Poetry Sunday: Selena Anne Shephard
aka Andy Plumb, Four Poems


Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I heard Selena Shephard read these and other poems at a recent Marin Poetry Center Traveling Show at Book Passage in Corte Madera and knew immediately that I wanted to write this column. Shephard’s work shows wonderful invention and reach, and audience reaction that night ranged from laughter to sharp intakes of breath to tears.

Sometimes just one or two lines can make a whole poem, and this is the case with “falling”—I was very taken with the sound and sense of these lines that, in an example of ring construction, occur at the beginning and end of the poem:

I’m walking the creek
that reminds me of a river
that reminds me of a sound.

I have been trying to figure out why I’m so entranced by these lines and think it has something to do with their anaphoric repetition of the phrase “that reminds me of.” It also has to do with the idea being expressed: Something that reminds you of something else is one step removed from reality, and when that something then reminds you in turn of something else, it retreats two steps further into the imagination, a kind of Russian doll effect I find compelling. The slant rhyme of “walk” and “creek” makes music enhanced by the repetition of these lines. Repetition is used effectively again in the lines that tell us what that sound is: “the sound / coming from the trees / of the leaves falling / from the falling leaves.” That is a subtle sound indeed, and being so subtly expressed cues us into the exquisitely acute sensibilities of this speaker. We learn more about the speaker in the lines about a past metaphorically pasted into scrapbooks, rendered with end rhyme that might feel too much in another context but that in this plainspoken free verse poem feel just right: “the ones I tasted / the ones I wasted / the ones I pasted in tiny scrapbooks.”

All this paves the way for what might otherwise be a jarring revelation about a grandfather’s suicide, a revelation granting insight to the sense of desolation and non-resolution that infuses the poem. It does not intend to wrap itself up into a neat package with a happy ending but instead simply presents this speaker’s unresolved and still very painful state of mind, in the moment it happens. We understand that tragedies like this just are—they scar and shape us in ways that can never be undone or fixed—and also that even at its worst life offers beauty along with tragedy.

“88” offers an example of Shephard’s darkly ironic wit. A fundamentally sad poem about a mother’s aging and death, it is also quite funny and allows the mother’s feisty spirit to triumph at the end. How I love those last two lines—exactly something I could imagine my own mother saying at the moment of her passing. In her case it was more along the lines of “Is this really all there is, and are these nice [Hospice Ward] curtains supposed to make me feel better about that?” —but they were uttered in the same gutsy, unquenched spirit. I like the way “88” opens almost immediately into the surreal, a move that captures the inability of the living to comprehend the death of a loved one and might also capture something of what the dying think and feel.

A similar vein of humor is at work in “Sin Subtitulo,” a poem that expresses the insatiability of erotic love at the same time it bemoans the way love befuddles us, just like “a foreign film / without subtitles.” “Sin Subtitulo” reminds me of how effective short poems can be, particularly when they conclude, like this one, in full metaphor.

I include “insomnia” as an example of Shephard’s love of and facility with punning, something much in evidence at the Book Passage reading. This poem makes word play in every line, combining words in spoonerism fashion into something new and often hilarious. “Prayletariate” fuses “pray” and “proletariat” into a sly dig at the religious right, and “follygarchy” “folly” with “oligarchy” to make a powerful shorthand reference to the futility and stupidity of tyrannical forms of government. “Leading by tweeting” is, of course, a reference to our president’s favorite form of mass communication, and “prophetic or pathetic” plays with the similar sounds of two words whose meanings are so opposite as to make their yoking surprising, an oxymoron. “Fright wing fanatics” plays on “fright wigs,” and the notion of them in the current “west wing” makes me laugh out loud. Like all Shephard’s laughs, this one comes with a gut punch, which we feel again in “messianic mess” and “free range crapitalists” (and in pretty much every line). Near its end, the poem takes a turn to earn its title and focuses on the as-yet unfathomable connection between the current administration and Russia. “[Y]et strangely Putinized” is, in my view, brilliant in tone and meaning, like the poem’s very last line. To imagine Putin kissing at all, much less French-kissing, is quite a leap, but it is fully landed in that final, terrible image, “knives on his tongues.”  Bravo to Selena Shephard for these unique, sensitive, and brave poems—I hope you enjoy them as much as I did at the Book Passage event and again when I sat down to read them on the page for this column.



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  • Nancy meyer August 14, 2018 at 12:00 pm

    Especially love 88 and sin subtitulo