pacific rim review of books, fall 2016 (issue #21)
The day a review copy of SHIFT came in my mailbox was the same day that Fort McMurray first came into the news. A casual glance opened to The Fort McMurray Trickster Switch:
...the coyote was back,
clay coloured and prairie shadow thin
with cautious steps
on the newly excavated ground.
I’m sure he didn’t recognize the place
we had been busy making into
the surface of the moon.
I thought I felt him staring
but I couldn’t look him in the eye.
We were held there for a moment,
orange hard-hat workers,
an invasive swarm of ants and trucks
and excavators as big as fossils
fuels turned back into dinosaurs.
So much noise and filth,
so much damage, the earth
herself sent someone to have a look.
Kelly Shepherd is originally from Smithers and now teaches in Edmonton. His chapbooks have been appearing for several years with various small presses. With 12 hours shifts in NWT burning off excess diesel to cement work and landscaping and every kind of labour in between, he fits into the genre of Work Poet, an honourable calling for a writer in the Northwest. Think of Tim Bowling in commercial fishing. Though his notes reference Thoreau, Snyder, Leopold and Dillard, the poems also suggest appreciative reading of McKay and Lane. The jobs are all hard but not without lyrical and reflective noticing: a baby jack rabbit, a lone pelican, marmot fur, nuthatch feather. SHIFT is not primarily Nature poetry; there are accounts of injuries on the job, rough times remembered and tough stories overheard.
Many kinds of contemporary poets are needed for many kinds of readers. There’s room for lots. There is no need to quibble over who’s really got the Great Poet badge. Think of the commentary about Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize. In the October issue of Maclean’s, Jaime Weinman writes, “…the award to Dylan is really a way for the Nobel committee to rebel against the kind of literature it usually recognizes: small, personal and with a select audience. By picking a pop writer over writers in more prestigious forms, the voters might be indulging in a fondness for writing that reaches a large audience and with which a lot of people can identify…. the implied message may be that poetry should be more like Dylan.” Shepherd’s pieces are mostly small and unpretentious. Uncomplicated and accessible, innovational they are not. That is not to say that his is not a fresh voice. Innovation with language is necessary; someone has to do that difficult groundbreaking work, witness Liz Howard, the recent Griffiin prize winner. But no one form qualifies automatically as “elite”. It is the authentic workmanship within a style that determines what is elite. Shepherd is writing literally about “ground breaking”. Physical labour can be so numbing for many. Shepherd can do it and simultaneously notice the ephemerals and find the words for them.
SHIFT is an appropriate title for this volume. The arresting cover (design without acknowledgement!) of a cutaway bird showing both surface and skeleton is a shift. Then there is shift as in 12 hours. There’s also the shift from the hours of labour with large machinery to the work of making the poem. Last but not least, many poems are about animals who shift from place to place, from earth to air to water.
Finishing this review, two other shaking events occurred. D. Trump became President-Elect of the USA and Leonard Cohen died. The first is the normalizing of the vulgar and banal. How could the public discourse have regressed into such coarseness? The latter is about the honesty required by poetry.
Time to shift the gears of popular culture;it won’t hurt to reread Cohen. In 1978, Cohen wrote,
“The poem is nothing but information. It is the Constitution of the inner country. If you declaim it and blow it up with noble intentions, you are no better than the politicians you despise. You are just someone waving the flag and making the cheapest appeal to a kind of emotional patriotism. Do not work the audience for gasps and sighs. If you are worthy of gasps and sighs…it will be in the statistics and not in the trembling of your voice or the cutting of the air with your hands. It will be in the data and the quiet organization of your presence. Avoid the flourish.”
Accessible, quiet, reflective with the small particulars in place, SHIFT is a book to restore sanity. No need for hyper flourish, something like this,
The sand on the lake bottom
is shaped more like water
than the water is.
Let’s believe in that.
