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Shift by Kelly Shepherd
reviewed by Hannah Main – van der Kamp

Kelly Shepherd
Thisteldown Press


The day a review copy of Shift came in my mailbox was the same day that Fort McMurray first came into the news. A casual glance opened to The Fort McMurray Trickster Switch:

...the coyote was back,
clay coloured and prairie shadow thin
with cautious steps
on the newly excavated ground.
I’m sure he didn’t recognize the place
we had been busy making into
the surface of the moonle
I thought I felt him staring
but I couldn’t look him in the eye.
We were held there for a moment,
orange hard-hat workers,
an invasive swarm of ants and trucks
and excavators as big as fossils
fuels turned back into dinosaurs.
So much noise and filth,
so much damage, the earth
herself sent someone to have a look.

Kelly Shepherd is originally from Smithers and now teaches in Edmonton. His chapbooks have been appearing for several years with various small presses. With 12 hours shifts in NWT burning off excess diesel to cement work and landscaping and every kind of labour in between, he fits into the genre of Work Poet, an honourable calling for a writer in the Northwest. Think of Tim Bowling in commercial fishing. Though his notes reference Thoreau, Snyder, Leopold and Dillard, the poems also suggest appreciative reading of McKay and Lane. The jobs are all hard but not without lyrical and reflective noticing: a baby jack rabbit, a lone pelican, marmot fur, nuthatch feather. Shift is not primarily Nature poetry; there are accounts of injuries on the job, rough times remembered and tough stories overheard.

Many kinds of contemporary poets are needed for many kinds of readers. There’s room for lots. There is no need to quibble over who’s really got the Great Poet badge. Think of the commentary about Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize. In the October issue of Maclean’s, Jaime Weinman writes, “…the award to Dylan is really a way for the Nobel committee to rebel against the kind of literature it usually recognizes: small, personal and with a select audience. By picking a pop writer over writers in more prestigious forms, the voters might be indulging in a fondness for writing that reaches a large audience and with which a lot of people can identify…. the implied message may be that poetry should be more like Dylan.” Shepherd’s pieces are mostly small and unpretentious. Uncomplicated and accessible, innovational they are not. That is not to say that his is not a fresh voice. Innovation with language is necessary; someone has to do that difficult groundbreaking work, witness Liz Howard, the recent Griffin prize winner. But no one form qualifies automatically as “elite”. It is the authentic workmanship within a style that determines what is elite. Shepherd is writing literally about “ground breaking”. Physical labour can be so numbing for many. Shepherd can do it and simultaneously notice the ephemerals and find the words for them.

Shift is an appropriate title for this volume. The arresting cover (design without acknowledgement!) of a cutaway bird showing both surface and skeleton is a shift. Then there is shift as in 12 hours. There’s also the shift from the hours of labour with large machinery to the work of making the poem. Last but not least, many poems are about animals who shift from place to place, from earth to air to water.

Finishing this review, two other shaking events occurred. D. Trump became President-Elect of the USA and Leonard Cohen died. The first is the normalizing of the vulgar and banal. How could the public discourse have regressed into such coarseness? The latter is about the honesty required by poetry.

Time to shift the gears of popular culture;it won’t hurt to reread Cohen. In 1978, Cohen wrote,

“The poem is nothing but information. It is the Constitution of the innercountry. If you declaim it and blow it up with noble intentions, you are no better than the politicians you despise. You are just someone waving the flag and making the cheapest appeal to a kind of emotional patriotism. Do not work the audience for gasps and sighs. If you are worthy of gasps and sighs…it will be in the statistics and not in the trembling of your voice or the cutting of the air with your hands. It will be in the data and the quiet organization of your presence. Avoid the flourish.”

Accessible, quiet, reflective with the small particulars in place, Shift is a book to restore sanity. No need for hyper flourish, something like this,

The sand on the lake bottom
is shaped more like water
than the water is.

Let’s believe in that.

Poet, editor, reviewer, Hannah Main-van der Kamp, lives on the Upper Sunshine Coast where she watches sea planes and reads the Spanish mystics.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 21.