This is another poem intended for the These, My Streets project. Edinburgh is one of the major streets running North/South through Guelph. It is often used to mark the border of the “downtown” and the “west end”.


I never knew you
until I sat on your porch
and watched pedestrians
press by, oblivious,
all yoga pants
and cell phones,
until I said to a child,
“Nice bike.
Your Dad should paint
the helmet to match,”
and his father said,
“What do I care?
He doesn’t even live with me,”
and I thought then
that the cloying lilac
from across the way
was preferable
to the neighbours,
and I wasn’t disappointed
to leave you behind.

The poems of On Shaving His Face by Shane Neilson are a wonder of agony, of grief wrestling with intellect.

Those of the first section, which looks at the faces of illness, comprise a remarkable variety of verse forms, depicting each diseased face according to its peculiar grief and sorrow, continually enacting the line — “Loss is the exact naming of things” — that seems to lie at the heart of the section. The naming of these faces and their loss is often disconcerting, as the reader is forced to come (less metaphorically than normal) face-to-face with the disfigurements of disease and grief.

The second section, an imagined conference on the concept of Darwinian expressionism, is more emotionally measured but also more intellectually provocative. The variety here is as much in the species of philosophy as in the species of form, and there is a weight behind these pieces that insists on multiple readings, remaining with me far after I closed the book.

In the last section, an exploration of childhood illness, whatever reason had accomplished in the second section seems to ebb away. These poems often break traditional syntax completely, inverting clauses, inserting periods to break sentences awkwardly, approximating a kind of diseased or childish speech, broken and spasmodic. Some of them, like “O Lord of the Seizure Pass” and “See the Marquee”, made me put the book aside to catch my breath. In these poems, feeling, faith, and reason are bound up in desperate conflict, and they are productive of a profound disquiet, like little else I have ever read.

On Shaving Off His Face is an uncomfortable book, which is as great a compliment as I can offer. In it Shane Neilson accomplishes something too seldom found among his contemporaries — a poetry of real consequence.

“Only a page like this remembers,” writes Don Coles in the title poem of A Serious Call, conveying what is perhaps the strongest element of the volume – its capacity to make the page remember.

The poems of A Serious Call are all in their way concerned with this intersection between writing and memory, and though they are too often passive and unobtrusive, too seldom forceful or provocative, their faculty for memorial is remarkable.

The memory that stands at the core of “A Serious Call” – two co-workers in the back room of a bookstore with their boots up on the coffee table, only a space heater for warmth, speaking aloud to each other the lines that must be shared – is only the most elegant of many examples. Here we have the memory of the page being spoken aloud one friend to the other as an inspiration for further writing and further memory and further friendship too, because the remembering of the page is a call that only finds its answer in the response of the friend.

Though my own experience of page and memory and friendship was formed in far different circumstances, I can recognize in Coles’ description an undeniably correlate experience, as powerful and as valuable a thing – this friendship of the remembered page – and as any human experience.

I could wish that A Serious Call was able to find a more vigorous and challenging register, but its pages remember for us things worth remembering, and there is value enough in accomplishing such a purpose.

Her voice quiets people by its softness, a voice that comes from the lips and the tongue more than the throat.  It suggests eyes looking up from a downturned face and loose hair falling in defence of her modesty.  It asks for fingers to read by touch the meaning on her lips.

Last fall I had a woman approach me while I was working in my garden.  She told me that she volunteered with the city’s annual garden tour and would be recommending mine for the coming year.  I didn’t think much more about it and forgot all about the incident by the time spring rolled around.

Then, a few days ago, a got a knock on my door.  At first I didn’t recognize the woman standing there, but as she started explaining the situation I did recall our conversation in the garden six months earlier.  She needed to apologize, she told me, and she felt it best to do so in person, because she knew how hard it would be to hear that my garden had not been selected for this years’ tour.

I assured her that it was no big deal.

No, she insisted, she had led me to believe that I would be selected, and she herself had experienced the disappointment of having her garden not be included some years.  She was at fault.  She had been sure that they would choose my garden.  It was okay for me to express my feelings to her.