— Hannah Main - van der Kamp
alberta views, october 2016
This is the first full book of verse by Edmontonian Kelly Shepherd. Shift contains well-crafted poems about urban and country life and the sacrifices that are made to keep human life going, whether bringing calves into the light, polishing cement to a hig gloss or just trying to live in peaceful balance with wild nature. Shepherd's treatment of blue-collar labour and what it physically costs the worker has the ring of authenticity; he writes from direct experience, although these days he apparently teaches for a living. But this is not mainly a book of work poems; the occasional piece here captures the epiphany in the quotidian with an arresting economy of words, such as "Bus Stop": "it felt like the whole world / was shifting under his feet / but that was just the bus / and the smell of her hair / as she walked past"
The poem "Eye of the Storm" alone is worth the price of admission. It's a penetrating child's eye look back into the lives of the people that feed the rest of us. You could call it a short story in verse, but the last line rounds it into poetry with a terrific hook. That line is: "And he handed me the rope." You will have to read the poem to see if the rope, and what it is tied to, lands in your hands as it did in mine.
Shepherd has a great gift for the close up, and with it the talent to bond the reader to the point of view of creatures that share with us the tragic penalty of being animate and mortal — therefore worthy of concern. In "Great Lakes Carp" he reminds us: "The carp doesn't know / it's an invasive species." It is innocent, unaware of our plans to kill it; the carp "Breaks / the surface of the water / with its lips, as if / to kiss the moon".
Shepherd is inspired by Gary Snyder's musings on ahimsa, from a Sanskrit root meaning "not to injure." He demonstrates the importance of the concept in his haiku-like "In the Grass": "Trying to stomp the serpent / back into the earth / you injure your heel: a puncture wound / from broken bison bones".
Here the bones of a nearly extinct species reminds us how our forebears treated the buffalo with about as much consideration as they showed for the rattlesnake. But in a found poem based on a Snyder essay, Shepherd is more explicit about what he is about: that ahimsa cannot be taken absolutely literally, that this in itself speaks to human arrogance. Real understanding "cannot come from / 'thinking about' nature; / it must come from / being within nature". Poems like these might help to convince more people to try and live within nature rather than at war with it. As we contemplate a world subject now to climate change threatening all life forms, a change in the human heart cannot come soon enough.
— Sid Marty
the fiddlehead, issue #268 summer 2016
New Geometries of Seeing
“One of the penalties of an ecological education,” the conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote, “is one lives alone in a world of wounds.” To look out at such a world from within the resource economy that inflicted those wounds is one of the gambits of Shift, the first major collection of poems from Edmonton-based poet Kelly Shepherd.
Shepherd’s collection begins with “Honing,” set in a factory where slabs of cement are polished into pillars and wall panels. Here as elsewhere his depiction of the workaday world is granular and memorable:
You’re wearing an apron that reaches your ankles,
boots that reach your knees,
gloves that begin at your shoulders, as well as
eye, ear, and head protection:
peripheral vision and bodily sensations are limited,
fingers and body and senses are numb. (9)
In spite of all these layers of protection that insulate Shepherd’s speaker from his surroundings, something still manages to get through. In the midst of “the deadening noise and the grimy damp,” there is a moment when the cement shows itself to him, “you see it open itself up and / the stones glimmer like the stars in a night sky” (10). It is an idea that recurs across this book like a leitmotif: that even at our most isolated and insensate, something more than us still has the power and agency to reach in and re-order our lives.
Everywhere in Shift there is the sense of a larger coherence, however fragmented, experienced from within a modernity that refuses to acknowledge its existence. In “Breakneck,” for example, a trailhead gathering is interrupted by a grizzly bear in pursuit of a cow moose and her calf, a momentary intimation of the still-intact larger cycle by which the forest makes food out of itself. In “Great Lakes Carp,” Shepherd swerves away from the taboo against invasive species, noting that “[t]he carp has no way / of knowing that we’ve / decided it and all its kind / need to die; that now / we’re just working / out the details” (49). The speaker of “Deer, City,” if he were “fluent in Whitetail,” would advise the subject of his poem: “You’re going the wrong way!” (54). In “Sites,” a white pelican circles the subdivision “where just one year before there had been only canola fields and wetlands”(84).
