If anyone were to accuse contemporary American poetry of being insular, self-involved and provincial, these complaints would be silenced by Shane Book’s Ceiling of Sticks (University of Nebraska Press, September 2010). Truly pan-national in its focus, these poems draw on a broader array of experiences than an ESL classroom near a meat packing plant. As are several of the collection’s poems, the book’s title is inspired by a gorgeous and evocative Sebastião Salgado image. It suggests the flimsy but consistently ambitious devices we construct to protect our heads and our hearts. The book is by turns heart breaking and heartening, and its lines just sing.
Here are the first lines you will encounter if you read the poems in Ceiling of Sticks front to back (which is how I suggest you should read them):
“I remember reading somewhere
of a Czech word, litost,
that means too much
to be translated properly—
a wild mixture of sorrow, regret, empathy
an inexhaustible longing.
At one time I would have said
it sounded like all the things
we might take from this life
distilled to the smallest salt crystal
on a blade of grass.”
In this poem, as in the book as a whole, we travel across the continent and the world comparing art to sociology to history to language to science to the distillation of relationships—others’ not necessarily the poet’s own. One thing I love about this book is the poet’s attention to the lives of others, that he introduces us, first, to the relationships of others, not necessarily his own. Another thing I love is the precision of detail Book employs in this veritable travelogue of our planet’s many peoples. “I’m a pinhole camera,” he claims in the penultimate poem. Book applies his filmmaker’s eye to translating often seemingly ineffable images into language, describing the landscape, people, and situations he stumbles across so that we are alive and present in each real and imagined scenario the poems present.
Though he does not shy away from awe-full realities, there are places within this book where we can rest and regroup. A reader will find plenty that is familiar and stirringly, perhaps even nostalgically, beautiful in its familiarity. The book does not feel inclined to reinvent the wheel at every turn. Often the poems come to us in the guise of the one-page lyric narratives we’re accustomed to finding in contemporary books of poetry. There are plenty of formal structures we know, the sestina and pantoum, for instance. But, then, when was the last time you read a sestina that mentioned Chopin, Wallace Stevens and Jay-Z within four lines of each other and whose repeated words included “bikini”? No room for complacency here, reading these poems you will come across something new at each turn. You’ll travel from some lovers’ hotel room in Vancouver to a dying grandfather’s bedside in Winnipeg to Uganda to Tarahumara, Mexico to Ghana to Santa Cruz, California to Mali to Trinidad and back “home” again.
Which brings me back to why I suggest you read the poems in order, as you would read a novel, as you would watch a film. (Book is, in fact, a filmmaker. A short film based on one of the poems from Ceiling of Sticks is scheduled for wide release in November). These poems build upon each other, each introducing a new perspective so that we move through Book’s word-wrought world guided by his cinematic insights. Each poem’s vision builds upon the last, as each Biblical prophecy depends upon its predecessors to be more fully understood. There is some larger truth that Book gets at in Ceiling of Sticks that contains “too much/ to be translated properly” and that also, as he writes later, is “too little/ to be translated correctly.” The whole book, as it progresses, works to reveal the nuances of a universal and therefore, possibly, easy to overlook reality. Reading it you might just experience “a wild mixture of sorrow, regret, empathy/ an inexhaustible longing.” You’ll turn another page, but you won’t want to turn away.