DOE Susan Baller-Shepard Finishing Line Press (102 pp.) $19.99 paperback ISBN: 978-1-63534-904-7; April 12, 2019
Kirkus Reviews BOOK REVIEW
A debut collection of verse delivers meditations on nature, womanhood, and a wide range of other topics.
Novelists and poets use words differently. The first group heaps sentence on sentence, paragraph on paragraph, creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In this context, individual words matter less. The same cannot be said for poetry. For the poet, words are precision tools, their internal tension heightened. Small alterations to the diction of, say, a Shakespeare sonnet might alter it entirely—or mar it irreparably. This truth is the motivating force behind Baller-Shepard’s fine verse volume. Accordingly, she quotes Twain, who argues that “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Throughout, the author plays in the tiny gaps between words, demonstrating just how significant those spaces can be. Her opening poem is an excellent example: “Doe a deer / in her muliebrity, that deer / loses when made plural, / becomes ‘does’—third person singular / present tense of do. / She’s more than what she does.” Here, Baller-Shepard, turns a tiny observation about the distinction between “does” (the plural for the female deer) and “does” (the simple verb) into a larger point about femininity, action, and identity. She pulls a similar trick in “Subtle Cues for the Non-Native Speaker,” which ruminates on the difference between “lay down” and “lie down,” an occasion to discuss much larger themes, like sex, friendship, male power, and sacrifice. Both these poems, and many others in the inspiring book, examine vital questions about gender roles and responsibilities. The author’s decision to take on such questions in verse is both brave and canny, as her conscientious poetry proves an ideal form for tackling these and other compelling themes with care and concision.
Precise, carefully calibrated poetry that explores crucial issues.