Neil Shepard is an award-winning poet who has published eight books of poetry, as well as essays, book reviews, interviews, and poems in numerous literary magazines, among them, AWP Chronicle, Boulevard, Harvard Review, New England Review, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, Southern Review, and TriQuarterly. He taught for many years in the BFA writing program at Johnson State College in Vermont, as well as in the MFA writing program at Wilkes University (PA). He also founded and directed for eight years the Writers Program at the Vermont Studio Center, and he edited for a quarter-century the literary magazine Green Mountains Review. Shepard has been a writing fellow at the MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland and CAMAC Arts Centre in France. He has served as a visiting writer and workshop leader at several institutions, among them, Poets House (NYC), Chautauqua Writers Institute (NY), Ossabaw Island Writers Retreat (GA), and The Frost Place (NH). Outside the literary realm, he is a founding member of the poetry and jazz ensemble, PoJazz.
Neil’s How It Is: Selected Poems has recently been published by Salmon Press and is now available here. It is a magnificent gathering of poems from his seven previous collections and has been enthusiastically reviewed here by David Cooke, co-editor of The High Window.
For further information about Neil and his work you can visit his website: http://www.neilshepard.com/welcome. Finally, you will find below one of the poems from How It Is: Selected Poems followed by four that are more recent.
Finally, before turning to Neil’s poems you will find here an interview in which Neil discusses his work with Romola D
Neil Shepard: Two Poems from How it is, Selected Poems
I write at night when the old hominid
climbs up to the highest branch of the brain
and crouches there in a leafy crotch
listening to the night-sounds snarling below…
his heart outracing the big cats of the savannah.
He’s glad I’m civilized and live indoors,
far from the tooth and claw. Glad my central
plumbing works, my TP dispenser full,
so he doesn’t have to shit off a limb.
And though he loves roosting with birds,
the wind rocking him, talking through the mouths
of leaves, he loves also how the birds have
been stuffed into the softest down pillows
where he may lay his head and dream. Dreams
are scarce as water-holes where he’s from,
one eye always open for danger, one
for hunger. We’re kin for sure: the old beast
in me sleeps lightly or barely sleeps.
I wake often and watch him scratch himself
with a twig that could pass for a pencil
or poke at a moon-lit line of ants that
resembles this scratched pentameter.
Some nights we almost meet at a forking branch
where he chooses silence, and I, this speech.
SUGAR MAPLE, AMERICAN BEECH, POISON NIGHTSHADE, AS ANDY GOLDSWORTHY PROJECTION
Was it really there, the installation in the woods?
Yes, the bolus of limbs and vines twined into a woody
ball had intention written all over it. But would he,
like a swinger of birches, bend the nearby beech
into faux arches going back and back into the forest,
until the eye was tricked into seeing every bent stick
as semiotic? Limbs fallen sideways against their trunks,
were they natural or marshalled? I could not say. And would he
have stacked twigs in the hollows of sugar maples
along the trail, or was that the trajectory of a tree,
the natural path of its downward spiral? I could see
nothing clearly, not the forest for the trees,
nor its inverse. It was the curse of a Goldsworthy
caper, as subversive to the system as the nightshade
I came upon, finally, in a pasture beyond the woods –
housed in a small gambrel structure, like a latticed
barn, no screw or nail, just piled together, as if planed lumber
had fallen from a tree. Through the trellis, I could see
the poison nightshade uncoiling its tendrils,
squeezing its berries through the lattices
into the oldest disguise – come eat of the fruit –
toward what design I could, for once, foresee.
Neil Shepard:Three New Poems
CORMORANTS IN FULL SUN
(Ossabaw Island, Georgia)
Corruption in Congress was getting to me.
Never mind the White House. Perspective
was what I needed. I walked to the dock
in noon light, a clutch of cormorants
perched on wood pilings, a black mass
of outstretched wings reaching for the sun.
Killdeer cries in the mudflats. Red-billed
oyster-catchers skimming over the sanctuary.
Tripling the military budget? For what?
They were already in Russia’s back pocket!
Maybe red China? Maybe black-masked Muslims?
