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 sentenceThese 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 gives us self-revelations that are not self-obsessed.
In one moment he is inside the mind of himself as a child: innocence, naivety and then using exact nuances of expression to capture that uncomplicated kiddy outlook. On another page you get the distinct impression that he is having a (one-sided) talk with his dead 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.'
But this poet’s skills go much further than mere observation. 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. 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 too 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 for this poet it has come at a price. Here, he is 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 holesmarked 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
[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, June 2016.]