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Playfulness and Profundity
A Review of Luci Shaw's Sea Glass
Katie Manning

For people coming to Luci Shaw’s poetry for the first time, Sea Glass: New & Selected Poems will serve as a useful gateway into this prolific poet’s work. For those familiar with Luci Shaw’s lifetime of writing—not only her fourteen poetry collections, but also many books of nonfiction, co-authored books with Madeleine L’Engle, edited anthologies, and more—the thirty-eight new poems in her fifteenth poetry collection strike the balance that most of us hope to find in a beloved musician’s new album: it’s recognizably related to the work that’s come before, but it doesn’t feel like simply more of the same. Shaw finds new ways to explore unexpected beauty in this broken world.

Sea GlassThe collection’s title, Sea Glass, refers to broken glass that has been transformed by its time in salt water, resulting in bits of smooth, frosted glass that wash up on the shore and delight collectors. In the poem “Witnessing,” Shaw explores the symbolic possibilities of this glass:

Gems known as Mermaid Tears

plucked from what used to be a Ft. Bragg dump—

the broken glass worn by waves to amber, cobalt blue and

jade. Evidence everywhere. Communities of witness.

Memory a hoarder, always gathering clues.

In a similar move of gathering small details as evidence, Shaw’s poem “The Generosity” concludes, “And today, a raven feather on / the sidewalk and wings in the sky, / memos from heaven everywhere.” Throughout these new poems, there is indeed a sense of piecing together clues from memory and observation, and these clues always seem to point to God.

It’s not only the beautiful clues that point Shaw to God, but also the uncomfortable, less lovely details of life. In “Echocardiogram,” Shaw’s imagery and diction allow readers to experience the discomfort of the medical procedure:

I am laid on a table, half-naked and uneasy,
a supplicant for truth. Tethered in place with
electrodes, flipped on my side, my left breast
smeared with cool gel, my torso penetrated by
a seeing eye at the end of an intelligent probe.

Yet even in this “uneasy” and “tethered” state, the speaker hears the “harsh gulps” of her physical heart and moves into questions about God: “What of my other heart, prone to / fibrillations of impatience or inconstancy? What kind of / surgery do I pray for? In what operating theater? / What cardiologist God, wearing scrubs?” With lines like this, Shaw joins poets like William Blake—whose poem “The Tyger” depicts God forging a fierce animal with fire, hammer, and anvil—in exploring the nature of God by blending theological questions with surprising images.

Shaw also joins Blake in using animals as a parallel for humans and as a potential key to understanding ourselves. In “What to Sing,” the speaker juxtaposes herself waiting on a bench with a bird on a branch above “singing exactly what / my heart had heard. // She sang, It’s simple, / Just open your throat. / The air will carry it.” In “Robin in the Late Afternoon,” the speaker is beckoned like a worm from the ground by a robin’s song and finds “fresh hopefulness” in the sound. In “Water,” the speaker imagines herself floating after a swim, “making / my own shape in the surface that bears me / on its body like an insect.” Another poem, “Environmental Art,” seems to offer an explanation for all of these human-animal connections: “My surroundings answer my scrutiny, glance / back, see in me a mirror, // as if we are partners in dialog about what / to make of the world.” Shaw often brings us into the peace of finding ourselves mirrored in the rest of God’s creation.

One of Shaw’s new poems, however, offers a human-animal connection that makes me intensely uncomfortable. In “Veterans,” the speaker stands beside her grandchildren and observes a squirrel, which she calls “our young neighbor,” using a bird feeder. She describes the squirrel’s “lopped off” tail, missing toe nails, and missing left paw, and she speculates about “his history—Trap? / Cat attack? Pellet gun? Whatever, amputation / hasn’t slowed him one bit.” The squirrel polishes off the seeds and comes back the following day. This lengthy stanza is followed by a much shorter stanza:

            Today at church we met a homeless army vet, limping

            and hungry. The good breakfast he got sent him on his way,

            grateful for nutrients as welcome as bird seed.

            We hope he comes back for more.

What is it about this juxtaposition of injured squirrel and injured man that makes me so uncomfortable as a reader? Is it that the speaker is comparing someone other than herself to an animal? Is it the potential de-humanizing of a person who is homeless and/or disabled? Is it the way this man is left out of the “we” of the church community in that final line? I’m still wrestling with this poem’s implications and with my own complicity as one of the “we.”

I also found myself usefully uncomfortable with the poem “Total Recall,” which describes one man’s reality of being able to remember everything, “so that with a mere twitch of neurons / he could deliver every detail // into the present.” The poem delights me with the procession of details that follows, from “the belch and / roar of a London bus” to “A chestnut // freshly brought forth from its / spiky green shell.” Then comes the turn: this man finds his memory intolerable. The speaker asks, “Who / would lust for the clutter // of all those marching minutes, / the trivia of an infinite number/ of days?” This leads to the final moment, less shocking than E. A. Robinson’s “Richard Cory” perhaps, but startling nonetheless: “In the end the smothered mind / took the body with it, and the thick / air around him clarified suddenly.” This poem is beautifully written, and sympathizing with another human’s experience is always valuable. At the same time, I feel uncomfortable with my position as reader/voyeur of what I interpret as a suicide, and that leaves me thinking and questioning myself long after I’ve read the poem.

While Shaw’s new poems focus on the beauty of broken things and broken people, they also contain a good deal of humor. There’s a language-level playfulness that comes out in poems like “Fugitive,” in which the speaker tries to recall a word that she can’t quite remember, and “The Life of I,” which is an ode to the letter “I” that also alludes to God as “I am.” Shaw also occasionally reveals an irreverent sense of humor. In “Peeling the Onion,” the speaker says, “your sharp essence clings to my hands like / a reputation.” In “Witnessing,” the speaker describes her office décor from around the world: “a twining of dried kelp, / seed pods intact, hangs tastefully. If asked I’ll tell you / it’s my gastric and reproductive system, with ovaries.” The title of the poem “Jesus Checks in for the Flight Home” is humorous, but it moves between humor and darker imagery that is fitting for its Holy Week setting: “One by one we go through the scanner. Jesus stands firm, / lifts, spreads his arms over his head in the posture / I recognize from centuries of sacred art. / The machine strips him naked as a shorn lamb. […] His body is declared flawless but for some nail holes…” Throughout these new poems, Shaw captures so well how humor can creep into unexpected situations, and her often playful perspective makes these new poems a joy to read.

This wonderful blend of playfulness with profundity is not limited to Shaw’s new poems, as longtime readers of her work will know. One of my all-time favorite poems from her selected work is “No, I’m Not Hildegarde” from Harvesting Fog. The poem opens, “I’m merely a floater in the eye of God...” This title and first line make me smile every time I read them, but that opening image also functions as a powerful reminder of how small each of us is compared to the vastness of God (a simultaneously terrifying and comforting thought) and how small many people feel, along with the poem’s speaker, because we are not Hildegarde, St. Catherine, or some other seemingly more significant person. Yet even in the midst of self-deprecation, there is a pervasive sense of God’s love.

When I was sitting beside a dying relative in the ICU a few months ago, this was the book I carried with me to the hospital every day. I found these poems to be thought provoking, comforting, and uplifting during one of the darkest times of my life. I am grateful for Luci Shaw’s work. A

 

 

Katie Manning is the founding editor-in-chief of Whale Road Review and an associate professor of writing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. She is the author of four poetry chapbooks. Her first full-length poetry collection, Tasty Other, won the 2016 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. She’s online at www.katiemanningpoet.com.

 

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