|© Stylus Poetry Journal, Est 2002|
|In Love with the Word: Poetry in Tasmania|
|Sweeping the Light Back into the Mirror|
|Wind over Water|
|The Tao of Water|
|Haiku and its related forms|
Sweeping the Light Back into the Mirror
Sweeping the Light Back Into the Mirror, Nathan Shepherdson.
Reviewed by Susan Fealy
Shepherdson’s Sweeping the Light Back Into the Mirror has a distinctive originality which was recognized with the Mary Gilmore Prize in 2008. It is a bold collection; seventy two poems, one written for each year of his mother’s life. It stands within the elegiac tradition yet seems defiantly original as if it demands that which is unique in order to represent his mother. Traditional poetic forms are abandoned as inadequate for the task.
Without traditional form there is an absence of audible pattern. Indeed, there is little musicality in this collection. Those who subscribe to Dennis O’ Driscoll’s definition: ‘poetry is music set to words’ may wonder if this is poetry. The low musicality focuses the reader on the visual-spatial architecture of this collection: this plain spoken, largely unsung language invites attentiveness to the relationship between words on the page and their inaudible components : thought, image, and feeling that lives in the physical self, not just the mouth.
Abstract thought combines with the most passionate, tender longings of a young child for his mother. Almost every line is a short poem: an aesthetic, meaningful unit in its own right yet virtually also recognizes the overarching loss. Lines seems stitched together; each one is taut, and almost each, like thread being pulled into cloth, has the pain of loss’s needle and the birth of a new stitch. This structure seems to parallel the loss and re-birth that are at the core of the emotional work of grief.
The poems are of uneven length. Some are very short, like a single breath, others are page length; most are short. The typically short uneven lengths seems to reflect the dailiness and the unplanned quality that belong to intimate relationships.
Touch prevails in this collection: touch being the most intimate and the earliest form of connectedness with another human being. Hands, feet, face, eyes, mouth -the parts of the body through which mothers and children connect- recur as metaphor. It is as if each poem is a garment that contours the shape of the unfamiliar absence of his mother. The poet seems to grasp language, memory and mathematical thought as tools for rendering this absence into physical forms. He shapes as she once stitched his coats and her hats with ‘the intelligent dance of her fingers’ (No.10.)
The collection has a linear structure, with the poems titled by numbers : No.1 to No.72. Physically these titles look like little headstones or the beads of an abacus and give her death a cool, formal recognition. Yet the titles also appear handwritten, as if conveying a wish to shape with the hand and not machine. While the abbreviation ‘No.’ describes each year of her life with a number, it is also the first two letters of her name followed by the only appearance of a full-stop in the entire collection. The titles also say ‘No’ as if to subvert the finality of death.
The linear structure holds the chronological history of the poet’s relationship with his mother. This seems part of the honoring, to not fracture, but instead reconstruct the memory of her and their relationship back into some coherent whole. In retracing his lost relationship with his mother Shepherdson documents the experience of loss and explores the connections between mind, body, language, and human relationships and tests their boundaries.
The desire for language to return his mother to him and the simultaneous acknowledgement of this impossibility is poignantly expressed in ‘No. 08,’ the number that bears the closest visual similarity to infinity:
This surreal image creates a sense of infinite holding and intimate connectedness: it is a place where the page becomes as soft as a field of white grass. In this dream image, language and memory are re-invented: they hold rather than slip. Yet the black of her hair is also the colour of grief. Within the image is the inescapable adult awareness of loss.
Grief is expressed with the scalpel precision of an adults’ mind and the sensuous yearnings of a child’s. In ‘No. 09’ the childlike action, breathing onto a window, and the shaping words that appear and disappear seems to be a way of trying to write her death with his breath and so accept it, while also expressing a wish to undo it:
Some poems celebrate the beauty, sensitivity and modesty of his mother with an eloquent simplicity. For example in poem ‘No.10’:
Here the memory of his mother’s delight leads into a startling observation which considers the meaning of delight in relation to loss. These unusual links are typical in this collection as if pain forges disparate connections.
The most painful feelings of loss consistently return to the physical self. In ‘No. 26’ the force and compression of the body imagery seem to be experienced as an almost direct physical transmission to the reader:
In ‘No. 49’ hands and feet (again) convey the intimacy of their relationship:
And, as for the whole collection, the absence of punctuation conveys informality and the sense that this is a private, yet precise language in which each word has equal value.
Eventually, acknowledgement of the loss of her body replaces a wish for it to return: ‘ No. 51’ confronts the physical deterioration of his mother in the earth. One of the most tactile and familiar of experiences-rain on skin-imparts the stark fact of her burial in the earth, the absolute quality of physical loss and the impossibility of her re-growth. The poem begins and ends with the line ‘the rain will not reach her hands.’ This repetition hermetically seals the poem as her body is sealed in its burial.
Short poems risk seeming incomplete. However, the best short poems are hauntingly memorable, with a complexity that paradoxically arises from their simplicity. For example ‘No. 70’:
Here home seems to be mind-a mind which is a receptacle for beauty- but also a container holding the finality of her loss. The poet is open to what is beautiful in the world but its meaning has changed; now beauty is elegy, a prayer that reminds him of her absence.
Humans are drawn to quests, they admire feats of courage and those who confront what is difficult. This 0. is part of the attractiveness of this collection. We all have a mother and unless we die before she does, we will lose her. But identification with, and sympathy for the poet is not enough to make it successful poetry. Sheperdson’s collection is moving, compressed and inventive and succeeds despite the occasional inclusion of small ‘breaths’ of poems that in and of themselves, arguably, do not reach publishable standard. But perhaps the flaws are part of the point: part of the determined creation of a unique, aesthetic structure which must, like the action of its title suggests, admit the inevitable impossibility of its own ambition.