Wallace Stevens wrote, “I am the necessary angel of earth, / Since, in my sight, you see the earth again.” It was a remarkable statement for a man who spent his days in the executive office of an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. Of course, he spent time too contemplating the shoreline in Key West, Florida, so the earth did have a direct line to his poetic receptors. He understood too that the imagination, as well as the eyes, shape reality, that poetry—a kind of second sight that has made human beings keen to their surroundings throughout and before history—is “the supreme fiction.” Reality may be created in our minds, he might have said, but let’s make reality glorious.
Derek Sheffield, in his fine first book, does not invoke Stevens. He invokes Darwin, Schopenhauer, James Wright, Thomas Merton, Van Gogh, Robert Frost, and Zbigniew Herbert, among his artistic paramours. He invokes friends and neighbors and oystermen and firefighters shopping at “Mountain Sports.” His poetry allows no division between those who know the earth from studying it and those who know the earth from working it. Through the Second Skin is a book full of keen attentions to world and word, demonstrating a crafty formal intelligence and a gift for empathic seeing. And while Sheffield reaches to see through “Darwin’s Eyes,” as the book’s signature poem does, his work demonstrates that a poet’s eyes can become an instrument that refines and extends our seeing both outward and inward.
Birds command Sheffield’s attention. An ivory-billed woodpecker is “epic of air.” James Wright becomes conflated with a frail yellow warbler that “lay in my palm, thinning from its journey, / a breath of fierce light searching me / with one dark eye,” and the ornithology student finds that after dissecting specimens and giving “new vision / to a blackbird with two dabs of cotton,” the birds have gained dominion over his sensations.
. . . and when you walk out
among the world’s perches and Latinate streaks
at the edge of sight, the air is feathers
measuring the bones of your face.
The precision of his observation, language, and lines mark a poet who has spent enough time with his craft to make attention to the page an analogue to attention to the world. Some lines are neat equations of juxtaposed images: “soft sparrow. Scaly talons” and “before Pepsi and the pyramids” and “for Sabbath and dialysis” and “against the sky. We are.” Taken out of context, they speak to me for the poet’s role in creating balance in a world that perpetually teeters on the fulcrum of danger and beauty, loss and abundance, the evanescence of life and its solidity.
Sheffield is equally keen at rendering field observation with finely honed description. Here are 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
I can only watch.
And to what end, this observation and granting of agency to the allegedly insignificant? There is agency in every living thing. And if one can make the scale shift to know that, the human position in the marvel and mess of the whole becomes more clear and humble.
Attention too is paid to that register of being that’s probably the spur to all poetry—the inner questions that call for scrutiny, “the intersection of Eternity and Moment” that has troubled the philosophers of which Sheffield writes in “Holy Traffic at the Universal Gate.” This is a domain (“an axiological forest”) where words may accrete but in the end the poet’s summary can be to “let nothing / do the work that nothing can.”
Among my favorite poems in the collection are those populated by family and neighbors where anecdote serves as field for contemplation of and awakening to the weight of human responsibilities. In “The Ramp,” a man works to make accommodations, physical and emotional, to a grandfather’s disability and decline. In “Alice,” a woman reclaims her words after a stroke by putting Post-its all over her house—and thereby attempting to reclaim her world. And in “Near Wild Grasses” a man’s benign encounter with a rattlesnake turns into a wounded parable of how a man learns to become a father. No knee-jerk didacticism here, but a quiet moral intelligence built on observation and presence. Poetry this keenly engaged is enough to make me think that, as the supreme fiction, poetry is an instrument that just might have the power to keep the world in balance. “There is no question,” Sheffield writes, “we live by relations.” This is a book to be read and re-read in contemplation and admiration for the way it opens up the reflective space so many of us hunger for in a frenzied time.
Alison Hawthorne Deming, Professor and Director of Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, is author of four poetry books, most recently Rope, and three books of nonfiction, including Writing the Sacred Into the Real. She lives in Tucson, Arizona and on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada. Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions.