Review of Destruction: Text I

Oliver Sheppard, Destruction: Text I (Dallas, TX: Ikonograph Press, 2017)

 

destructionIt takes guts to write and publish a book of poetry at this point in the history of the world. This has little to do with Adorno’s comment about the barbarism of writing poetry in the wake of Auschwitz (I think he was talking about lyric poetry and in any case he backed off it later). No, the real problem with pursuing the poetic form at the current moment is the fundamental absurdity of the modern. Historically, poetry has involved the creative use of language to write with greater depth (or with greater precision) than that available in the medium of prose. In the spectacular society in which we live the depths beneath the surface have evaporated and precision, more often than not, is simply a matter of giving the right name to the right specter.

 

Oliver Sheppard’s Destruction: Text I strives mightily against the bonds of the age. The pieces in this volume do not, unlike so many exemplars of modern poetry, exhaust their energies in parsing the minutiae of human internality. Sheppard’s writings are distinctly external in their focus, ranging widely from the mechanized battlefields of the Second World War’s Eastern Front to the event horizons of collapsing stars. This may strike one a thinking big in a way that strains the bonds of coherent conception, but Sheppard’s pieces are united in the consistency of a dark atmosphere that creates a space for the examination of human and trans- (or perhaps super-) human experience.

 

These pieces are, so far as I am aware, something of a change of mode for Sheppard. I will offer as a caveat that we know each other in that via-the-internet sort of way that is common for people whose subcultural attachments overlap. I can’t remember whether his work first came to my attention because he published at Souciant.com (which I am also a contributor) or whether I only found out about that later. But I do know a few verifiable facts. Oliver Sheppard is simply the most passionate fan Killing Joke that I have ever met. He also follows death rock with the same sort of obsessive passion that I have for European hardcore. Where I would be talking about Pandemonium’s Wir fahren gegen Dreck he can discourse at length about Fliehende Stürme’s An den Ufern.

 

Perhaps it is this virtuoso level familiarity with the obscure that first interested me in his work. In pieces for Cvlt Nation or (more occasionally) Bandcamp, Sheppard gives his readers access to a pool of knowledge that is as broad as it is deep. What seems to pull it all together is a dark, although not to say morbid, aesthetic. Given the chance, Sheppard will lead you down dark and unfamiliar paths, to moments of weird beauty not blighted by the death fixation of a lot of the figures one meets along these ways. The pieces collected in Destruction: Text I exemplify this well.

 

Reading Sheppard’s poetry is a little like listening to a conversation between Nietzsche and William Blake during a showing of Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron. Using a wide range of forms and cultural references, Sheppard illustrates the human condition in ways that take as much account of its absence as its presence. Thus we find early in a cycle of Second World War-themed pieces, the following:

 

Severe grey angles

Turretless malevolence

Squat steel gunned bulwark

 

It takes a certain kind of audacity to compose a cycle of haikus about war on the Eastern Front, but it is precisely this breadth of conception that lifts this collection above the mean. Sheppard seems fascinated with the human, but also with the superhuman, with the action of entities at the far ends of space or, as in his references to Persephone, descending into the underworld. In a piece entitled “Achromatic #1” Sheppard writes,

 

A hyperdimensional SPHERE of battleship gray

Lays some distance southwestward of its

RECTANGULAR and TRAPEZOIDAL cousins.

 

The terms and mode of expression are stark, recalling Pound’s quotations from the letters of the vortecist sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska before the latter’s death in battle in 1915. Indeed, Sheppard’s writing is redolent of the desperate modernism of the interwar period, inflected through the lens of late 20th underground culture. His mix of longer and shorter pieces and quotations from other authors (both in epigrams and longer elements) gives the feel of Hannah Höch’s collages, but with a later 20th century atmosphere in which playfulness has been replaced by an ineluctable consciousness of the gigantic and of the finitude of things.

 

There are moments at which it appears that the fabric of reality is coming apart at the seams, held together only tenuously by the images that mediate human social relations. Sheppard’s darkly beautiful poetry investigates the dark interstices of this system of images, looking both below and beyond to stark and often threatening realities. Often the human is absent, but it is reconstituted by reflected into this emptiness, leaving the afterimage of an unsettling universe. If there is a barbaric dimension to this writing it is a barbarism that, in a certain sense, works to recover the human.

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