Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Not for Luck

By Derek Sheffield

Reviewed By John Whalen

Buy this book

In his second book of poetry, Not for Luck, Derek Sheffield’s voice is coherent, emotive, always sure, always discerning in its particulars whether describing “a crater’s living steam,” “grasshoppers / click[ing] their yellow wings,” a family gathered for an eclipse, “each lensed / by this brush of the great silence,” or the social arrangements of a child’s imaginary friends. The poems are refreshingly authentic. A straightforwardness—a genuine, unapologetic sincerity—communicates an abiding empathy for disappeared and surviving Native Americans, for children, friends, insects, “a crow-mobbed eagle,” kelp and mountain streams: facets of the world’s every-day beauty, its existential crises. Poems of connectedness offer recurring moments of revelation: connectedness to forests and oceans and running streams, to daughters and parents, to whales and orcas. In “Emergency” the grace of a doe as she “sets her left / front hoof onto / the road” leaves a careful driver inside a vehicle whose lights are “pulsing like a / cornered heart.” At the entrance to her middle school, a daughter “plucks off her pink headband / with its pink bow dotted with hearts” because that very moment she outgrew it. Her father is left holding “a pink U, a horseshoe. Not / for luck . . . but letting go.”

Joy, accountability, hope, and loss are situated inside relationships: daughters who teach the poet the art of letting go, “the aggregate beauty of every trout / and star-clotted night,” a mother who left him when he was young, a distant father, a caretaker “neither / mother nor father” who later dies alone, friends the poet holds in close regard. From the stillness and silence “of dusk, fog or drizzle” to the sweet smell of a sleeping child—“the lotion of her sleep”—to “every pack-heavied step over sand hoppers and weed-slicked rocks,” the force of these poems is enlivened with self-awareness and engagement. In “The Seconds,” entering a shed at the end of winter, Sheffield makes sense of a blocked door:

. . . and there, rising from the dirt floor,
surrounded by a dusty clutter of tools,
a little mountain, the kind of things my daughters
might have scooped together in the fall and left
for the faeries if it weren’t a perfectly conical accretion
of turds.

Surprisingly, the frozen turds belong to his recently deceased dog, “that golden shuffle of paling wheat fields,” and were collected by a wood rat whose “cave-wall stare” says to the poet, “Let us not let go / ever.” The rat’s mind-mold admonition reminds the poet of the struggles of parenting and of his daughters:

Every tremor of their changing voices, their first words,
every shape and shade of their widening gazes,

and all the hard shit, too, the nights of no sleep,
the wet beds and fits and scream, slammed doors
and shaken fists . . .

As an aspect of relationship and connectedness, the shape of many of the poems flows naturally according to the subject, with the lines formatted like a stream, a snake, the sharpness of blade. Found in the Snake River Canyon, an ancient Nez Perce arrowhead is:

the black
of shattered water
still sharp and down
the centuries
shining.

Sheffield gives quiet, sustained attention to what he sees and what he knows: a rockfish is “a spiny length of scales / moving in “coppery swishes.” The “battering wings” of a Carolina wren “make little breaths against the back of my neck.” A Soviet space dog is “the fur and love and living breath / we sent away. / Into that mute black . . .” In a game his daughter invents, she and her father “clap the stuttering / snaps of the kindling / coming to life in the stove.” In one moment the arrival of a second daughter reduces his marriage to “the slick reek  / leaking out the sides / of a split diaper” and in another moment celebrates that same marriage with “two powdered and bath- / warm cheeks.” The sisters are “nude as moon babies.” A lawn sprinkler “drop by drop has filled a blue bowl” and this “whirling / and flinging” of the sprinklers’ “bright globes” is “also clearly a matter of light / splashed and light / scattered in all directions.” In “Abortion Wish” the pain of Sheffield’s abandonment by his mother is crystalized in searing honesty. The poem is addressed to the poet’s half-brother born and given away when the mother was only a teenager. For the mother the absent infant was always present:

the little features
she would come back to all her life,
what she went looking for
when nothing seemed to be looking for her.

He was the “one / who carried her happiness.” The poet wishes his half-brother had never been born: “not for anything / you did, but for how she / was done when you began.”

