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Shane Seely the surface of the lit world



reviewed by Susan K. Stewart, September 2015

Shane Seely’s new poems hopscotch among Western myth, modern legends, and private reflections. Uniformly attentive, they are little speech acts that seek to elevate the ordinary to the status of the mythic or to find in myth the commonplace.  

Beneath the urge for spiritual ascent in Western mythology, Seely senses something sad, solemn, and small.  “Poseidon’s just another god/ taking what he wants,” he writes.  Or consider “Isaac’s Lament,” which ends:

            I showed his knife my throat; his eyes grew wild
            with awful love.  My reprieve came then un-
binding me from him.  I lived instead.

The hero is often arrested, as here, in a hiccup of secret grief.  How sad to live, to escape the abattoir of myth, the “awful love” of gods and fathers.  

In “The Fledged Boy” Dedalus asks Icarus if he “knew what to do,” and the boy’s response (“I told him the truth, that I did”) leaves the reader cringing.  The combination of overconfidence and ignorance is artless and all-too-human—not the highflying hubris of Greek myth.

Seely includes modern legends in this tri-part volume which commemorate the failure of myth in our own time.  One poem mourns the 2005 death of a fabled stag, “the Swamp King,” near Kalispell, Montana, in which grief takes on only “all the predictable emotions”—all predictable except one, relief:

            …to see you lying there, all tattered skin
             and mouse-gnawed bone, lying there
             in a form that we could master. 

Another, “The Cinder Woman,” alludes to the death of Mary Hardy Reeser in 1951, for decades considered spontaneous combustion.   Seely preserves the mystery, never tipping his hand about the FBI’s having solved the case in 2009—not even in his “Notes” (which helpfully explain some of these contemporary legends).  The poem ends with dazzling contrasts between The Cinder Woman’s lambency and the speaker, who is like “damp tinder” and “flameless as the sea.”  The tragedy isn’t her pyrotechnic death, but the onlooker’s sogginess.  Nothing catches fire, exactly, in any of the poems, and that is an aesthetic choice.

Self-conscious myth aside, these are mostly poems of the living room, the back yard, the suburban street and park.  They sympathetically record micro-tragedies, minor struggles, and the occasional, personal triumph.  “The Kite Flyers of Forest Park,” for instance, memorializes the near victories of “The serious ones” who fly flimsy, store-bought kites on impossibly windy days. 

            are the ones that we watch:
            still grasping the magic of wind,
            still startled to look up

            at the cloud-painted sky
            and see an almost-bird struggling to fly.

All these poems have a soft spot for “almost-birds” who never quite get off the ground. Pretention doesn’t come into it:  this is verse for the hearth and the backpack, poems that never fail to notice in the smallest moment something that might astonish.

The Surface of the Lit World:  Poems
By Shane Seely
73 pages. Ohio University Press. $16.95.


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