Reviewed by Diane R. Wiener
In this short, bold work, we are invited as readers into conversations with self, with others, with otherworldly beings. Themes of interiority and exteriority, control, and release are co-mingled with intimacy, reflection, and some (unromantic) nostalgia—as never prosaic life review (or, lives reviewed).
“I thought I knew what love was, who I was,” the poet tells us in the first poem, “Janet, Fall Evening.” The multi-faceted, at-times italicized, you-addressee who is invoked and engaged by the I-addresser in this poem is possibly—but not necessarily—the you in “All the poems are beautiful and true and Zee,” the initial line of which continues from its title (with its comma after “Zee” as a deliberate placement). A bit later, we are welcomed to consider the following single-spaced lines:
“no more of me; no more co-extensions;
no more truth and beauty to impose
on you. Just you. I can do it. Just you:”
At this juncture, the poem shifts to indented, double-spaced lines, within which appear the following:
“You’re stars too, all the stars
(no more of me)”
This poem’s whimsical while intergalactic machinations center “the other,” so that this you has (or, you have) primacy. The out-picturing poet soon invokes “green monster eyes”:
(no more of me, no more)
green monster eyes,
wonderest, wand’rest in the shade
sky, entire sky
Although it’s unclear whose “monster” eyes appear here, or which being has these eyes, we might wonder, too, who the monster is, and how relationship and interconnectedness might at times create monstrous interactions that are likewise somehow stellar or part of another world that is refusing violence, where a “head inclined to fur against the cheek” is concurrent with “the grass-smell – yours too.” Is the grass-smell yours? Is your smell present alongside the grass-smell as a sensory admixture?
Simultaneously, I somehow want to understand as I find myself releasing my understanding, surrendering to the musics presented by the poet’s offerings.
These poems are not clues to a puzzle; instead, they feel—to me—like invitations to alternative ways of imagination and engagement. Any poet who creates and invites the reader into a new world is one surely deserving of admiration, gratitude, and attention; Neilson is such a poet.
The Rilke quote (from Letters to a Young Poet) that introduces this short, bold work provides some contextualization; no “solutions” are offered, though, only more questions and possibilities: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses, only waiting for the day they will see us handsome and brave? Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help.” (Yes, Rilke was hardly “clued-in” about disability—on the contrary, his writing is widely criticized as ableist. Yet, his words are used to good effect here.)
Maybe the green monster eyes, which appear in the same poem as a “green, shimmering screen” and a “whorl in the sky from confluence” are the mentioned “perhaps,” too. What is meant by “help” (and per whom) in the context of an ongoing global pandemic? How might help be provided to a “helpless thing,” or any kind of terror that is wanting and waiting to be helped? Given Neilson’s many works questioning the often inegalitarian meanings and relevance of neurodivergence, (in)sanity, disablement, and normalcy, and the power dynamics of interconnectedness and unevenness in an ableist, saneist world, my reading of these poems is at once a reflection on Neilson’s prior work and an attempt to keep open a space for this new chapbook’s presence and its presentation of itself.
The exact, unique, and very precise spacing conventions in the poems are not reproduced exactly in this review, in every example—for which this reviewer apologizes. I will return shortly to further comments about these conventions in the text.
“Who he is / emerges into why he was” is one of this chapbook’s many terse, powerhouse lines. This poem, “Lynn, Summer 2018,” has the “monster” re-appearing in the context of love. The poem begins:
Is he always with me?
Who he is
emerges into why he was.
For love. Made by it, like we were.
(Only monsters presume the monstrous
to the other side.
As noted above, precise formatting is one of Neilson’s compelling foci in this riveting chap—as happens, too, with Revolutionary Doctrine of the True Faith, which I reviewed for our Winter 2021 issue. In For the Living, Neilson plays deeply with different directions of print, horizontals, asterisks, and other finesses. Indentations and margin structures, line spacing, and vociferous or quiet demarcations, and other techniques bring the reader into conversation with the poet’s many interlocutors (among them: Janet, Zee, Lynn, Kaz, Jim…); importantly, we get to join us as part of the interlocutory jam.
In the chapbook’s penultimate work, “I called Jim on February 7, 2011,” the volta features prominently. A “you” is again present—a new or different you (maybe?) than those appearing in earlier poems in this slim while enveloping volume. At the end of a prose-like, dialogic section, the poet shares, “A life, all volta, agonizing — ” then splits into a space set off with right-alignment (justified…), sharing “all the things we lose – ” then continues with another prose section, which includes the repeated, italicized referents, “it was he, it was I,” first “crackling on the line between us” and then “in the air.” We—and “you” (Jim?)—are asked, in between these iterations: “You remember? Some children, the toy’s the only one they ever wanted.” A character named Alden is present, and somehow, yet again, this short little book becomes even more densely populated with images, people, collections of things, memories, and—of course—stars.
In the acknowledgments at the chap’s conclusion, Neilson comments on his warm relationship with the press: “Anstruther is like family, right? We all need some place to get to, together.” As I always feel when I read Neilson’s work, these poems help us get there, to “some place[s]”—wherever it or they might be—if we wish…together, and separately.
Title: For the Living
Author: Shane Neilson
Publisher: Anstruther Press
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About the Reviewer
Diane R. Wiener (she/they) became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. She is the author of The Golem Verses (Nine Mile Press, 2018), Flashes & Specks (Finishing Line Press, 2021), and The Golem Returns (swallow::tale press, 2022). Diane’s poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina Review, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest, Diagrams Sketched on the Wind, Jason’s Connection, the Kalonopia Collective’s 2021 Disability Pride Anthology, and elsewhere. Her creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe, Mollyhouse, The Abstract Elephant Magazine, and Pop the Culture Pill. Diane’s flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness; her short fiction is published in A Coup of Owls. Diane served as Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Assistant Editor after being Guest Editor for the Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics. Diane has published widely on Disability, education, accessibility, equity, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Genderqueer and Enby, Ashkenazi Jewish Hylozoist Nerd (etc.) who is honored to serve in the nonprofit sector–including as a Zoeglossia Board member. You can visit Diane online at: https://dianerwiener.com.