- Boy with Flowers
In his first book, selected by Carl Phillips as the winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, Ely Shipley concentrates his substantial lyric attention on the borders between seeing and knowing the world and ourselves. One of the book’s most powerful tropes is reflections and the many surfaces in which the self is reflected and distorted. In “Glass,” the speaker, “drowning in the sounds of bass / I mistake for my heart,” sees himself reduced and multiplied in the light of a disco ball, an experience so disconcerting he comforts himself by remembering his face as seen “behind a fog of / breath in the bathroom / mirror” and in an offhand remark made by a bartender. Returning to the present, he relocates his upside-down self in a woman’s glass:
I sit next to her and she holds me between her fingers, then her lips. She tilts me back with her head, but I’m never quite right
side up. Instead, I just disappear somewhere inside her.
In an earlier poem, “Encounter,” the speaker views his reflection in a shop window and in more domestic surfaces, including a bathroom mirror, the bottom of a teacup, and “the bulbous end / of a long-stemmed wineglass,” which, the speaker reminds himself, is “the shape of someone’s / breath, held.” The speaker knows that his physical reflection cannot reflect his emotional self, but he is less concerned with accuracy than with continually reassuring himself that he does, in fact, exist.
Throughout this collection, the body is both a burden and a gift. In “Roll of Dimes,” the speaker’s father teaches him that self-defense is not without its own kind of pain. Punching his father’s palms with a roll of coins clutched in his fist, the speaker notes that his own fingers are crushed “over and over again, between / all I held and wanted // to push away.” One of the things the speaker wants to push away is the female body into which he was born; in “Six,” the speaker moves from contemplating the shape of a guitar to his grade-school memories of urinating on himself because the adults around him were not sure which bathroom he should use. Yet the speaker uses even this devastating memory as a means of contemplating beauty. At the end of the poem, he yearns to be
of a guitar, hollowed out and bodiless except for that balloon of sound resonating invisibly . . .
Because what is seen so often is inaccurate, the speaker longs to take refuge in sound even though he realizes that it is inseparable from the [End Page 203] body that produces it. In other poems, Shipley maps the various intersections of breath and song as lovely, purposeful, and capable of bearing meaning. The speaker’s attention to what he hears and remembers hearing from sources as various as a ballerina music box, an ice cream vendor ringing his bell, “the haze and fuzz / of electric guitars,” the electronic hum of a city, and a neighbor’s late-night cough allows him to forge connections to the world that are visceral even when they initially seem disembodied.
Despite its limitations and confusions, the physical world, and in particular the physical body, is a source of pleasure as well as pain, although the two often are intertwined. In “Horizon Line,” the speaker, hearing the story of his aunt’s near-fatal car accident, which left her with several dramatic scars, becomes heady “with the weight of how / fragile we are, how disembodied, then composed” and longs to trace the scar left by the surgeon’s needle, which he describes as “map to a place / I will never enter.” Because bodies are what we have in common, bodies are both sources for and targets of violent emotions. In a poem mourning the murders of two transgendered teenagers in Washington, dc, Shipley attributes their deaths to the fact that their “assailant could not / bear their bodies / the way they must,” a dilemma revisited by poems in which the speaker struggles to bear his own body. The...