Yet as the title of this book suggests, Shepherd is not content to confine himself to the wounded earth, but seeks to shift into new perspectives, even whole new geometries of seeing, that might constitute the basis for a new agreement with reality. Such an agreement would give pride of place to metaphor, as when a campfire “turns / the campground into a cosmos” in “Fire Meditations” (50) or a sidewalk is apprehended as a seashore in “Ecotone, Site of Conflicting Desires.” In certain moments, this kind of “seeing-as,” as Jan Zwicky calls it, opens something akin to a cosmic door in the local and everyday. The speaker of “Vesica Piscis” looks into a stream bed, “not ignoring my reflection / or those of the dark trees / and clouds behind me, / but using them as a point of entry” (70). Planes of reality pass through one another; “[r]ocks and pebbles, / sand and silt, / the stars recede / into unimaginable / distance” (70). Is it possible, asks the speaker of “On Your Knees, Biped,” to “become the earth and see through its eyes” (73)?
At its most far reaching and perceptually adventurous, this collection aspires to the shamanic in its emphasis on exchanging perspectives and inhabiting life worlds alien to the modern human. “Agelaius phoeniceus” creates an entire mythology of energetic errands that keep ecologies and elemental forces in creative disequilibrium with one another. The poet’s consciousness expands far beyond the human frame and into deep time in “Apple,” “Fiat Lux” and “Walking Path.” While Shepherd does not land every imaginative flight he launches — “Bear Being” comes to mind — the audacity of his efforts more than makes up for the occasional failed attempt. He makes the startling suggestion that shape-shifting is not a matter of physical transformation, but is first and foremost an empathetic and energetic possibility available to anyone willing to push metaphorical modes of thinking beyond the human perspectival cage.
Shift is exhilarating, and I count it among the best books of poetry I’ve read in the last two or three years. Shepherd writes with an unusual blend of understated verve and imaginative bravado, and has emerged as a poet more than ready to feel his way beyond what Northrop Frye once called “the conquest of nature by an intelligence that does not love it.”
— Mark Dickinson
prairie books now, spring/summer 2016
HUMAN NATURE: Debut collection explores our impact on the environment
The title poem of Kelly Shepherd's debut collection, Shift, opens with the snap of a twig underfoot.
The noise warns the birds on the lake the narrator is approaching and, suddenly, they're gone. But that is just enough time for Shepherd: "Enough to see how it might be done: / the shift from element to element."
The poem's 10 lines tell you everything you need to know about the Edmonton-based poet's work: the attention to moments of transition, to the natural world, and to the changes humanity makes to it.
These questions preoccupy Shepherd, who teaches English at Edmonton's Northern Alberta Institute of Technology but who has also worked as a construction worker in northern Alberta.
"To what extent do human beings belong with the rest of the world? Do we belong?" asks Shepherd. "Are we creatures of pure, enlightened reason (or spirit) — or are we also physical earthly beings?"
He notes that this dichotomy has long been one of our defining dilemmas, and we still debate it today.
"We love nature," he says, "but we pollute our drinking water and we clearcut forests. We love animals, but we can't survive without killing. And so on. Human beings have always altered their landscapes, to varying degrees, but never on the scale we've achieved — and not in such a short period of time."
Shepherd feels an obligation to include climate change and environmental degredation in his nature poems.
"If everything we write (and everything we don't write) is political, then I think we are obliged to tackle some of these difficult and sometimes ugly issues," says Shepherd. "I think it's important for us to observe ecological degredation and species loss — for us to act as witnesses, if nothing else — but also to acknowledge our own culpability.
