth he makes of the situation). All that matters is that the narrative as presented has integrity. And this one does; furthermore, it's invested with a personal interest (the poem reflects on the attempted suicide of the speaker's mother) which only heightens the impact.
Fata Morgana also displays a keen eye for the details of the natural world. This aspect of the book is consistent with the underlying classical tradition as well, especially if we take Ovid and Hesiod as models. Their view has to be updated, however. Appropriate to the modern point-of-view, Shepherd's portrayal of nature is dramatically more objective, less subject to religious superstition and error. However, the coloring given to nature by myth--revised and updated by personal experience--hasn't been lost. In "Snowdrops and Summer Snowflakes, Drooping," for example, Shepherd tosses out a litany of lesser-known plants as a curative to Ophelia's "infernal singing" about "rosemary, pansies, fennel / and rue." The tone is cruel, almost:
I'd give her trillium and yarrow, wild
carrot or white sweet clover,
some roadside blossoms less
historical: invasive wood sorrel, dame's
rocket, handfuls of designations,
names of names; stems broken, weeping
sap to sting her fingers, draw the flies,
make her drop her bottle of virginity.
Similarly, natural details literally fill the poem "Dust," almost to the point of overflow:
Skin flakes, rock flecks, tree
bark, paint from cars and bicycles
and vinyl siding, lampshade fibers, ant
legs, brick shards, tire shreds,
and sweater lint, the soot from
backyard barbecues. Volcanic ash
and rotting leaves, polar bear
fur fragments (black bears, too,
and grizzlies), scales from the wings
of butterflies and facets of houseflies'
eyes. Limestone, gypsum, feldspar,
rusting iron, salt, and quartz,...
It's as if Shepherd doesn't dare leave anything out, at the risk of rendering something less than the total picture. And while the sheer volume of the details might seem excessive at first, the importance becomes suddenly clear when he describes just a few lines later how "[a]ll that sand / happening in the atmosphere,... It can down / a plane." Shepherd's world is a world where all things, right down to the smallest things--"Dust-mite droppings, the debris / of dead pseudo-scorpions"--have significance (have power, even) and bear watching.
There are other poems in Fata Morgana that deserve attention as well, if only there were more time and space for it. There is the prose poem, "These are the Things," which offers a nice divergence from Shepherd's more regular, traditional approach to form. Another piece that I really enjoyed reading is "While the Temptations are Singing 'I Wish It Would Rain'" (for my money the best title in the collection). Then there are the poems in which "Petrarch" and "song" make their appearances ("Refrain," "You Also, Nightingale," "Pear Tree, Bartlett, Quotations," "At Weep," "Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear"--the last of these being a meditation on the World Trade Center bombing). These poems and more are certainly worth exploring. In fact I think I would have to recommend the entire collection. It has a lot to offer, not just to the lover of mythology like myself, but to the poetry lover in general.