CUTBANK REVIEWS: Luminous, But Not Widely Seen, Lights

Orpheus, Turning by Faith Shearin and Meditations Before the Windows Fail by George Looney

Review by Mark Brazaitis

It may be odd to say this about the poets Faith Shearin and George Looney, the former a Garrison Keillor “Writer’s Almanac” favorite, the latter the winner of several book-length poetry prizes, but here goes: they deeply deserve to be better known and more widely read.

This is true both because they are outstanding poets and because their poetry is the kind non-poets can read without feeling confused and frustrated.

Shearin is the author of four previous collections of poetry. Her latest, Orpheus, Turning, is the winner of the 2015 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize, which is sponsored by Dogfish Head, a Delaware-based brewery.

Shearin and her publisher would, at first blush (or first draught of Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA), seem incompatible. Surely Shearin’s poems, with their subtle finishes, have more in common with, say, a fine cabernet sauvignon. There is an enviable smoothness to her language as she evokes everyday situations (a mother’s declining health, winter’s arrival, the perilous pleasures and sorrows of the past) and mines them for extraordinary insights into what it means to be human.

In “My Brother, Trying to Go Home,” the title character, unlike the rest of his family, refuses to embrace the “furniture of the future” of his new home. Instead, like several figures in Shearin’s book, he tries to hold on to the past, in his case by returning to his old house, empty as it awaits sale:

…He moved through the high grass,

past the sign that meant it would soon belong
to someone else, and entered the darkness

of our abandoned life.

In another exploration of the theme of past versus present, “The Past Wants You Back,” Shearin acknowledges how, no matter one’s present pleasures and struggles, the past compels us to return:

…It wants you to like
the boy who cheated on you,

to wear the unflattering dress;
it requires you to take piano lessons
and catch strep throat,

then Chicken Pox.

The light elegance of Shearin’s language functions as an effective counterpoint to some of the dark material she handles. (A heavy touch would make some of her verse macabre.)  

If most of Shearin’s poems are a fine wine, some suggest less grape and more grain—an earthier but equally intoxicating beverage. In several poems, Shearin invokes the Pied Piper of Hamelin. He’s an excellent device for Shearin’s concerns about children and parenting and loss. One might call her Hamelin poems “Fairy Tale Ale”: smooth, rich, filling…and with a paradoxical aftertaste of sobriety.

The final poem, “Meet Me in Hamelin,” is emblematic of Shearin’s work. Some words she employs here she also uses elsewhere in the collection: “children,” “music,” “beyond.” Even as the poem acknowledges the hard realities of life (“the mayor refuses to pay”—a subtle indictment, one might think, of our politicians’ priorities, especially as related to children), it longs for a different, better world, a time “before the Piper”:

….Meet me in Hamelin

before all that, hold my hand,
walk with me through the unswept streets
where the children are unharmed.

Turn to the last page of George Looney’s ninth book of poetry, Meditations Before the Windows Fail (Lost Horse Press, 2015), gaze at the author photo, and (mentally) remove his glasses. Do you see what I see? Does George Looney, via the magic of the mind and the words you’ve absorbed in the previous fifty-five pages, look a little like Marcus Aurelius? (Come on, they both have beards....)

Like the Roman emperor in his Meditations, Looney is both gazing out at the world (and especially at a subtly changing sky) and within himself. He creates a compelling tension between the two perspectives. Readers sense he would like the sky to hold his complete attention, to dominate his eye and his imagination, but his mind, and particularly his memory, is too enticing a landscape. The poet notes the sky, but, although he remains in body to behold it, he is quick to journey into reveries about language, about time, about love and loss.

A reader can imagine Looney’s inspiration: each day, for fifty-one straight days, he sits in front of a window, gazing at the sky. Each day, soon thereafter or even in the moment, he records his experience in a poem: what he sees, what he thinks, what he remembers.

In lesser hands, the concept might prove dull, akin to a third-rate landscape painter painting the same garden day after day (look—there’s a bumblebee on the rose bush this morning!). But Looney’s are capable hands, and even as his (or his speaker’s) literal perception is limited to what’s outside the window, his philosophical and creative perception roams far, as in “The Glare Off These Panes”:

…Ghosts of

gulls strafe this window,
playful, intoxicated
by the pleasure of swooping

& careening. The way, in memory,
a lover’s lips move,
without sound, furtive, calming.

“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together,” Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations. Looney isn’t quite so content to follow the emperor’s precursor to the Stephen Stills’ song “Love the One You’re With.” A number of the poems in Looney’s Meditations return to a pair of lovers in a hotel room, possibly the poet and his beloved. Is it a memory? A fantasy? Are the lovers in a hotel room because their love is extramarital? Or is the hotel simply a convenient midpoint between the lives they must lead separately?

We don’t know, and we don’t need to. The lovers in Looney’s poems function in several ways, one of which is as a counterpoint to philosophical flights of fancy. Even if we would like to fly off forever into Platonic contemplation, our bodies, and their needs and muscle memory, bring us back to earth. Our minds can be part of the sky; our bodies are burdened by gravity. Paradoxically, though, our bodies may be more adept vessels of communication than our words, as in “Whatever Light Needs to Be Forgiven Of”:

…Confession has
nothing on two bodies

naked & holding each other
on a bed where the sheets haven’t had
time enough to dry.

The mind’s hunger is no less fierce than the body’s. But the mind is meandering whereas the body is direct. Meditation is wonderful, but so, as in “Meditation at Night on a Lover in Another State,” is an embrace:

…The clouds

would be gray with any light at all,
& remind us that being held,

if you’re held in the right arms,
is the best any of us can hope for.

Toward the end of his collection, in “First Victim of Not Enough Light,” Looney is even more definitive about what we need most: “No sky can take the place of a lover.”

About the Authors:
Faith Shearin's books include The Owl Question (May Swenson Award), The Empty House (Word Press), Moving the Piano (SFA University Press), Telling the Bees (SFA University Press), and Orpheus, Turning (The Broadkill River Press). She is the recipient of awards from the Fine Arts Work Center, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. She lives with her husband and daughter in a cabin on top of a mountain in West Virginia.

George Looney is the author of many books including Structures the Wind Sings ThroughMonks Beginning to Waltz, and A Short Bestiary of Love and Madness. He founded the BFA in Creative Writing Program at Penn State Erie, and he serves as editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, Lake Effect. He is translation editor of Mid-American Review and a cofounder of the Chautauqua Writers' Festival.

About the Reviewer:
Mark Brazaitis is the author of seven books, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book, Truth Poker: Stories, won the 2014 Autumn House Press Fiction Competition. He wrote the script for the award-winning Peace Corps film, How Far Are You Willing to Go to Make a Difference?