"But this is not to say that people should stop writing about beauty, or love, or humour, or the myriad other things that make life so worth living."
And so, Shift intersperses moments of connection with — and alienation from — nature with poems about childhood, and family, and labour.
"Canadian poetry has a venerable tradition of work-related writing (Al Purdy, Milton Acorn, Rita Wong, Mathew Henderson, and so on) and I have a real appreciation for this subject matter," says Shepherd. "In some ways I see myself belonging to, or coming out of, this same tradition. I have always admired the music of regional, colloquial speech and the slang and terminology that connects people to their work, their families, and their communities."
Shepherd's dual focus on nature and work, the wild and the built environment, has provided him with an interesting vantage point from which to view the world.
"I am very interested in the strata underfoot, and the unknown insides of things," notes Shepherd. "Both the literal (the ground under the newly laid sod in a new subdivision) and the figurative (the mandala inside of an apple)."
One of the goals of his poetry is to seek out and explore these interiors and underground spaces.
"But not to claim them, or try to own them. Not to take them home as souvenirs," he says.
"Instead, to celebrate them and try and recognize them for what they are: mysterious. And fragile."
— Ariel Gordon
SPG reviews, june 2, 2016
I was looking for “shifts” in Kelly Shepherd’s poetry collection, and I found them. Shepherd lives and teaches in Edmonton, and his gritty book, Shift, is testament to the fact that his hands have worked more than a pen. The author’s been part of the multitude that migrated to Fort McMurray for work, and he shows us many sides of that “orange-hardhat” dynamic, from workers “loading into buses before dawn, getting paid to build somethingwe don’t understand for someone we don’t know” to the “endless crumpled sky” and a “landscapepainting on the lunchroom wall” that is “of another place, not here”.
Shift, then, refers in part to shift work, or a work-shift. I also found it in poems like “Honing,” about cement grindingsmoothing. The shift here comes when the narrator recognizes that the “ugly, utilitarian, dusty” cement “[opens] itself up and he stones glimmer like stars”. There are dramatic shifts in weather during all-day drives, that moment “when the steering wheel started to bloom” and “the windshield blinked in the sun”. In the title poem, the shift concerns a diving grebe and a duck’s lift off a lake: “the shift from element to element”.
The poems differ in subject-from northern labour poems to meditations on spring, or an apple, and what a tire might sing if it could. Shepherd zooms from grit to romance and back again, fast as a bear. Some poems are short as haiku, others, like “Ed Rempel’s Dog,” (which tells the story of a farmer upset with his hogs for eating the chickens, so he threw his German shepherd into the pen “to teach those pigs a lesson,” and you might guess the outcome) read like postcard fiction. There are several found poems, and numerous pieces written in couplets, tercets or quatrains. The poem titled “Fort McMurray Acrostic (found: public washroom)” can be quoted in its entirety here:
This is a playful hat-tip to Syncrude, of course, but in other poems the author affects a more serious attitude toward the oil sands and the physical dangers incumbent in hard labour. In “The Straight Lines of Cities” he considers how “no one thinks about” the work that goes into making “the sidewalk under our feet.” How the cobblestones were fitted together. The “bent-axlewheelbarrows and sweat-fogged safety glasses” behind the work. And no one knows about the lad who contributed his index finger, via a circular saw, to the project’s completion.
Birds, animals, and flora also frequently star, and I applaud how Shepherd compounds (via hyphenation) plants and animals in his work. He writes of “deer-coloured grass,” “coyote-coloured earth,” and “fish-shaped leaves in the wind.” This is a writer who does the watching few have time for, then presents his observations to the world in fresh ways, ie: “With his tail the squirrel ratchets himself up the tree.” See how he’s taken a mechanical toolaction, and paired it with nature?
The excerpts above speak for themselves; this is damn fine work.
— Shelley A. Leedahl, SaskBooks