Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Shane Neilson

Hate is a strong word, is what we say in our house when the kids complain about, well, whatever, as they are wont to do.

“Hate is a strong word. Do you really hate peas?”

I hate journalism. Do I really? No. I am profoundly disappointed in it. I hate the 24-hour news cycle, the promotion of trivialities, the exaggeration of conflicts, the oversimplification of issues, the emphasis on emotional reaction, the denigration of intelligence, the prominence of the image over the word, the implicit assumption that resolution is possible, that problems can actually be solved easily, without creativity and often ground-shaking negotiation.

Oh, my. Is that too much information? More than you needed to know?

I mean, yes, of course, some problems can be solved. And hate is a strong word. I don’t hate the 24-hour news cycle. It just makes my blood boil.

And so, poetry. The antidote?

Shane Neilson’s latest, Complete Physical (Porcupine’s Quill, 2010), spurred my thoughts along this line.

Amongst all of the frantic mass anxiety of the contemporary world, is there a special role for poetry to remind us to stop, shut up, listen and reflect from time to time?

Normally, I hate poetry. Okay, I don’t. It just often leaves me numb, and of all of the different things that poetry ought to do, leaving the reader numb must be near the bottom of the list.

Poetry is a borderless category, I know. That is, there are all kinds of word clusters (sometimes not even words) that people call poetry, and there are all different kinds of readers that “like” all of these different “poems.”

I like all kinds of stuff. I resist being locked into one school or another. That said, I am required here to give a synopsis of what I like best and maybe not so much in Neilson – and to back it up with evidence.

In other words, what I like in these poems isn’t their New Formalism.

Neilson is a doctor, and Complete Physical is a collection of poems about doctoring. It is also a collection that refers a lot to “love,” and the poems collectively form a type of self-portrait of the poet, a man with an aptitude for the well-turned phrase and skepticism about his profession.

The mysteries of language, the mysteries of the body. The poet/doctor narrator often finds that all he has to offer his patients are words. They come to him expecting miracles and all he can offer are “palliatives.” Pain management.

Caught in the constant crisis of the 24-hour news cycle, we might be wise to turn in to this meta-message. No miracles. Only comfort and care.

Here’s one of Neilson’s poems to reflect on.


At five, I’d play doctor with a toy stethoscope
and only one illness for Mr Bear: You’re sick!
Now I preside over lives that elope,
over illnesses that hide
until they preside and steal.
They call me a healer.
Actually, I’m an actuary,
an on-call oddsmaker,
the farmer that closes the barn door
after the horse-thief made a home visit.

At twenty-five, degree on my wall,
I looked to yellowed yards of textbooks
for wisdom, and found data only.
There is no preparation: people die,
and I solder silver linings to grief.
At five, my belief: that doctors cure,
that patients live. Now I know the furred truth:
palliation, and survival.

On the job I learned to look the part,
to harken back to five years old:
people want a doctor that listens,
that seems to care, that’s sure.
Not a whit in his head,
what they want is faithless understanding
as he massages their fattening chart,
as his ballpoint pen misspells symptoms
and makes a big flatulent blot of diagnosis.

You’re sick, I say, albeit in a different way,
and I may care, I may not.
But I laugh at good jokes
and I reach for tissues at teary times
and the word Expectations
is cursive on my prescription pad.


Here’s a fragment from ABSCOND:

I thought on love;
on the medicine you would never take;
on shocks that settle in from crossed wires;
on why.


Love is the medicine Neilson’s narrator recommends most, the substance he identifies as lacking in the ill. And it is against an essentially tragic background of the ill, dying and dead that this dart is thrown hard into the centre of the board.

There is wisdom in these poems. Let’s not be so post-modernistic as to deny the presence of such a substance. It is tragic wisdom, true. A different doctor/narrator may have found more subjects celebratory in nature. So there is subjectivity here, too. A certain doctor/poet, a certain set of poems.

But even with these caveats, can we not say that the universal is also present? Truths that survive time and context (and also escape cliche)?

If our 24-hour news cycle mainlines us with hyper-anxiety (more so today than even Umberto Eco could have imagined), poetry that reminds us to live at the pace of our heartbeat, not our neurons, contains a shout-out from the deep past.

Complete Physical has been reviewed in The Globe and Mail and elsewhere.

The Globe review is laudatory, if a bit pit-nicky. This is not a book of Major Poems, but it is a book of good poems. It is redundant to say so, but Neilson is a poet to watch and read. I look forward, as always, to his continuing development.

On a personal note, as the husband of someone currently going through chemotherapy for breast cancer, I do hope that doctors can offer more than comfort (and it's not metaphysical miracle that I expect, but the results of diligent science and lots of tests, tests, tests, as one of Neilson's poems sharply points out).

From a poetry angle, I'd like to see Neilson expand the circle of joy he communicates so well and clearly holds close and deep.

Finally, some readers may accuse me of bias. I have a relationship with Neilson that goes back nearly a decade. He was once poetry editor at The Danforth Review, where I was publisher/editor, etc. So be it.

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