Paperback, 86 pages
In some ways, Neil Shepard’s sixth book of poems, Hominid Up, feels representative of his body of work to date, in that the book contains a multitude of forms, styles, and subject matters, ranging from deep meditative poems about rural New England to jazz poems. Where the book differs from Shepard’s previous work, however, is in its stinging critique of contemporary America and unfettered capitalism. Many of the book’s poems are appropriate for the times, when class issues and the Occupy-themed slogan “We are the 99 percent” are part of the national dialogue, and in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other communities, issues of race and class have led to mass demonstrations, arrests, and damaged property. At this point in U.S. history, it would be difficult for any poet of American descendent to ignore the tensions that have dominated headlines over the last few years.
The book’s initial pages contain several poems about New York City, a place the poet now calls home, after moving there from Vermont. In one of the poems, “At the Corner of Broadway and 105th,” the sensory details of the city pulsate, including the “hiss” of a bus and subways that “whoosh and rattle.” At the center of the poem is a man who claims to have HIV and pleads with the speaker for money to pay for public transportation to reach Beth Israel downtown. The poem’s ethical dilemma arises when the speaker decides not to lend the man money, but ultimately feels bad about it by the poem’s conclusion, confessing, “And I save twenty bucks / and I wasn’t suckered, but later, I felt a swindler’s pride / as if I’d cheated him of his valuables, and later still, my mind hit a black mood.” This poem is especially striking in the questions it poses regarding our reactions to poverty, especially when we claim to be liberal. Do we help, or do we turn our backs?
Another poem, “Occupy Wall Street,” captures the tent cities that popped up in Zuccotti Park, before Mayor Bloomberg ordered the NYPD to shut it down a few months after its creation. The poem is populated with famous slogans from the movement, including “We are the 99%” and “Banks got bailed out; we got sold out!” Anyone who participated in any of the protests will be familiar with Shepard’s depiction of the police reaction to the protestors:
No matter how deftly we death-swoon on the sidewalks
before Bank of America, cops sweep in, sweep us up
for arrest if we lie too long. No matter
how coolly customers withdraw their paltry sums
from Citi Bank or Chase, the chanters
on the sidewalks, in the lobbies, shouting, Shame!,
we’re cuffed, arrested, tossed into paddy wagons
by the corporation goons. No matter
how the barricades herd us, flocks unwilling
to be fleeced, we compound our voices—
Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!
There’s a push and pull that exists within the poem between the “flocks” of protestors and the police, and yet, the voice of the protestors is never stomped out in the poem, especially since Shepard sets their voices in bold type, so that what they have to say rings loudly throughout the poem, before the concluding lines, “There is / another world, and it is in this one.” Those concluding lines represent what it felt like to be at the protests in fall of 2011, specifically the possibility that something would change and a major shift would happen. At the very least, conversations happened in public spaces.
The end of the book shifts to rural New England landscapes, while still addressing the haves and have nots. The poem “Front Hayden’s Shack, I Can See to the End of Vermont,” for instance, references the state’s liberal politics, but also how the 1 percent / real estate has gobbled up land. The poem references a county in which a slew of candidates, including a Marxist, “Progressive,” and “Cowshit Farmer,” run for mayor, but despite the seemingly left-wing politics of the state, the speaker admits, “But even here, it’s / darkening. Rising / real estate. High / balls at five / We close our eyes / to the tale of two cities / nearby, Queen and Capital.” If Vermont has succumb to rampant capitalism and the great class divide, then what does that say about the rest of the country?
Hominid Up offers Shepard’s sharpest critique of rampant capitalism and shows how it impacts different American landscapes, from New York City to rural Vermont. Some of the longer meditative works and tributes to jazz musicians are reminiscent of Shepard’s earlier collections, but Hominid Up is one of his most diverse collections to date and one of the boldest for his willingness to so openly address issues of race and class.
Brian Fanelli is the author of Front Man and All That Remains. His poetry, essays, and book reviews have been published by The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, Paterson Literary Review, Blue Collar Review, [PANK], Chiron Review, and other publications. He is a Ph.D. student at SUNY Binghamton and teaches at Lackawanna College.