This Far From the Source

by Neil Shepard
Mid-List Press 2006
Reviewed by Scott Hightower


“skip yourself / to the other side.”

this far from the sourceNeil Shepard’s third collection of poems is not the razzle-dazzle of a newcomer or the verse of a high-falutin’ sage. This adventure is one of mature poetic focus. No flashy spelling here. Every poem is carefully built on clear substance. Even the notion of Mystery seems clear and concrete:

  when we turn the other cheek
  and offer it, when we become
  more than the body’s surviving
  codes. Unleash the hungers
  beneath the hunger, the dragon-
  fly all morning alight on granite
  ledge, beside a multitude of bugs,
  untouched, simply because sun on stone
  feels so near the source, so atavistic,
  even a darning needle’s pricked awake.
  Even a human on the run must
  pause in a field of blue forget-me-not.
  Even that swiftest of self-preser-
  vationists, Atalanta, stopped
  and stooped for three luscious, golden
  apples, even if it meant self-
  desecration, surrender to
  the thing that would devour her.

Shepard is subtle and self-deprecating. Just the right pitch when a poet is going up against Time. In one poem, a father is perceived as eccentric for turning family films into cinematographic evidence of his own reverie. In another, the poet eulogizes a local farmer. One poem even explores cultural Hubris from the vehicle of a small town pep squad cheer. After rallying prouder and louder, the poem turns:

  we’re brutes who glorify our towns with home-
  town cheers and sneer at creeds or faith

  from foreign places.    
       (“I’m From Leominster. Couldn’t
         Be Prouder, Can’t Hear Me Now,           I’ll Yell a Little Louder”)

Being one small piece of stone bathed with water not far from the source serves as the collection’s central metaphor. The energies are at once domestic, atavistic, and linguistic. One complete poem in the book “From the Bridge at Taos:”

  A thousand feet down, the Rio Grande daily
  reinscribes itself on scrolls of sandstone.
  Look down, and there’s a recondite text revealed:
  earth history that snakes like uro-
  boros; beneath it another creature
  reified from the obscure. There’s a millennium
  instarred in mud, times of plague and pestilence.
  And a signature of solfatura,
  a few lines of blasphemy. There’s a comet’s
  pink penmanship and the blue formation
  of heavens, and a black scrawl of beginnings.
  And close to the surface the condign
  mea culpas of slow-witted creatures
  who have just learned to think and are still
  wet with rising from the waters, still
  crossing over on the first day,
  though they believe they have come so far.


The image of the stone in the river is Being and Time. In “History Matters More Than You:”

                                             …like that stunning
                  monostone across the stream you saw just now
                  and crossed over and found yourself reduced
                  by that enormous cliff broken
                  from some higher place. Perspective shifts
                  when you’re a smaller piece
                  of the planet. Let the eye travel upward
                  toward that hilltop flat and peaceful with pines,
                  and know from some higher precipice once
                  a piece of rock broke off
                  and land slid down to this brook’s babble
                  and lodge here until time without chronicler
                  lapped its sides to shiny skipping pebbles
                  and what piece was left on shore…

                  Ask them where exactly this trickling stream
                  issues from, from what higher place the first
                  rains gathered and carved their rushing course.
                  Ask in vain how you’re a part of it,
                  without name or date, and why this brook will shush
                  us up who try to ask too much, will lap
                  instead at our feet and hands, saying skip
                  this stone across the stream or skip yourself
                  to the other side.