by Scott Owens
by Steven Sherrill
CW Books, 2010, 120 pages
The poems in Steven Sherrill’s Ersatz Anatomy use the words “want,” “need,” “desire,” “longing,” and “yearn” 74 times. Those words appear at least once in 36 of the volume’s 74 poems, clearly suggesting that desire is the primary subject of this poetic inquiry. As if to erase any doubt about that, Sherrill offers such individual titles as “Preamble to the Treatise of Desire,” “Footnote to the Preamble,” “Treatise on Desire,” “First Amendment to the Treatise on Desire,” “Retort to the Treatise,” “Passion,” and “The Want Bird.” Similarly, among the many memorable lines related to desire, Sherrill writes, “It is the topography of need we traverse” (“Geese at 9000 Feet”) and “I am punch drunk with want” (“Sweet Grief”).
Such an emphasis on desire should not be surprising. After all, what emotion is more human than desire, and what desire stronger than the desire for knowledge, for certainty, for God. The earliest stories of human being(s) (Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Gilgamesh, for example) make it clear that the defining characteristic of human existence is desire. Those stories tend to cast desire in a rather ambivalent light. Specifically they propose that desire to be with or like God is good and desire for all else is bad, at least in any measure exceeding the very relative term “moderation.” Of course, the fact that human beings can only know God in very nebulous forms (burning bushes, pillars of cloud, thunder and lightning), heightens the sense of desire and redirects it towards things that might approximate religious rapture. It is no semantic accident that the word most often used for both religious and sexual fulfillment is the same–ecstasy–a fact not lost on the speaker of these poems.
Unable to achieve either fulfillment of the one desire that defines humanity or lasting fulfillment of desire in general, the nature of human existence is to live in uncertainty, to be subject to an “unknowable you,” our “doubt” to whom we “remain devout” “with true pause” (“Latter-Day Sonnet”). The real question then becomes not whether one experiences desire or doubt, both of which are inevitable, but what one does in such a state, whether one denies it; or better, manages to exist in a state of uncertainty without “any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” as Keats’ negative capability would suggest; or better yet, relishes that state, explores it, as the speaker of these poems does, inventing a capability that is neither negative nor positive but decidedly human: “Beyond hunger more hunger / Learn to eat the emptiness” (“Footnote to the Preamble”). The speaker of these poems understands that no teleological approach to human existence holds any satisfactory answers, and that the absence of such answers is inherently unsatisfying as well. What we are left with is the constantly difficult proposition that the journey is its own reward.
Sherrill signed my copy of Ersatz Anatomy, “For Scott, who shared my journey for many good years.” Nothing could be more appropriate. When we were both younger we took many journeys together, walking every set of railroad tracks and every creek leading from Charlotte, NC, just to see what we could see, hiking nearby wooded or mountain trails, climbing Crowder’s Mountain, working through classes taught by Robert Waters Grey, Robin Hemley, and Chris Davis at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. And of course, all of this was part of our mutual journeys towards becoming writers and men.
I’ve seen Sherrill only once since we parted ways some 18 years ago. In the interim we have both been married, divorced, and remarried, have both raised children of our own, and have both pursued with some success our careers in teaching and writing. Through all that, however, one thing has never changed: Sherrill is still at his best when on a journey, in this case, the kind of journey afforded him in a long poem where thought, perception, emotion, and reflection all interweave to (re)create an experience as authentic as any I’ve read. The poem “At the Shore of the Great Lake Michigan I Come Upon the Feet of Egon Schiele in the Moonlight” is a thematic and stylistic paragon of all that Sherrill undertakes in this book.
The poem begins innocently enough: “On the bluff above, a caveat — Beach Closed. No Entry After Dark.” From that, few would guess that what would follow would be a refreshing meditation on the nature of religion, faith, and humanism. “It is well after dark and I am here” the speaker defiantly proclaims in the same stanza, and we follow him as he descends to the dark beach and discovers a piece of driftwood that strikes his imagination as “the feet of Egon Schiele.” A series of religious, historical, and personal associations then leads him to the poem’s final remarkable epiphany:
The nature of faith is, more or less, . . .
any goddamned thing I want it to be. Here I write the doctrines.
I am the Apostle and the acolyte . . . I am the deacon and the fold.
This is my church, my church, and I believe
in the feet of Egon Schiele
in the moonlight.
This epiphany of how art, beauty, identity, and hope are all found in the interaction of nature and human memory, of philosophy, science, and religion, clarify the humanistic and aesthetic understanding that is at the thematic and emotional center of all of these poems.
As “At the Shore of the Great Lake Michigan” illustrates, there is nothing easy about reading Steven Sherrill’s poetry. The poems are full of remarkable, often surreal imagery and surprising shifts in perspective, moving by an associative logic that challenges the most imaginative reader to keep up. Sherrill is not only negatively capable but very comfortable with contraries: faith and heresy; Apollonian control and Dionysian wildness; aesthetic smugness and endearing humility. None of that is easy, but anything that explores human nature without flinching at its complexity, with such unblinking honesty, can be cathartic and enlightening, and in any event, a hell of a lot of fun.