The Book of Failures
poems by Neil Shepard
ISBN: 978-1-956440-69-0 paperback $18.95
ISBN: 978-1-956440-70-6 ebook $9.99
January 16, 2024
Amid the tensions of family and community and the struggles with desire and disappointment out of which art is made, there is all this profusion: an unstoppable spring, the orange flash of a fox, figs and honey in a Greek harbor town, and a pianist conjuring lost love in his figured solos—our ravenous lives teetering on the edge of today’s sadness. In his ninth poetry collection, The Book of Failures, Neil Shepard wanders urban and rural landscapes, from American coastlines to foreign shores, the sudden signposts deciphering what’s won, what’s lost. Though the tone is often elegiac in this prismatic book of human strivings, it is woven with wit and wisdom enough to illuminate the night sky and bring unexpected levity to his many discoveries.
Praise for The Book of Failures by Neil Shepard:
Neil Shepard sustains a masterful dialectic in The Book of Failures which weds jeremiads to rejoicings with masterful “negative capability,” immersing himself in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubt” with hard-won ease. Moving wisdom concatenates in his catalogs, while archetypal precepts resonate with fresh relevance, as in these lines that conclude his poem “There Is No Sadness”: “And on into the world where generations begat / and beget and there is no ending, is there, except / for something upending as elegy in which / we inherit no sadness like today’s sadness.” In poem after poem, Shepard chronicles bittersweet “mysteries” by “singing” their lyrical news. “Just let me sing,” he beseeches in “Like Blue Behind A Daytime Moon,” “That’s all I can do.” And so he does in unabashed acknowledgement of Qoheleth’s dispatch in Ecclesiastes that “there is nothing new under the sun,” while simultaneously accomplishing that which poets of each new age are challenged to perform, namely divining new verbal “salt” that makes new.
—Chard deNiord, author of In My Unknowing
This is an extraordinary book, its wise and luminous poems circling the disquiet and agitation at the edges of thought as narrator after narrator investigates and probes the many ways we perceive ourselves to fail in the eyes of others. Yet even as one narrator brilliantly describes his feelings of erasure as “auditioning for a bit part in anonymity,” another admits, “I like it here on the edge / of empire” and still another holds “a grudge against / business as usual.” Reading Shepard’s beautifully crafted poems, which are alive with the music of colloquial American speech, I was reminded of the metaphysician Leo Bronstein’s observations on failure and success, that one is not the opposite of the other: “Success is to be the achievement of a goal known, open, given. Failure, achievement of a goal not known yet, hidden and to be discovered. Friendship is to know this. Prophesy is about this. Spirituality means this.” The Book of Failures understands and beautifully articulates this wisdom. Its narrators resist easy wins, holding out for something larger and deeper, braver and more daring than what we think of as success, what the final narrator of the book calls “a stubborn green.”
—Susan Mitchell, author of Erotikon
At once nomadic and deeply rooted in place, these wide-ranging poems take us from rural Vermont to New York City, from Ireland to Corsica, from the freedom of travel to the shock of 2020’s lockdown. Vulnerable and wise, The Book of Failures laments what separates—son from father, nation from nation, human from the beyond-human world—even as it explores stunning moments of connection, as in witnessing the nesting dance of wood storks and egrets, “the dusting / of wings with swamp wind, leaves, thistle.” Shepard carries us “to the edge” here, where our own “small matter expands into the gathering immensity,” acknowledging the inseparable beauty and terror of the human experience: “life is as gorgeous and ravenous as it always was,” Shepard writes, “and still there is no consolation.”
—Sandra Meek, author of Still
Neil Shepard attends to birds and politics and art and jazz “with the verve of someone / Auditioning Broadway // for a bit part in anonymity.” In poems “lit with an inner privacy,” Shepard displays “the full light of language” as he reconciles the planet’s self-renewing seasons with aging and death, the creative impulse with the pandemic lockdown, and attempts to speak “an identifying phrase against / erasure.” The Book of Failures is a strong addition to a body of work of “untranslatable intimacy” crafted during the past three decades by one of our finest poets.
—Michael Waters, author of Sinnerman
Neil Shepard’s eighth book, How It Is: Selected Poems, was published in 2018 by Salmon Poetry (Ireland); he edited the anthology Vermont Poets and Their Craft in 2019 (Green Writers Press, VT). His poems appear in Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and Poem-a-Day, as well as in many literary magazines, including Harvard Review, New American Writing, New England Review, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Sewanee Review, and Southern Review. He edited the Green Mountains Review for many years and currently edits the online journal Plant-Human Quarterly. These days, he splits time between Vermont and NYC where, until the pandemic, he taught poetry workshops at Poets House.