Book Review: Evensong for Shadows by Shanna Powlus Wheeler
Poetry sometimes holds the grief of its author tenderly and in reverence, like new parents might hold a just born child. Shanna Powlus Wheeler’s first full-length collection, Evensong for Shadows is dedicated “To my husband, Drew, in memory of our three who came before,” so that its readers know, immediately, that this book is put into the world with the often unspoken difficulties of becoming a mother in mind. The title, which is also the first section of the book, “Evensong for Shadows,” comes from the first poem in the collection, “After a Tour of Britain,” in which “walks a nameless child / like the one I lost, but older, / or the one I haven’t yet conceived.” The poem is hauntingly gorgeous. Toward the end, the child “holds evensong / for shadows; she hums / like an organ pipe.” An evensong is a service of prayers or psalms—and here the service is done for “shadows,” the areas of the world where light has been blocked out by an object. Wheeler’s emphasis on the shadow illustrates an interesting quality of grief – that it, like a shadow, is both ephemeral and yet a very present part of who we are.
In this collection of poems, grief becomes a companion, and Wheeler’s writing about grief is exceedingly compassionate and necessary. In “C. S. Lewis Grieving,” Wheeler uses his published journal A Grief Observedto write a poem in his voice: “She had whole faces / I cannot reassemble now; the endless combinations / cancel each other, so I am left / with no face to remember in love. / This is the tragedy of memory.” Writing is the connective tissue between time periods and people. Wheeler is connected to Lewis’s grief by her own loss, as the readers of her poetry will be connected to Wheeler’s and Lewis’s grief by their own losses. These griefs are easier to bear knowing we are not alone, and Wheeler’s writing invites us into the arms of her words to be held in their language. Although Wheeler’s poetry is comforting, it is not predictable, and throughout the collection we find the unexpected: a hive of bees that has taken up residence in a church, a poem that praises the highway patrol, and a short, melodious “Doxology with Crow,” which is full of the “unfurled” music of poetry.
In the book’s second section, “A Choir of Cells,” Wheeler writes a stunning “Fertility Lullaby”: “But think how a baby lulls a womb / with a choir of cells splitting in song / hush-a-bye, don’t you cry,” which captures the longing for a child along with the fear of something happening. That fear is skillfully illustrated in the last lines of the poem: “Love lull you fearless / don’t say a word.” “No Poems,” is a weaving together of the poet’s inability to write new poems after a miscarriage, and of only being able to revise, with the idea of how revision might occur in the body. The poem is a thin, tight line down the page:
in the months after, either.
Only revisions, the effort
to get it right, to align
and realign words
The poem “Aftercare,” is dedicated to Wheeler’s maternal grandmother, Janet Andrus: “At your table of mercy, you fed me watermelon / and warm tapioca fluffed with egg whites.” The poem is a lovely tribute to the importance of quality care and support after pregnancy loss, and was included in The American Journal of Nursing, which speaks to its ability to capture those elusive feelings that cannot always been pinned down with medical language.
In the last two sections of the book, “The Music of the Spheres” and “Ring of Vowel,” Wheeler carries the loss, but makes space for the children she does have, while turning her poet’s eye to those small, wonderful existences in life, like the water chestnut. Her “Haiku in Praise of the Water Chestnut” are fantastic reminders that the stuff of which poetry is made can be found all around us—in the ground, in the sky, or as a morsel on our plates. I found the last haiku of the series especially delicious:
Most steadfast chestnut.
No wok robs your crunch, no boil
can soften your song.
As a mother and a writer myself, I especially relate to the last poem in the collection, an “Ars Poetica,” which begins, “I write for the same reason I believe / the Word became flesh: I will die,” and continues later with, “And if I die while my child / is too young to know me beyond / comforts of face, voice, touch, may she find me later in lines / rendering what shimmers.” This is the very thing Wheeler’s poems do – they “render what shimmers,” so that even the shadows are their own kind of reflection of whatever light has created them, a gathering together of what is and what was, a collection of words that emphasizes the human spirit in all of its glorious forms.
This is why I kept returning to the sonnet that finishes the third section of the book called “Verse,” which ends with these lines: “No line of verse / can stir like Scripture – only the very voice / of God can still all turning, reverse all choice.” Yes, perhaps no line of verse can change the rotation of the earth, but I believe a book like this, which brilliantly contains the honest, powerful voice of a woman who has experienced great loss and great love, canfoster and create change. Wheeler writes these poems with a Christian voice, and yes, Christian readers will find much to identify with, to relish in, and to praise here, but this collection is a generous one; Wheeler offers a clear, thought-provoking picture of parenthood and of life that I believe readers of all religious and non-religious backgrounds can benefit from, learn from, and enjoy.
Alexandra Umlas holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from California State University, Long Beach and an M.Ed. in Cross-cultural Education. She also serves as a reader for Palette Poetry. Her first book of poems, At The Table of the Unknown, is forthcoming from Moon Tide Press. www.alexandraumlas.com
Native to central Pennsylvania, Shanna Powlus Wheeler studied creative writing at Susquehanna University (BA) and Penn State University (MFA). She published a poetry chapbook, Lo & Behold, with Finishing Line Press, followed by a full-length collection, Evensong for Shadows, with Wipf and Stock Publishers. Her poetry has appeared in a wide range of magazines and journals in print and online, including Mothers Always Write. For over a decade, she has served as Writing Center Director and Instructor of English at Lycoming College in Williamsport, PA. She and her husband are busy raising their two children. Visit www.shannapowluswheeler.com for more information.