Book Review

In Through the Second Skin, his first full-length collection, Derek Sheffield explores the tension between nature and the man-made world we have punctuated with technology and populated with our fears, hesitations, and delights. Sheffield tracks the ways nature touches the things we’ve built and our concerns of self, family, and connectedness. The speaker of these poems is, in turn, gardener, laborer, fisherman, carpenter, expert birdwatcher, hiker, knower of rivers, knower of snake names and of the workings of Japanese cremation ceremonies. Sheffield’s language is mined from observation and reflection. His imagination is grounded in flora and fauna and in the words we use to make sense of ourselves. Inhabiting a landscape of light, bees, ants, search engines, murderous windows, wood roaches, loons, forest fires, outdoor sports stores, fertile rivers, and volcano-blasted mountaintops, Sheffield maps a deep, “almost in your grasp” relationship to nature.

Bears, marmots, hawk—animals liven these poems. In “As Seen Through a River,” water bugs are described in a flow worthy of their motion:

a skittish mob
of water striders whose spidery,
wire thin limbs do not
pierce and sink, but press
into being supple dimples,
and as they stir they talk
in clear syllables, a jittery council.

The “second skin” of the book’s title is revealed explicitly in “Near Wild Grasses”: “An afternoon like a loose grasp, a second skin / of breeze and blue, just right / for a stroll.” Here the poet, a new father, completes a lesson of humility and risk. He spies a rattler entering a yard where a child plays. Because of a nuanced knowledge of snakes’ habits, because of a mildness of character that the reader learns to suspect, the narrator is slow to act:

Odds are
this notorious pattern of blotches
will bruise no one. The tail’s golden hive
will not rouse. This rattler
will almost certainly stay
secret pulling its belly length
by length away through weeds
and wilder grasses.

A neighbor with a shovel comes to the rescue, while the poet thinks it through. By the end of poem the speaker’s own daughter is grabbing his cheek and sticking out her tongue, “wanting to know this man / who is becoming her father.”

Sheffield explores the duality of humans, integral to nature, yet pushing to be separate from it. In “The One We are Spiraling Into,” the speaker describes a visit to Mount St. Helens: “And here I am, / driving a mute blast of sunlight / with friends.” The volcanic eruption thirty years ago left a transformative devastation:

. . . and what’s left
of the woods, something like flagpoles
bristling on something like Ground Zero
even as we begin to see
a gritty soil.

Amidst the miracle of warblers thriving in a lone tree, newly formed rocks, a blasted mountain top, one friend “hopes for a Dairy Queen” on the ride home, while another flicks through digital photos. The volcano, however, has the last word: “And Elizabeth observes, a stone / in her lap the size of a skull, / This is young enough to be my child.

In the seminal “Between Highway 2 and the Wenatchee,” the speaker stops for a fish run: “What looked from the car / like boiling in the river was a collective shudder, / thrash of fin and sporadic scale.” A pair of hunters, husband and wife, appear beside him. They’ve followed bear tracks to the water. But the speaker studies wildlife. What he sees—dark shapes in dark woods—the hunters miss. The poem’s wide lens gives it spice, pacing, and depth. The speaker spies fish in the roiling water. The hunters have masterfully tracked the bears but don’t see them in the shadows where the bears are hiding. The speaker notices the woman’s camouflaged cleavage. He sees the bears. Finally, the point of view switches to “the bears themselves watching us watch them.”

Father, husband, friend—the voice of these poems is emotionally mature and has a passion for engagement. The speaker writes of his daughters and his grandfather, of firefighters, a dementia patient, a gravedigger, an oysterman. There is a surety and an openness of tone. The poet’s “second skin” is a skinned knee of perception, emotion, and habitat. The narrator of these poems is a soft spoken master scout of the middle ground between rivers and computers, between boyhood and the grave, between fatherhood and responsibilities regarding snakes, sand mounds, and vasectomies.

In “Nest Site,” Willow Flycatcher hatchlings are “scruffy lumplings / slated to unlock their flight and stitch / this air of ours.” The things we make, what we do with them, have something to do with who we are. To understand the birds, their “snaps and sallies, their kind / of fletched breath,” the poem advises the reader to look to: “the way a child keeps from sleep / as long as she can, cupping a flashlight / for the bloody glow of her hand.”

However, as well-crafted as these poems are, some of the language can seem overly considered. The reader is invited to share the poems’ illuminations and joys, but at times the tone seems stuck in one quiet note. In many poems Sheffield proves he can add pizazz to his careful observations. He does this very well but maybe not often enough. The out-of-context presence of the fire crew in a retail store in the poem “Firefighters Walk into Mountain Sports” is described tellingly:

Straight from the flames, faces soot-slapped
and yellow jackets swishing,
they track cinders of century-wide pines
wrenched from root sockets
and sucked skyward like bugled fireworks.

Urgent and impactful, these kinds of moments earn a high level of interest from the reader. Sheffield would do well to nurture more of them.

The physical book itself is beautifully printed and hardbound with the same level of care and attention to detail and grace the poems themselves exhibit. If you read poetry for unexpected insight and miracles, here you go. If your ear welcomes the colloquial stretched here and tightened there into lyricism, here you go.

This we are certain of, this hummingbird
and its need for sweetness. Light
is what makes the red around its throat
shimmer . . . .

Sheffield’s strength is in taut expressions of natural detail mixed with psychological revelation: “a breath of fierce light searching me / with one dark eye.” A confident, new Western voice, the speaker of these poems is an acute observer and a faithful, yet inventive, scribe.


Published: 2/11/14

About the Reviewer

John Whalen was born in Michigan, grew up in Tennessee and lives now in Spokane, Washington. He has published two books of poems, Caliban and In Honor of the Spigot, a chapbook. His poems have appeared in Epoch, the Gettysburg Review, CutBank, VQR, and other journals.