Sunday Apr 14

ShepardNeil Neil Shepard’s new book, How It Is: Selected Poems, was published in spring 2018 by Salmon Poetry (Ireland). His sixth and seventh books of poetry were published in 2015: Hominid Up (Salmon Poetry), and a full collection of poems and photographs, Vermont Exit Ramps II (Green Writers Press, Vermont). His poems appear in Harvard Review, Paris Review, Southern Review, and Sewanee Review, as well as online at Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and Poem-A-Day (from the Academy of American Poets). Shepard has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland, and he has been a visiting writer at the Chautauqua Writers Institute, The Frost Place, and Ossabaw Island Writers Retreat. He founded and directed for eight years the Writing Program at the Vermont Studio Center; he also founded the literary magazine Green Mountains Review and was the Senior Editor for a quarter-century. He currently splits his time between Vermont and New York City, where he teaches poetry workshops at Poets House. website: (readers can purchase my books at this site). Visiting Poet at the Ossabaw Island Writers Retreat.
Dad’s Been Crying Again
as if he were the valedictorian
of mourning. He’s not a talker,
but he taught us how to be tightlipped
to pain. If we children cried,
he’d pinch our arms to teach us
there’s always another hurt,
so just shut up. Dad’s been crying again,
whose reservoir must be deep and long—
his 95 years of dammed streams
and rivers backed up and laid end
to end would reach from here to Mars.
That’s the red planet, cratered, un-
stable, dusty with indifference,
masked with poisonous gas. Dad’s been
crying again. He doesn’t want to live
like the last astronaut in outer space
but all his friends have gone
into the black vacuum before him,
and he can’t retain their names
or faces. His brain has made him shy
of something like a 3rd birthday, a time
before add & subtract & wash & dress
& make your bed. Unlike the kid
whose head will fill with facts and math
that lets him figure trajectories
of rocket ships, Dad’s head
fills with one obliterating thought:
he’ll soon be dead. He’s crying again.
And who can stop him? And what for?
He’s stored his tears for 90 years or more.
When not spanking a child, he wore a blinding
smile, a burly grace, a face unfazed by
ponderous circumstance. He aged and
aged, to an age where nothing’s left
to chance but death, the chance to span
a century. With brains so scrambled
he couldn’t say if God invented man or man
invented Time. He couldn’t say, for sure,  
if the cart preceded the horse, the chicken the egg,
the universe its inverse. He can only say
for sure, he’s forgotten how it ends but that
it ends. And then he cries again.

And Why Not Be Happy
Not a question.     A lever you press
against the stone of your sorrow
to lift the world
as the grungy singer
on the subway platform
undoubtedly did
with her paisley pants and purple bandana
and beat-up fiddle scratching a few notes
that sent rats dashing toward the third rail
and rattling her black tambourine
with most of the metal discs missing
which served anyway as a measure
of the increments between
one brake-screeching train and the next,
and after the loudspeaker announced
the next one’s approach,
she flashed her teeth and poured forth
a soprano so controlled so forceful
it could have come from nowhere other than
her decision to make it so
to make it a happiness
that lifted the day above itself
and opened the subway doors
and opened the listeners before we stepped over
the gap between platform and car
and rattled off into darkness.

Cormorants in Full Sun
Ossabaw Island, Georgia
Corruption in Congress was getting to me.
Never mind the White House. Perspective
was what I needed. I walked to the dock
in noon light, a clutch of cormorants
perched on wood pilings, a black mass
of outstretched wings reaching for the sun.
Killdeer cries in the mudflats. Red-billed
oyster-catchers skimming over the sanctuary.
Tripling the military budget? For what?
They were already in Russia’s back pocket!
Maybe red China? Maybe black-masked Muslims?
The cormorants looked nonplussed. They didn’t
care about some orange-haired, orange-skinned
nut-job who was going to obliterate their world,
and mine. They knew the moment was sweet,
even if they wouldn’t say it, but sun on black
wings looked so soothing I said it
for them. I wanted to know only what
they knew, this moment… tide-ebb exposing
the slick mud of the river emptying
into this brackish channel. Salt stung
my eyes. The salt marsh showed strange
incongruities, mud-lumps, hollows, holes
bubbling with covert life, sea-lice, water-
bugs scriggling along the surface, the feel
of it, somehow, shaky, too much I couldn’t
track or interpret. The cormorants took it all in,
or didn’t, impossible to know what
their red eyes, craning on snaky radar
necks, recorded. I recorded only what
my senses sensed, what made sense
as a coherent set of intel. Old Roger
came puttering round the cove in his fishing
rig, a few old boys with him, coolers no doubt
filled with fish and beer, and they tossed chum
overboard, excess of the catch, gashed
mouths or gills. As they bumped
against the dock, I saw honey-colored bottles
of Maker’s Mark, that whiskey going down
as smooth at noon as cocktail hour. The cormorants
stirred a little, ruffling their wings—in salute,
perhaps, or recognition. Were they all in it
together? When the old-boys raised their tumblers
of glowing amber to the sky, I wasn’t sure
it was for me, the birds, or their leader.
I gave a weak wave and watched the waves
beyond their boat that seemed, under this strong sun,
not waves at all but three-paneled triangles
colluding to wash over this undefinable
moving thing we’d all agreed to call water
and the wavering moment. Enough to trick
us into thinking the world was solidly
what it was, and waves were waves, not
momentary shapes shifting at the whim
of whoever was in charge of perceiving.
One moment, wind made the waves move and the day
move along. The next, when wind stilled,
and cormorants’ black wings lost their luster
and the individual feathers appeared more
like black daggers, the stillness
at the center of the day terrified.