Tim Peeler, Review of Shelby Stephenson’s “Playing Dead”

by Tim Peeler

Shelby Stephenson
Finishing Line Press, 2011
ISBN: 9781599248776

Shelby Stephenson has long been one of North Carolina’s finest poets. And though he has spent a lifetime as a university professor, literary magazine editor, and writer, playing and singing traditional country and bluegrass music is perhaps his greatest love. Several years ago, I spent a lucky afternoon at the Stephenson home place where he, his brothers, his wife Linda and several neighbors performed world class renditions of traditional American songs on the front porch of the plank house where the boys were raised. The huge yard was wet at the beginning of the afternoon, but the sun (and perhaps the music) made quick work of drying it while emphasizing the beauty and lushness of the “place” that pervades if not haunts this volume of poetry as well as most of Stephenson’s work.

Yet even as I watched Shelby on that sunny day, his head thrown back in the throes of a Hank Williams lyric, exultant in the exclusive company of his overachieving brothers, I could not help but sense the otherness, and the insecurities that have driven him and given voice to such outsider characters as the protagonist of Playing Dead and recently, the slave girl, July in Family Matters.

One cannot help but read the poet, especially the underappreciated variety, into the character of the possum, Playing Dead. Ever since Pound dubbed Eliot with the moniker, poets have been fascinated with this curious nocturnal creature. As Robert Morgan notes in his jacket blurb, in Playing Dead, there are echoes of Appalachian poet, Jim Wayne Miller, and Stephenson has himself employed this narrator as device in a previous volume, the simply titled Possum. In fact, Playing Dead could easily be seen as an extension of the prior work, and as the author’s attempt to further explore much of the same territory; hence “Possum Lovecall” might now be “Playing Dead’s Love Song,” just as Big Hunter who haunted the first volume haunts this one as well.

Right away Playing Dead addresses the most important question that faces man, that of identity: “Who am I inching down this bark of lichens,/ A rattle to the creek’s edge,/ Washing my feet to creep no more.” In the same poem, “Playing Dead Ponders His Epic,” the narrator, now nearing the end of his life, answers his own question as he finally understands his role in Nature’s bigger picture,

The epics all written, the heroes dead or killed in imitation of perils
Carvings cannot depict, since my first father, O Cliff-face,
Still crawls through love’s knot, leaving a surfeit of his future everywhere.

In a country where poets are valued at about the same level as rodents, it would seem appropriate that Stephenson’s choice as a mouthpiece is a seemingly worthless nocturnal creature, though as we discover, “North America’s only marsupial. “ His naming it, Playing Dead, a survival technique, holds a significance which would not be lost on most career minor American poets, or artists for that matter. Just let me do my work and leave me alone, he seems to say. The beauty in these poems, however, is what Stephenson achieves by juxtaposing the idea of the lowly creature with the gorgeous lyric commentaries that he produces on subjects ranging from politics to religion. From “PD Contemplates Religion”:

‘Ah,’ said Playing Dead. ‘Could I be chosen?’
Big Hunter, burnt out with creating a game-plan, nodded.
‘Is this a sign?’ Asked Playing Dead, ‘How will I know?’
Big Hunter’s arm was the tree in which Playing Dead made his den.
‘Wake up,’ said Playing Dead, ‘Let’s talk turkey.’
Big Hunter turned on his side, like Orion with no ears.

Topical or not, many of the poems soar because of Stephenson’s ability to bring his musical acumen to the poetic line. Even the ones with shorter lines are enhanced by their rhythmic sense:

I climbed a bough of air
from a limb
that was swinging through clouds
drawing a big picture from the sun
O charming shawl I said
and wearing it on my shoulders
took it for my den
O cozy corner I said
and chewed on a blackgum twig
The sap running down my chin
and I kicked my calves
yes I said
this is it
from “In His Own Voice Once More PD Takes the Stand.”

The marsupial narrator not only grants Stephenson the freedom to comment openly on controversial subjects, but it also grants him a license to playfully experiment with form and tone. The volume includes faux-recipes such as “Hunters and Taters,” hip-hop rhythms and rhymes, and a long poem consisting of twenty-five couplets.

These sad and wonderful poems will not disappoint the fans of well-wrought poetry. I leave you with this musical image from “Playing Dead’s Universe” because it reminds me of the afternoon I spent at the Stephenson farm:

He improvised a vehicle and took to the road, the moon light on his shoulder.
A lightning strike danced him beyond his lineage
And he became a star, singing with his guitar,
Pooching out his lips to beat the band.
Dust snuffed out his melody; yellow drags of smoke rose from his heels.

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