The Book of Failures: Poems

by Neil Shepard

reviewed by Judith Harris

The Book of Failures explores the failures—both personal and cultural—that define our human and environmental fragility. The indivisibility of the personal and the political is essential to Shepard’s poems and to the deft presentation of realistic experiences, from the elegiac to the quotidian, that underlie his skillful elaboration of failure, its revelations, and its resolution through art. Shepard’s poems do not avoid questions of self-identity, and his control of language remains exquisite and refreshing, producing a poetry that is accessible but never prosaic.

Failures is personally reflective and reminiscent of the elegiac tradition. Consistent with contemporary discussions of elegy as neither consolable nor containable, it presents a crucible of grief in which the dead reappear in the very words that proclaim their loss. This paradox extends in Shepard’s poetry to a multiplicity of transgressions that shape our present world and cause grief of global proportions—so that Shepard presents the failures he profiles, however destabilizing to his own vision, as the poet’s best path forward. For any poet, acceptance of failure would be tantamount to speechlessness, but Shepard speaks out resolutely, his keen eye for imagery enlivening each poem in his volume.

Failures begins with a father’s failure to love, as well as a son’s failure to forgive paternal weakness, at least, until he is faced with the end of the father’s life. This ending, however, encompasses for the son the endlessness of loss itself, as he considers the single word his father had used to express deep-seated emotion: Yabadabadoo, the “exultant sound” famously uttered by Fred Flintstone. The son interprets this as a “paralingual sound,” a signifier apart from referentiality. Yabadabadoo evokes the psychological ineffability of lament through which Shepard considers the failure of language to fully express the discontinuity, ambivalence, and melancholia of grief.

In “Dad’s Been Crying Again” and “The Wasting,” a father’s illness becomes a vigil that is cathartic for the speaker and reflects the helplessness, shock, and fragility of an elder who now needs to be comforted by his own adult child. The dying father cries “as if he were the valedictorian of mourning,” with the adult son feels resentful that his own childhood pain went unattended. The father, who “was not a talker,” had demanded his children to be “tight-lipped.” But the father’s unshed tears have built up over the course of his long life like a metaphorical reservoir:

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 could reach to Mars.

Shepard leans into the metaphor of Mars, cold, rocky, and remote, transforming it into a nexus for the father’s dementia and confusion:

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.

In Section II, exuberance for life, rather than melancholy about death, prevails. With settings that range from rural Vermont to the hectic urbanity of New York City, the poems here resonate with traditional subjects of art, music, and legacy. But even here mortality remains central. An homage to the deceased poet James Wright, the poem “There Is No Sadness” captures Wright’s own struggle with melancholy. The sadness of Wright’s poetry incants vividly into Shepard’s elegy the troubled task of many poets, an essential part of our literary inheritance:

And on into the world where generations begat
and beget and there is no ending, is there, except
for something upending as elegy in which
we inherit no sadness like today’s sadness.

Sadness does not pass with time; it persists as a strangeness that becomes familiar.

In Section III, poems about the poet’s visit to Tyrone Guthrie Arts Center, the home of the Shakespearean producer, examine how inner turmoil and a lust for fame can ruin the impulse to create authentic art, since with art comes responsibility. These poems echo Seamus Heaney’s adherence to the vividness of external reality, while seeking to transform failure into success through the act of art.

The final poems, taking place during the pandemic lockdown in La Ciotat, France, point to the isolation of the artist who must rely on his own resources. Indeed, Shepard looks to the history of quarantine and, in “Lockdown in La Ciotat, France,” writes:

We chose this working port long before Wuhan rhymed
with quarantine, Diamond Princess with virus. We chose it

for research work, the archives open to old accounts
of old France, its colonies conquered by force

and sickness, smallpox and syphilis—the virus
carried on their sailing ships. We chose it long before

we could predict the nature of our daily ruminations,
the nightmares they’ve become—the skewed sense of being

out of time. Now, archives closed, we haven’t a chance
of concluding what we began in some unrestricted past.

The past itself is locked down, along with all its lessons. The poet, as research historian, finds that he is “out of time,” and the poem depicts the haunting abandonment of the French town, with the poet-researcher floating through time as part of a collective plague. The end, however, is beautifully uplifting: “We’re all in this together, though we must stay apart, / / for the sake of our lives floating on, for the sake of recovering springtime, as if it needed us.” Nature will survive the quarantine, a resurgence that needs the human to translate.

Shepard has read the pain of the world. I am reminded of my youthful consternation over Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and the thought that one must imagine Sisyphus happy because he knows his fate: suffering failure eternally and without remittance. Yet, in the face of an aspirational task, Shepard suggests, inevitable defeat is itself a kind of freedom and triumph.

Published on May 23, 2024