I realized that she was serious, that in her mind she had offered me the chance of a gardening lifetime and then snatched it away, that she could only interpret my lack of emotion as putting on a brave face.  The possibility that I had no interest in the garden tour at all, that I had forgotten the offer had even been made, that depending on the work involved I would probably have declined being on the tour anyway, was inconceivable to her.

Yes, I was disappointed, I told her, but I would survive.

The lie seemed to be what she needed.  She told me not to give up, to keep improving the garden.  She promised to suggest it for the tour again next year.

I thanked her, but told her not worry about it.  I just garden because I like to grow things, I explained.  I really didn’t need to be on the tour.

Of course I wanted to be on the tour, she said.  Everybody wanted to be on the tour.  And she would see to it.  Not to worry.

I’m messing around here with old Anglo-Saxon forms, hence all the alliteration and the accentual metre.  Make of it what you will.


Come, angel-like, cure and cripple,
Bless and break me with benedictions.
Utter not, but tear with teeth,
Furrow with finger my failing flesh.
Ink and iterate, inscribe in blood
The cut covenants of our communion.
Hand to hip and heel to head,
Nullify, negate, make new my name.

I was reading boingboing today and followed a link to an article by Elizabeth Minkel in the NewStatesman that compares the media response to different sorts of fandom. Minkel notes that the emotional reaction from young girls to Zayn Malik leaving One Direction was roundly mocked, but that a similarly emotional reaction from middle-aged men to Jeremy Clarkson leaving Top Gear was mostly met with sympathy. She argues that this disparity in treatment of the two sets of fans is directly tied to gender, a conclusion that I think is accurate (although I would add that it is probably also related to age). To this extent, I agree with Minkel. The way the media responded to these two situations reveals, once again, that our culture still has a profound gender-bias.

I disagree, however, with the underlying implication that we should treat Zayn Milik’s fans with the same sympathy as Jeremy Clarkson’s. Quite the opposite. We should treat them both with the same apprehension and alarm. We need to realize, not with mockery but with concern, that it is in fact ridiculous for young girls to invest themselves so deeply in the members of a boy band, and that it is just as ridiculous for middle-aged men to invest themselves so deeply in the host of a car show. The strange bit isn’t that we mock Zayn Malik’s fans. The strange bit is that we don’t mock Jeremy Clarkson’s fans just as much, or even more, considering that they might be expected to have matured a little by their age. The problem isn’t that we criticize the fans of boy bands. The problem is that we don’t equally criticize fans of other actors, musicians, athletes, and every other kind of celebrity that gets trotted out across our media consciousness.

The fact that grown men pay huge amounts of money to gather in the thousands at sporting events, drink too much, paint their naked bellies, scream at the top of their lungs, and sometimes do violence to each other is without doubt bizarre in the extreme. The fact that young girls exhibit similar behaviours at pop concerts is equally bizarre. The obvious gender-bias in their media portrayal should not obscure the fact that both are deeply problematic symptoms of a culture that has been distracted from anything resembling a significant issue by the worship of celebrities.

Now, I have no interest in cars. I don’t even own one. I’ve never seen an episode of Top Gear, and I wouldn’t recognize Jeremy Clarkson if he was right next to me having a fit about his lunch. But I do like to play sports, even watch them occasionally. I also like music of many different kinds (even if One Direction isn’t one of those kinds). Despite my interest in these things, however, I can’t imagine being invested enough in their celebrity culture to be considered a fan. I might have an opinion as to the skill of these celebrities (I might think that Daniel Day Lewis is an excellent actor, for example, and that Tosin Abasi is an excellent guitarist, and that Tim Duncan is an excellent basketball player), but I have nothing invested in them. Their retirements, even their deaths, would have almost no effect on my life.

And they shouldn’t. My time and my energy and my money and my passion need to be invested in the real people around me, in the real lives that they live, in the real issues that they face. Think of what we could accomplish with even a fraction of the resources that we dedicate to our celebrity culture. Think of the changes that could be made to real lives if we weren’t so distracted by our ridiculous fandoms.

Religion is no longer the opiate of the masses. Sports and entertainment now play that role, and whether it’s young girls crying about One Direction or middle-aged men crying about Top Gear, we have to stop pretending that any of these obsessions are worthy of sympathy.


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