Although Neil Shepard has long been associated with the stony foundations of Vermont, both by his luminous invocations of the natural world and his Frost-worthy, densely woven lyricism, he has emerged over the course of his writing life as an intrepid, wise and wry observer of the larger world. His poems are expansive, meticulous in their emotional cartography, and always historically resonant while still discovering those troubled reckonings of the self in motion, in travel. What emerges is nothing less than an ethical aesthetic, a narrative architecture that constellates around a strong moral center even as, at times, the poet’s confidence in that center quietly dissolves in the deep bath of experience. Yet this impeccably crafted collection remains the voice of a mature, hard-won and individual poetic resolve.
Neil Shepard takes a rare, submerging interest in almost everything: the jazz greats, the origins of Gullah construction, Vermont exit ramps, Marquesan pig grunts, political fiascos, stark historical chasms, Manhattan homeless, the East Hampton mega rich, an empty wheelchair beside the Seine, remote corners of China, authors to quarrel with or praise, and that’s just a splash of his oceanic immersion. Reading How It Is: Selected Poems is to read the world, for there are few places Shepard seemingly has not drawn out on foot or by air or rail. What takes him to so many different places on and off the grid? If each of us assumes a persona we then spend a lifetime unmasking, then Shepard is the peripatetic gypsy scholar investigator scouring for clues to what we are doing and not doing with our little footprint of time. Mostly, he expresses affection, curiosity and lament for the simultaneous vanishing and expansion of all things in this world and in that expression he enlarges and sometimes rattles us by asking us to look again at what we quickly walked past. By seeing again, we recognize value and maybe even reclaim hope for the species. After reading this book, I want, as Shepard says, to “strap on a hood/and jacket...and bend/ into misting rain. An object/ passing objects as probable as sheep/ or stone.”
Neil Shepard's new book, How It Is: Selected Poems, encompassing a quarter- century worth of work, unites the poles of wilderness and culture. He praises the natural world (these pages are populated by bell birds, phoebes, ovenbirds, yellow warblers, to take only from the avian sector) and proves himself equally committed to the more cerebral side of our nature that catalogues, for instance, travel (these generous poems, taking us from the back country of Vermont, to the character-laced sidewalks of New York City, to the end of the Great Wall in China, seem equal parts experiential and deeply researched)). I would call these poems smart, if that didn't miss the point, if the smartness weren't so infused by the sonics of jazz and blues, the love of the far reaches of language, and an essential underlying wildness, if they weren't so damn hip.
Neil Shepard has seen a few things: from the remote Pacific islands, to the hillsides of Vermont, where he limns one exit ramp after another, opening up history and character and hope. Culling poems from six fine collections, Shepard praises “fruit, fowl, fish, and flesh” and invites us to seek with him “the same brief fires in the dark.” How It Is: Selected Poems is a fresh celebration of what matters.