Review by Michelle Wilbert
As I read the first poem in this lovely collection by Shanna Powlus Wheeler, I was struck by two things: the sometimes harrowing pain of loss and grief that permeates the daily reality in which these poems were written, and the blending of various styles of poetry delicately worked in as one would choose stitches in fine needlework, or select pieces for a quilt intended as an heirloom. The poems blend the “Felt-Thought” of T. S. Eliot with the “Divine Humanity” of William Blake interwoven with the naturalistic prose-poem style of Mary Oliver—and this is no easy task; this is finely crafted work by a spiritually grounded and mature artist. A wife and mother of two from central Pennsylvania, Ms. Wheeler studied creative writing at Susquehanna University (B.A., 2004) and Penn State (M.F.A., 2007). Her poems and book reviews have appeared in a wide range of print and online media and she directs the Writing Center at Lycoming College in Williamsport, PA.
The collection is divided into four sections, each with distinctive thematic elements deeply connected to the thread of loss that forms the central structure. In the first section and poem, ’After a Tour of Britain’ the ghost of a child never born becomes part of a dream-scape for the writer, walking through ancient Celtic ruins and prefaced by sturdy and engaging imagery that seems almost to support the crumbling structures observed:
I dream of nameless, ruined abbeys,
naves without roofs,
like Holyrood in Edinburgh
…whose sharp columns
and walls of arches
pierce the fog
like a ribcage…(3)
The landscape that supports these poems is the stark reality of pregnancy loss and the accompanying grief and fearsome hope that pervades the whole of one’s life—the mourning period ends, life moves forward and joy is renewed but the grief marries itself to all of the life still to be lived. These poems capture the very essence of this experience, wrapping words around pain like a prayer shawl, or a shroud.
The Christian liturgical tradition is a strong, but not an overwhelming presence—there are references to C. S. Lewis and the Psalms as they express the profundities of Mystery and a universal spirituality.
What most arrested my attention is the sense of hard work—of the labor: physical, emotional and spiritual—of continuing to try to bring life into the world: the life of a child and the life of words. There is a patina of fatigue that winds palpably through these poems—anyone who has experienced loss knows well the effort required to keep breathing life into creative expression—or doing the dishes. And there are joys found in the daily life, tenderly expressed. The poet is a mother, writer and woman of faith for whom words are the offerings of her mind, heart and hands to her children and the world and she leaves the reader with a prayerful and luminous closing thought—my personal favorite of the poems in this collection—“Ars Poetica”
I write for the same reason I believe
the Word became Flesh: I will die
Each poem brings me hours
closer to breathlessness, to leaving
a record of words like a line
of mourners… (92)
This is a beautiful work by a gifted poet filled with healing for anyone familiar with loss—for anyone familiar with life.
Evensong for Shadows by Shanna Powlus Wheeler
Resource Publications, 2018, $14 [paper] ISBN 978-1-5326-5722-1
Michelle Wilbert is a writer, spiritual director and retired midwife. She has written for a variety of print and online media since 1998.