by Angela Shaw
Tupelo Press 2009
Reviewed by Rachel Mennies
Things as Things Just So
“The true mystery of the world,” Lord Henry tells us in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, “is the visible, not the invisible.” Henry, though imagined by Wilde over a century in the past, could have been speaking of the poetry of Angela Shaw—poetry that endeavors to uncover the mysteries of life’s encountered objects. In The Beginning of the Fields, her first book, Shaw writes of wedding gowns, the boudoir ritual, tomatoes and swimsuits and lace, rendering each with its own life and personality against that of her intimate first- and third-person speakers. Tinged with nostalgia, Shaw’s cultivations form a timeline, through memory, of life’s losses and gains, all set tangibly in the realm of the material. Each poem makes its own museum-like, yet pulsating, space on the page.
Anyone familiar with the intricacies of the clothing realm will take particular pleasure in Shaw’s cultivation of the subject. Taking language from the ad copy of a J. Crew catalog for her poems “Garden Party” and “Pin-up,” Shaw lingers over every detail of her described subjects, granting them utility and purpose. “Is that shirt flirting with you across the cotton / lawn?” asks the speaker in “Garden Party,” comfortable in the language of fabric and flirtation: “The man with the seersucker / ease is prone to softly silk-like talk, mellowed / stuff.” Here, the dressings and pinnings-on of what we put on our bodies literally speak volumes. A former retail employee myself, I see none of the flat, frozen faces of catalog models and the staleness of ad copy in Shaw’s reimagining. Instead, the lush luxury of the brand’s fabrics and patterns find shape and breath.
Shaw renders this clothing-centric world most strikingly in “White Picket,” a poem in the series “Five Fences: On Marriage,” where, as a wedding commences, “The gown enters first—dazzling, embattled— / and then its bride on her cloud / of song.” The dress—and all it represents at the nascent pure moments of a marriage ceremony—finds itself in stunning conflict; and as the series continues, the reader cannot help but recall the first “dazzling” vestments of this marriage as Shaw’s study of the union twists and turns through sweetness and strife.
Shaw writes deftly of both sorrow and joy, though it is the collection’s physical particularities that grant its unique perspective. Marked by the oft-noted passage of time, the poems in this collection palpably relate the feeling of each season and its associations—lingering August, “itinerant January,” “clumsy December.” Inside each month, Shaw finds a vignette to match. “Mobile Home,” site of January, captures the month’s chill and languor:
Old, tested wrestling holds: winter’s half-
nelson does in the tin shelter, brought
here from some Lubbock or Saginaw, bought
local. Staked to the yard two once-stray whelps
snarl their chains. Inside, a near-marriage sputters
and flares, left on a low burner.
December, the year’s other bookend, receives language similarly preoccupied with winter’s stasis. In “Bird Nests,” the speaker examines the damage cancer has wrought on a household:
…Some sickness quickens
in you or what the doctors, those wordsmiths,
call growth. Beyond the house our great oak pumps
in the wind like a wild lung. Dumb earth.
Sterile and “dumb,” the December landscape contrasts in this poem with cancer’s quick growth—its urge the reproduce itself. Shaw, as in “Mobile Home,” couples setting and subject with revelatory dexterity.
The Beginning of the Fields’s lyric preoccupation with beauty makes its most stunning observations in moments, such as in “Bird Nests,” where life’s ugliness demands response. Loss suffuses the collection, but never overwhelms. One of the book’s strongest poems, “Miscarriage” renders its subject in a confessional first-person, as the speaker copes by harvesting tomatoes:
I trowel a hole for each loose bundle
of roots, slosh water from my pail, and refill
the gap, my hands gathering at the base of each
fluid stem. I go down where my husband’s long
shadow startles the grass. It is weeks
before we will again come carefully
unsewn, take to each other, hungry and thick-
Later in the poem, as the speaker “go[es] down on all fours/ in search of what I lost,” the devastation her loss has caused becomes heartbreakingly clear. Where some things grow, Shaw suggests, others perish; making sense of this harsh truth proves fertile subject matter.
In The Beginning of the Fields, careful study of the physical world takes us far from it, into questions of origin and purpose, time and place. The poems are calm, mild-mannered even, perhaps too much so for readers who tire of placid natural images, or of melancholy and sometimes sentimentality. But Shaw keeps these in check. This book should be read, several times, by any reader wondering how her own world—and her own amassed collection of things—came to be just so.