Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Shane Neilson's Complete Physical

My ever-ready supply of two-bit Bic standards ran out for the first time in decades, and by chance I'm now using an uncomfortably fat neon blue clicker with cleverly drawn stethoscope in the shape of a heart, the word "we" nestled inside, the word "care" nudging from without. "Home Health Services", in much smaller letters underneath, completes the graphic on the column. The ink is black. I'd also like to add that today, for the seventh time since 1369 or so, Venus passes in front of the sun. Unfortunately, clouds and rain are in the forecast (just past midnight as of this sentence).

"For Krissake, get to the poems!"

"Metaphors are easy". So begins "Reading Electrocardiograms", a poem from Shane Neilson's 2010 collection Complete Physical. Those words came back to me when I weighed options for an opening to this review. Easy, indeed. After all, Neilson contradicts himself later in the poem when the ocean acts as missing half of the metaphorical coupling. Humorous construction, and the list of failed metaphors that begin the poem show that that poetic staple can scatter unconvincingly or sear like a permanent brand.

My opening paragraph-gambit is a cheap metaphor, but what's worse, a misplaced or misjudged one. Serendipity, perhaps. Or just a cute coincidence. But the professional life of a general practitioner in the Hippocratic Arts would seem to be a word aquifer in horizon-long fields of freshet-spilling metaphorical rows. Who needs constantly gamed irrigation?

Well, not so fast. In "Campanology", Neilson (I'll dispense with an equivocating "narrator' or "speaker") is "dumbfouded/in ... office, as death robs all vocabulary/and grief fills in interstices". Note the clear ("clear", that dirty, dirty postmodern word) exasperation of language failing because of metaphysical inexplicableness in the fierce and dull prods of the daily rounds, ironically stated in understandable onomatopoeia ("long lowing moan"). But then, like Alden Nowlan and Milton Acorn, two poets who've influenced Neilson, the author is interested in practical axiology, and the hunkered down -- and at times furious -- puzzles never completed. Neilson has no fear of ending a poem ("On Conducting Complete Physicals") with, "There would have to be a treatment for love./What would it be?". (I'm reminded of Robert Lowell's "narrator's" response to the psychiatric staff sent to pick him up, and who told him he wouldn't need to take his Dante with him: -- "what will I need there?")

But it's not all black bile. Unlike many other themed books (and it must be noted that themed books are becoming the rampant norm), the tone is varied, and impressively so since the array of voices are convincing and authoritative. The one-sentence poem "All Pain Can Be Controlled" is hilarious even as it inserts the burr; thoughts during an exhausted homecoming while escaping "fecal wafts and fluorescence" ("On-Call Song: To My Wife") express a finely integrated range and sequence of emotion.

I enjoyed the rich character studies. The elegiac "The Death of Leo Emberson, November 2006" was a highlight, but, as with some of Peter Richardson's fascinating narratives, I wanted the poem to continue for several pages. Poetry may be concision, but tributes deserve details, and lots of 'em. Also refreshing is Neilson's honouring of the other. I never got the sense that he was using his patients as props for self-examination.

And on that note, I end with my own overblown metaphor as I turn out the light and enter that nightly death. Setting down the blue dart. Good night.

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