In “Exactly What Needs Saying,” Sheffield considers his father’s emotional distance, as well as his own. His father hides behind daily “sweeping and wiping.” He acts “as if the crumbs you might scatter / or the dirt on your shoes is what matters, / this pretending not to see you.” The poet internalizes that strategy of distancing and asks himself about himself:

How much longer
will it be before you stop doing
and start saying exactly what needs saying?

The attention paid to his own experiences is by virtue of the poet’s emotional intelligence, a grace of knowing one’s place in the world, a grace informing a humble clarity. Here is what I experienced, here is what is like to love a child, to be a parent, to have your mother abandon you, to defend William Stafford from wannabe ecopoets, to learn fly fishing in Richard Hugo’s Milltown hole. In “hitch” Sheffield describes a stream:

            this ceaseless going you
            follow when you
            follow a stream
back into the hills
purls and moils
wrinkles in flats its
                        glassy aim
                        breaking to re-
            shape every slope it is
            bound to flow
                        and crumple each
                        try to make sense
                        of whirl and glint
                        and hold it

The lines of the poem wind across the page in concert with the stream winding through the hills. Upstream, the speaker saves a “day-moth stuck up- / side down, wings full spread / and legs like sutures.” The human sphere is not separate from the natural. Sheffield’s powers of observation and knowledge of the natural world lead to a simple but bold realization. He experiences the delicate life of the moth and the moth experiences him. With the “the pinpricked black / of its globed eyes” the moth sees “multitudinously” the poet as he is:

the you who has killed
and eaten and licked
his greasy fingers the you
who has hurt others
and borne grudges
and the you who will again
and this one
            who walks upstream
            to the tallest pine tree in sight
            to divert a little life
            for at least his one
            onto the bark

In “Her Calling,” his younger daughter’s struggles with the loss of her big sister to the beginning of the school year, lands the poet inside the girl’s imaginary world:

. . . her phone started ringing
all by itself, right after she sat on it.
“Oh, no! It’s Mia!” she said.
I’ve never seen Mia, of course, or any of the others,
but knowing her through reports
that begin, “You won’t believe what Mia said!”
I said don’t answer but it’s a good thing she did—
turned out to be Curly wearing a Mia mask
and calling from Luna’s house.

“Monsters” reveals a child’s unexplained illness to be what any parent would recognize as a true monster, worse than any closet-hiding or under-the-bed boogeyman. “It took her,” the poet laments.

. . . we saw
            something like a breeze
enter her sleep, then her eyes
            fly open at a gust
heaving through her chest, her eyes
            two blips of black water
unseeing us. Then legs
            jerked and arms shivered up
like plants stalks in fast forward,
            desperate petals of fingers un-
clenching . . .

The “unseeing” attributed to the child’s eyes is a doubling of the horror, as at the conclusion of the poem where “the brute puppetry” of the epileptic fits the child suffers serves as a mocking mirror image to the fragile certainty and hope of the family sitting vigil. The resonant depth of the family’s experience is rendered without fuss or exaggeration. “Monsters” is not merely an adroit twenty-first century appropriation of the trope of the monster, the other, the dangerous unknown. It’s also our very human reaction to overwhelming, helpless love, to ecological collapse, and to our unpredictable, fragile lives:

            possessed by our certainty,
even laughing at times
            when we promised
no such thing.

A good poem may simply be described as one that is read and read again. And again. For solace, affirmation, insight, humor, depth, joy: a satisfying compression of words and sounds returned to for any reason. Sheffield is emotionally present without sentimentality or clever guile. He offers us a gift of discernment that we can recognize as our own and return to for second helpings and more. Inside these poems we’re confronted and comforted with our own struggles, our own moments of getting the firewood in, no matter the unexpected emergency room visit or the seven stitches it requires. The world leaves its mark on us, as we in turn take from it—because of family and friendship, because of who we are, because “we are getting the work done,” because at sunset after a satisfying day, “the land split[s] the light of a beautiful wound.”

John Whalen is the author of Caliban by Lost Horse Press and of three chapbooks, including Above the Pear Trees, which won the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. His poetry has appeared in EPOCH, VQR, The Gettysburg Review, Willow Springs, CutBank, The Greensboro Review, Radar Poetry and most recently in Catamaran and Terrain. Poems are upcoming in the Hollins Critic.