013.1: Chris Shipman:: Chop Chop Chop & Death Writes Home 013

In this sampling from Christopher Shipman, we find woods. Lucifer shows. Grandpa's dead. Love's gone bad. The speakers in these poems are driven by voice and the need to tell a story. Each poem hinges on its speaker's quiet epistimological revelation, a defeat that is still somehow hopeful. I forget exactly what the saying is about country music, something like every country song must have a dog, a truck, a train, an ex, and a prison. And, well, most of that's ripped off from blues, anyway. And a similar thing could be said of a certain type of Southern poem...What keeps Shipman's work from being facile, however, is his ability to take these tropes and turn them in on themselves through his playful figurative and syntactical constructs. In this way, Shipman's work reminds me of Barry Hannah's fictions.

For Shipman, the archetype is to be used as a tool, not an end, to create slippage through language, thus illuminating the interstices between figures. From a less skilled practitioner, I would expect Grandpa. Sure, I would expect trees and sure, I would expect a UFO. And I would enjoy the read. But with Shipman, something new happens: "if a tree was a dead grandfather that was a UFO..." My expectations are met, Shipman is riffing on the standbys, but creating something wholly new, something wild. After reading Shipman's poems, I feel like I just walked out of a juke joint in Clarksdale or a honky-tonk in Memphis, and rather than the derivations I expected, I saw the train playing the dog crying about that ex-prison in Guitar. Nik De Dominic

Chop Chop Chop

The big oak out back is walking in circles again,
looks more like my grandfather than before—
dead, bearded, fat in the belly, a shadowy gray.
It’s always late when this happens, the time of night
when a UFO lands and you’re the only one around
to see it. The way it lumbers about is like a UFO too;
if a tree was a dead grandfather that was a UFO,
it would lumber about in circles like that,
with its head low like a beam of light on a bad street,
the grass swaying beneath as if something alien
hovers above. Tonight he’s holding a giant ax
between five leafy hands, and looks especially fat
in the trunk, which makes him especially slow.
It’s kind of funny how he tries to chop himself up,
and kind of sad. Chop, chop, chop. One loose limb
falls. He never gives in. I’d holler at the tree to stop
acting like my grandfather as a tree-shaped UFO
but that always leads to piles of dead leaves
I have to hunch to clean up the next morning,
the tree standing over me just like my grandfather
used to when we raked the yard, his empty hands
saying the same thing over and over again:
You have to learn how to be a tree to be a man.
I close the curtains and turn on the television,
watch the last half of Space Odyssey, the volume
louder than a falling ax. I have learned nothing.

Death Writes Home

Dear mother, I have found a home
in the world and won’t be returning
to the darkness save holidays.

Tell Life she can have my room.
She always wanted it anyway.
She loves the bay window
that shows the big oak out back.

Father had promised to carve
a clubhouse into it with his big toe
it must be a thousand years ago.
Is he still making Life call him God?
God this God that goddamn it all.

Well, make sure God walks the dog
but that he keeps off Lucifer’s lawn.
You know how he hates dog shit
and gets all red and hot in the face
whenever he eyes that little mutt.

Resurrection says hi. She grew a heart
and breasts for me! We got hitched!
It was a bit strange being in Vegas
without tugging a dead hooker
out of some locked-up icebox.

I’m sure father mentioned it.
We wrote our own wedding vows
and I know how he hates that.
I wonder what he thought of me
dressed as a sequined velvet Elvis.

Well, that’s what I’m about now.
May be a good idea to have a baby
or start digging up skeletons, I guess,
to find a good place to put my past.

Growing a tongue felt like dying,
by the way, but when I lean in to kiss
my beautiful bride she’s full of light.