Derek Sheffield’s Not For Luck, winner of the Wheelbarrow Books Prize, is the poet’s second book. Sheffield is a poet of the American West, but he may have even deeper ties to a poet like William Stafford, the Midwesterner who was a poet of family and place and sketched a politics, or maybe, more accurately, an ethics of affection, arising out of the specifics of community.
Sheffield’s method is to build poems from close observation; his subjects are nature and family, memory and time—and loss, whether already felt or anticipated. Loss is sometimes lamented, but is sometimes simply acknowledged, examined, turned in the poet’s hand like an unremarkable stone pulled from the river. The book entwines poems of nature with poems of a father with his daughters, also entwined with the natural world. Sheffield’s poetry quietly advocates for the land and water and for the fragile, endangered beauty that arrives suddenly and is just as suddenly gone, like the yellow warbler that “tumbled leaf-like / from a streamside willow to nearly snap / my dropper before landing with a tap / on my rod tip, jittery droplet / of an eye flicking toward mine and away.” This is a poetry by a poet comfortable among creatures.
In “Timid as a Herd Animal,” the opening poem, we catch the poet’s willingness to engage the sounds of language, “raising every racket of mower / and blower, backhoe and whacker.” There’s also an echo, perhaps, of Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice Cream” a few lines later: “Have the hammocks hold fast / and the bark remain in the dog,” the first of many echoes and homages. If I were to want something more from this book, it might be more of these sonically-charged passages, as in “The Science of Spirit Lake,” where language is given its head—“in fish / after fish whip-thrashed into air, into arms / and body and day’s heat, all day, day / after day.”
Though the book engages the concerns of the eco-poetry movement, Sheffield is not above critiquing the movement, as in “Traveling Through the Dark Again,” in which eco-poetry conferees are critiquing William Stafford’s well-known poem about coming across a dead doe in the road, “Traveling Through the Dark.” Pointing to what they see as the presumptuousness of the lines “I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—, / then pushed her over the edge into the river,” the conferees “shove the poem out of their consideration.” The irony is not lost on Sheffield—they, of course, have just “thought for us all,” too.
Although the poems mostly look conventional on the page, hoving to the left margin and parsing themselves out in regular stanzas, there are a few poems that risk lighting out from the left margin, mostly to assume mimetic shapes. In “hitch,” the lines drift across the page like the stream the speaker is tracking, and in “A Response to a Pair of Forest Plots,” the first two tidy stanzas about one clearcut forest plot and one carefully thinned forest plot open up into a wild third stanza that spreads itself across the page when the author turns his attention to the “untidy grasses” nearby.
The poems of the natural world reveal a poet of rapt attention and care, but I find myself coming back and back to the father/daughter poems, to “Bedtime Story,” a lovely poem about a father who, remembering his own childhood, allows wonder to supersede rules and schedules. Or “First Grade,” in which father and daughter lament that the world does not always reciprocate our kindnesses. Or “Her Calling,” a complex poem that balances a daughter’s imagination and innocence against a father’s knowledge about the grownup world of loss and disappointment that ends: “May she keep herself / the way a shell cupped to an ear, no matter / how far or broken, never lets go / of ocean.”
In “C-3PO,” one of the family’s chickens dies. The father lets the daughters continue to believe that the chicken loved them. In this way, the father/daughter poems mostly poise the daughters’ innocence against the father’s knowledge. That mode is shaken, though, in “Monsters,” when the parents must acknowledge that some monsters are real when their daughter is diagnosed with seizures—the real source of her night fears. And in “Middle School,” the poem that gives the book its title, which is a poem of individuation and separation that turns when the father drops the daughter at school and she decides to remove her pink headband, leaving the father with the discarded article:
I watch every step I can, holding the headband with the bow, a pink U, a horseshoe. Not for luck, I know, but letting go.
In “What Will Keep Us,” written for and about the Save Our Coast Hike, long, supple lines catch the bounty of coastal life. Amid “the numberless legs / of sandpipers twiddl[ing] their skittery flocks always / just ahead,” and “the piping stutter of a crow-mobbed eagle / landing on a shaggy bough,” the daughters carry hope: “Kelsea kneels over some new swirl / of shell and exclaims. Katie says not a word, drawing / with her stick something in the sand we can’t yet see.” That final image recalls the dog who, in an earlier poem, “perk[s] her ears / toward something always coming / that never quite arrives,” or the poet himself who, in “April,” watching his daughter sleep, tries “to read in the lines / creasing her neck how / their story might go.” These images read not as ominous or worried, but open to wonder and possibility and hope.
But even as the poet turns to the future, it is memory, the weight and heft of memory, that fuels everything. In the strange and beautiful poem “The Seconds,” the speaker encounters a wood rat, “the black unblinking shine of a left eye // tilted toward mine,” who has built “a perfect conical accretion / of turds,” the turds, it turns out, of the family’s deceased dog. From this encounter, he builds a meditation on memory—“Let us not let go / ever, is what I took from your cave-wall stare / wood rat.” What follows is a catalog of memories, the wondrous alongside the painful—the whole story.
If the reader pays close attention to these poems, they will step out from the brush and reveal their beauties and their scars, their mottled coats, their fierce and tender adaptations, their wondrous wings. Not For Luck is not a book that engages the current flash and dazzle; it’s a steady book full of well-made poems with heart and intelligence that engage and enrich us, and, as Gary Snyder once wrote, return us “to the real work, to / ‘What is to be done.’”
Jon Davis is the author of six chapbooks and seven full-length poetry collections, including Improbable Creatures, An Amiable Reception for the Acrobat, and Above the Bejeweled City, forthcoming in September 2021 from Grid Books. Davis also co-translated, with the author, Iraqi poet Naseer Hassan’s Dayplaces (Tebot Bach, 2017). He has received a Lannan Literary Award, the Lavan Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships. He taught for 23 years at the Institute of American Indian Arts before founding, in 2013, the IAIA low-residency MFA in Creative Writing, which he directed until his retirement in 2018. From 2013-2015, he served as the City of Santa Fe’s fourth Poet Laureate. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Guesthouse, Poetry, Poem-a-Day, Bennington Review, Four Quartets: Poetry in the Pandemic, and In the Footsteps of a Shadow: North American Literary Responses to Fernando Pessoa.
Header photo by NadyaEugene, courtesy Shutterstock.