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This Place Does Not Forsake Itself:
Shane Neilson's New Brunswick

Shane Neilson's "New Brunswick"
Shane Neilson, New Brunswick
Windsor: Biblioasis, 2019.

Shane Neilson, a much-lauded poet, was shortlisted for the Raymond Souster Award for New Brunswick, a technically adept homage to his home province, as well as a symphonic work that is part elegy, part meditation. Dedicated to his deceased parents, his book begins with a poem by John Donne and “Pass By,” a song by Neilson that received Honourable Mention in a regional contest. The combination is instructive, their themes of pain and loss the very ones Neilson has explored in other works. The song foreshadows the poet’s abiding love of place, a fact established not just by the content of other poems but by Neilson’s framing of the collection, where the first specimen is a prose poem incorporated within a historical timeline of New Brunswick history, and where the final poem is the conclusion of a corona sonnet sequence about forms of loss.

Of the six sections in the collection, the best three as extended sequences are Parts III, V, and VI, the first (“Broken Crown on the Neilson Family Table”) being an autobiographical poem in a sonnet sequence (with variations in sonnet form) that uses the emblem of a rough-hewn family table in order to conjure up memories of a violent father, and how we can be so different from one another as to experience pain and love in ways we do not quite understand:

For you, a wrecked poem written where once
we broke bread. I have much to learn. First
principle: there is no end to life if life consists
of conversations with the dead.

The tabletop’s scars tell something of the poet’s mind in craft influenced by Lowell and Larkin. The broken or disrupted form of the sonnets mirrors the poet’s struggle against “a silence pressing on [his] throat/to constrict the song into a starker beauty.” Overall, a lyrically moving section that often sings with bewildered poignance.

Part V (“Elegy for EMN”) is what its title says it is: an elegy. Much of it first published in a chapbook, it covers the socio-economic and political realities of New Brunswick while incorporating existential questions with impressive technical virtuosity. Remaining true to his beloved mother’s dictum (“be true to things”), Neilson deploys a recurring refrain, his verse expanding and contracting, its connotations and lyricism deepening throughout the 17 parts. Neilson’s engaging technique transcends the precise specificity of social, political, and historical detail that would otherwise not mean much to those unfamiliar with that region’s history.

There are other gems throughout the book (particularly the meta-ekphrastic “My Daughter Imitates A.Y. Jackson’s ‘Road to Baie St. Paul’”) as Neilson creates some beautiful pieces through his use of pantoum, villanelle, list poem, et cetera, but the culminating triumph is Part VI (“Loss Sonnets”), a symphony of sonnets, where the last line of each poem is repeated as the first line of the next. More sharply focussed on his mother than was Part V, this section resounds with emblems of New Brunswick while bearing the poet’s deep emotions for mother and homeplace: “I say your name and I do grieve. All names / dredge the deep, but they fail to take heed / and sprout.” His mother’s name and spirit deeply impressed in this work, Neilson successfully challenges his own assertion about what can truly sprout through and after metaphor.

 

Keith Garebian has published 27 books to date, including the poetry collections, Frida: Paint Me as a Volcano (Buschek, 2004), Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems (Signature, 2008), Children of Ararat (Frontenac, 2010), Poetry is Blood (Guernica, 2018), and Against Forgetting (Frontenac, 2019). Garebian has been shortlisted for the Grit/Lit, Freefall magazine, and the Gwendolyn MacEwen/Exile poetry awards, and one of his Jarman poems was set to music for choir and instruments by Gregory Spears in the U.S.

ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.