Mid-List Press, 2011
ISBN-10: 0922811881 ($13)
True travel writing is an art not found within the glossy guides that adorn big name bookstores and souvenir shops. Indeed, travel writing is a journey of sorts. Writers who embark in travel writing do more than merely catalog people and events. Instead, they blend the outer physical journeys of their travels with their own inner journeys, recording their own perceptions to come to new realizations about themselves and the world. Neil Shepard’s latest collection of poetry, (T)ravel/Un(T)ravel does just that. His recorded travels take him to the many ends of the earth, from Europe to China to Bali. But wherever he goes, whether he is exploring busy marketplaces or sacred places, Shepard wrestles with the outer hardships of physical travels while exploring his relationship with the world around him.
Many of the poems in Shepard’s book find the narrator lyrically cataloging present travels and his place within these events. In “(T)ravel/Un(T)ravel: Monkey Forest Road (Ubad, Bali)” the narrator explains:
Pinned under mesh netting, I awake
to mosquitos and geckoes, brash anjing
howling outside, fighting cocks bruising
the air. The market’s squawk is a block off
where women smelling of raw fish, their breasts
burst from their shirts, and men hawking
and emptying their nostrils on the sidewalk
shout Mister! Mister! This morning I can
roll over and refuse it –
But of course he doesn’t refuse. In spite of the fact that he could “roll over, and burrow deeper” into his “wife’s awakening flesh,” he doesn’t. Instead, he prepares to rise and face a place that is unknown to him, asking, “How will I arrive there unscathed and prepared?”
This single question follows Shepard throughout this collection. It’s true that he does not leave the tribulations of travel out of his poems. In “(T)ravel/Un(T)ravel: Choler” the narrator explains that “heat withered our patience” and in “Duzi,” set in the Taklamakan Desert in China, the narrator describes his travels as the following: “Seven hours of irritable, ass hard, desert bus ride” that makes his travel companion sick. But mostly, we see a narrator navigating a world that both frightens and intrigues him. In “Corfu” he gives the grimness of poverty and disease its own beauty as he describes “beggar-widows huddle in their black shawls” who have “eyeless stares, worse than/the eye of the all-knowing, two black holes for sockets” and whose “hands rise from scaly limbs” as “they beg with their missing fingers.” Mystery lies in other poems. In “Ghost Talk” the narrator admits to losing himself “to the puka dance” and joining in to the “Marquesan chants in the Catholic Church/with a baptismal font made of dolmens/and an altar of bamboo spears.”
Certainly, the present is very much a focus of this book. However, history, especially literary history also haunts much of the collection. For instance, “By the Bard’s Water” finds the narrator standing by the Avon contemplating both the work of Shakespeare and the mortality of life, and in “Punting on the Cam” he asks the question “How many ghosts in this river/crowded with punts” while answering with a list of names, including Milton, Coleridge, Byron and Wordsworth, “nearly half/the voices of English literature floated/here in their green years over the water.” A personal favorite is the touching “Keats House, Hampstead Heath” where Shepard gives a tribute to Keats’ life, exploring the physical place where some of Keats’ best work was written but also the place he fell in love with Fanny Brawne, a romance hindered by both poverty and illness.Shepard approaches the world with a reporter’s eye and a poet’s insight. He avoids merely cataloging what he sees. Indeed, it is like he explains in “(T)ravel/Un(T)ravel: The World Goes Away,” that he sets out to make “the tour books disintegrate.” As a reader, I’m glad that the tourbook does disappear. For in its place, we get an honest and heartfelt look at our world without sentimentality and without fear.