(Orchises, 2013) $21.95 Hardback.
Derek Sheffield’s first full-length collection, Through the Second Skin, is the culmination of a complex and brilliant mind drawn to the natural world, a mind just as keen to explore human beings—whether in relation to non-human nature or to themselves. The central beauty of this book lies in the flexibility of Sheffield’s voice: Although motifs, especially birds and ecology, form connective tissues that bind the collection, each poem is so different from the others that the book becomes less a narrative and more a broad ground of textures and spectra, much like the collection’s striking cover: a brilliant, close-up, and vivid shot of the complex venation and color-field of a dappled autumn leaf. This denial of tonal sameness makes Through the Second Skin particularly fun to read, and worth revisiting to relive the surprises inhabiting Sheffield’s poems.
Sheffield is a naturalist, a devoted bird enthusiast, and “Ornithology 101,” the book’s opening poem, reflects the poet’s facility with image and sound:
Now that you have staked their skeletons,
eyed the scope of a throat, prodded
strutted white ribs, pinched
a wishbone for resilience, thumbed
a keeled sternum’s edge still trying
to steer scattered feathers, stroked
a hummingbird’s mum iridescence, ruffed
the white down of a great egret
slit and stuffed as last year’s final project,
sprinted with a severed wing to catch
the physics, given new vision
to a blackbird with two dabs of cotton,
you can leave with an A in class Aves.
The poem concludes on an expansive note, and the perceptive piercing of the bird and all its being is counterpointed by the poem “Search Engine,” in which Sheffield deftly synthesizes the idea of contemporary technology with the elemental: “Stooped over a desk, fingers / tapping, a man squints // as if he looks into the sun / instead of a screen. Beyond // his wall, branches stir over a lengthening line, ants // on the crawl. With taps / clicks, and whirrs, he ventures // wider. . . .” Indeed, the narrator also includes other forms of nature in his exploration.
Particularly successful are “The Accretions” and “Oystermen.” The former poem proves meditative, satirical, stark, profound. Prompted by a letter from Sheffield’s friend, part of which forms the epigraph—“I understand that Blake would have us see heaven in a grain of sand, but some days nature must bow before the accretions of our fantastic species.”—Sheffield elucidates these accretions:
So that’s what the sun has been up to
prostrating its shining before mine
as I savor the genius of knife and fork
with respect to steak. Every day ending
in a bow, a flattering reminder
to save room for that saffron custard
crème brûlée, that pinnacle
caramelized in Paris as nowhere else.
On the Boulevard of Champions,
bankers dab their lips with cloth napkins,
merci, as the moon lowers herself
before Pepsi and the pyramids. . .
Indicative of his flexibility not only between poems but within them, Sheffield jolts the narrative into an exploration of his past and the violent realities of war.
“Oystermen” recalls the narratives of Wilfred Owen, Heaney, and Hopkins, with its sonic vividness and wordplay: “With slowing eyes, I watch them roam / and dazzle like prehistoric fireflies, //call out over the blue-green mussel worm / that twists a slimed gleam in the muck, / the severed arm of the six-rayed star, / some kind of eye globbed on a stick.”
The collection is punctuated throughout with celebrations of the avian, including “Living on James Wright,” a meditation on Wright’s aesthetics as well written partially in Wright’s style, particularly the poem’s plangent conclusion. “Aubade” is a certain, delicate, and gentle poem about the love of nature and of a spouse. Alternatively, “Prayer with Game” is a forceful, consonantal poem with a nearly Saxonic hardness.
Through the Second Skin contains hues of Roethke, Heaney, Hopkins, James Wright, Frost, and Richard Hugo, but Sheffield never acquiesces to mimicry. His poems invite the reader through a gamut of emotional resonances. These poems are by turns intense, contemplative, celebratory, meditative, genuinely funny, and plaintive. Consequently, this collection reads more like a mid- or late-career book rather than a first full-length, as Sheffield’s voice is not only mature, but confident, strong, delightfully unpredictable, and genuinely remarkable.