On Shaving Off His Face by Shane Neilson

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.

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