The Book of Failures
Reviewer: Brian Fanelli
The last few years have been anything but easy. The world has faced a global pandemic and resurgent far-right populism and nationalism. Neil Shepard’s latest collection, The Book of Failures, tackles these issues head-on. The result is one of Shepard’s most socially conscious and political collections to date. However, his work never feels didactic or preachy. To be clear, more than a few of these poems showcase some righteous anger, but Shepard’s craft and ability to push his verses into a deeper meditative territory ensure that these poems feel both timely and universal. Besides, after the last few years, and the likelihood of more challenges on the near horizon, a little screaming is probably okay. Sometimes, no other words or actions will suffice.
The Book of Failures works best when the social and political are personal, and for the most part, this is the case throughout, Shepard voicing hard truths while underscoring the tumult of these last few hellish years. The opening poem is a prime example. In “Milk, Eggs, Bread,” Shepard addresses an issue local to a rural Vermont town, specifically trying to come up with a motto to attract people. Yet, in this divided political age, even that proves difficult. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker says he’s thinking of John Sullivan, not anyone of fame, but a resident who mocked the speaker’s chosen tagline for the community – education, arts, industry. Sullivan responded, why not milk, eggs, bread?
Despite the speaker’s justifiable anger and the feeling that he’s been mocked, the poem takes a turn past the halfway mark, when the speaker looks past those divisions, or whatever spat he and Mr. Sullivan had over language. There’s a surprising change that comes near the end of the poem. Shepard writes:
And yet, why not
‘milk, eggs, bread,’ those staples
that sustain us in a small town
and keep us from each other’s
throats and larders, as after
the heated meeting, John
invited me home to break
bread together of an evening
meal, and we made the small
talk by which we live and
suffer and endure, and next
Saturday morning, I called
across the fence for him
to come over and share
scrambled eggs, toast, and
a cold glass of milk.
When you consider just how annoyed the speaker was at Sullivan’s comment early in the poem, the narrative turn is unexpected. It also makes it seem easy to overcome those fences that separate neighbors, whether they’re physically real or forged by ideological differences. Yet, the poem is a potent and powerful opening as it reminds readers that sometimes we simply need to talk to our neighbors. Often, we have more in common than not.
Other poems, however, don’t exactly arrive at a kumbaya moment. “Big Winds” is the most overtly political work that I’ve encountered by Shepard, a direct response to the dysfunction of the last few years and the Untied States’ flirtation with authoritarianism. More specifically, there’s a not-so-subtle reference to “the orange-haired dystopian” shouting “himself red” at a rally. He adds, “half the nation’s ready / to blow in his blowhard direction.” He takes it a step further by calling that base “small children” who want “a power daddy to fix what’s broken.” Ouch. This certainly isn’t a poem that strives to understand Trump supporters, but it certainly captures the inflection point and mood of the country that we haven’t fully escaped since 2016. Yet, Shepard elevates the political to a more mature level, linking the situation to the natural world, which he does in most of the collection, especially its middle section. He writes, “A whole summer and autumn / of unbearable heat, which will roast the air / to record highs. If there’s a weather god / today, he’s a strongman. All those grass heads / below are dried out, hollow, blown in one / direction: his.” This metaphor extends to the image of a single turkey vulture, before Shepard concludes the poem with the lines, “and now I see he’s no turkey, he’s a red-faced turkey / vulture, perfect for the cleanup to come.”
That gloom-and-doom sensibility and this feeling that we’re all powerless over whatever way the wind blows permeate most of the poems, including Shepard’s treatment of climate change and the war in Ukraine. In “Local Freeze,” the poet recounts visiting his ailing mom at her gated community in Florida. Again, much attention is given to the natural world, including strange weather patterns caused by climate change. “Flat lines of black clouds” roll over the Everglades, for instance, “pelting the land with cold rain” and even hail. This apocalyptic imagery is juxtaposed with headlines on the TV, specifically “tank columns crushing the suburbs as they advanced on Kyiv.” The poem is dated March 13, 2022, one month after Russia’s war against Ukraine started.
The poem’s second half largely sheds off these war images, but not the life-threatening problems that climate change poses for all species. There’s mention of small lizards “the color of cement stiff on sidewalks” frozen to their pre-dawn spots, threatened by electric lawn carts within the gated golf community. This image draws comparison to the language of tanks crushing homes or blowing up skyrises in Ukraine’s capital. The poem isn’t punctuated with some false sense of optimism, but instead a question about the fate of the very planet itself seen through a local prism, specifically abnormal climate in Florida. The poem ends, “From here I can click the remote, shift to a local channel / where the morning forecaster hasn’t yet decided whether we’ll dodge / the freeze or whether all fruit will perish.”
Near the end of the collection, Shepard has a multi-page poem about the lockdowns and those fretful early months of 2020. “Lockdown in La Ciotat,” even if it’s primarily set in different European locations, will likely resonate with many US readers, from rising death tolls to the masks, to loneliness, to the way people keep trying to maintain some sense of normalcy and routine, despite the challenges. The longer narrative Shepard spins remains resonant more than three years after lockdowns.
The Book of Failures accurately captures the world post-2016, from COVID to rising authoritarianism, to political divisions. Yet, what keeps Shepard’s poetry from mere editorializing is his ability to reach deeper truths through meditative verses. Besides, it’s not like the problems that Shepard addresses have abated. We’re still reeling from COVID, while the political situation now feels somehow even more fraught than it was in 2016 or 2020. There are more dangers on the horizon, but somehow, as Shepard’s The Book of Failures illustrates, life does indeed go on.