The cormorants looked nonplussed. They didn’t
care about some orange-haired, orange-skinned
nut-job who was going to obliterate their world,
and mine. They knew the moment was sweet,
even if they wouldn’t say it, but sun on black
wings looked so soothing I said it
for them. I wanted to know only what
they knew, this moment… tide-ebb exposing
the slick mud of the river emptying
into this brackish channel. Salt stung
my eyes. The salt marsh showed strange
incongruities, mud-lumps, hollows, holes
bubbling with covert life, sea-lice, water-
bugs scriggling along the surface, the feel
of it, somehow, shaky, too much I couldn’t
track or interpret. The cormorants took it all in,
or didn’t, impossible to know what
their red eyes, craning on snaky radar
necks, recorded. I recorded only what
my senses sensed, what made sense
as a coherent set of intel. Old Roger
came puttering round the cove in his fishing
rig, a few old boys with him, coolers no doubt
filled with fish and beer, and they tossing chum
overboard, excess of the catch. As they bumped
against the dock, I saw honey-colored bottles
of Maker’s Mark, that whiskey going down
as smooth at noon as cocktail hour. The cormorants
stirred a little, ruffling their wings – in salute,
perhaps, or recognition. Were they all in it
together? When the old-boys raised their tumblers
of glowing amber to the sky, I wasn’t sure
it was for me, the birds, or their leader.
I gave a weak wave and watched the waves
beyond their boat that seemed, under this strong sun,
not waves at all but three-paneled triangles
colluding to wash over this undefinable
moving thing we’d all agreed to call water
and the wavering moment. Enough to trick
us into thinking the world was solidly
what it was, and waves were waves, not
momentary shapes shifting at the whim
of whoever was in charge of perceiving.
One moment, wind made the waves move and the day
move along. The next, when wind stilled
and cormorants’ black wings lost their luster,
the individual feathers appeared more
like black daggers, and the stillness
at the center of the day terrified.
QUESTIONS FOR A CORMORANT
(Ossabaw Island, GA)
Is this our oldest pact, cormorant, both sunning
on rotting wood, you on an old piling,
me on a ruined deck? Nearby, cranes yank
machinery off oily tugs to repair
the hurricane-ravaged bridges, update
the washed-out roads, restore the faux villa.
We won’t live to see it completed, most likely,
but that’s the way of progress, cormorant.
Wind moves the waves and the day moves along.
Utter stillness scares me…for the obvious
reasons. Don’t mistake me, I’m glad to be here,
retired, loitering through hours of sun.
How else to savor? What do your senses
sense today, old cormorant, and why do I
imagine you old? Perhaps it’s the fish hook snagged
in your yellow bill, a bloodshot look to your red eye.
How’s the next poem to begin, build, and end?
Tell me, cormorant. Will it contain this sun?
DAD’S BEEN CRYING AGAIN
as if he were the valedictorian
of mourning. He’s not a talker;
he taught us to be tightlipped
to pain. If we children cried,
he’d pinch our arms to teach us
there’s always another hurt,
so just shut up. Dad’s been crying again,
whose reservoir must be deep and long –
his 95 years of dammed streams
and rivers backed up and laid end
to end would reach from here to Mars.
That’s the red planet, cratered, un-
stable, dusty with indifference,
masked with poisonous gas. Dad’s been
crying again. He doesn’t want to live
like the last astronaut in outer space
but all his friends have gone
into the black vacuum before him,
and he can’t retain their names
or faces. His brain has made him shy
of something like a 3rd birthday, a time
before add & subtract & wash & dress
& make your bed. Unlike the kid
whose head will fill with facts and math
that lets him figure trajectories
of rocket ships, Dad’s head
fills with one obliterating thought:
he’ll soon be dead. He’s crying again.
And who can blame him? And what for?
He’s stored his tears for 90 years or more.
When not spanking a child, he wore a blinding
smile, a burly grace, a face unfazed by
ponderous circumstance. He aged and
aged, to an age where nothing’s left
to chance but death, the chance to span
a century. With brains so scrambled
he couldn’t say if God invented man or man
invented Time. He couldn’t say, for sure,
if cart preceded horse, the chicken the egg,
the universe its inverse. He can only say
for sure, he’s forgotten how it ends but that
it ends. And then he cries again.