I was looking for “shifts” in Kelly Shepherd’s poetry collection, and I found them. Shepherd lives and teaches in Edmonton, and his gritty book, Shift, is testament to the fact that his hands have worked more than a pen. The author’s been part of the multitude that migrated to Fort McMurray for work, and he shows us many sides of that “orange-hardhat” dynamic, from workers “loading into buses before dawn, getting paid to build something\we don’t understand for someone we don’t know” to the “endless crumpled sky” and a “landscape\painting on the lunchroom wall” that is “of another place, not here”.
Shift, then, refers in part to shift work, or a work-shift. I also found it in poems like “Honing,” about cement grinding\smoothing. The shift here comes when the narrator recognizes that the “ugly, utilitarian, dusty” cement “[opens] itself up and\the stones glimmer like stars”. There are dramatic shifts in weather during all-day drives, that moment “when the steering wheel started to bloom” and “the windshield blinked in the sun”. In the title poem, the shift concerns a diving grebe and a duck’s lift off a lake: “the shift from element to element”.
The poems differ in subject-from northern labour poems to meditations on spring, or an apple, and what a tire might sing if it could. Shepherd zooms from grit to romance and back again, fast as a bear. Some poems are short as haiku, others, like “Ed Rempel’s Dog,” (which tells the story of a farmer upset with his hogs for eating the chickens, so he threw his German shepherd into the pen “to teach those pigs a lesson,” and you might guess the outcome) read like postcard fiction. There are several found poems, and numerous pieces written in couplets, tercets or quatrains. The poem titled “Fort McMurray Acrostic (found: public washroom)” can be quoted in its entirety here:
This is a playful hat-tip to Syncrude, of course, but in other poems the author affects a more serious attitude toward the oil sands and the physical dangers incumbent in hard labour. In “The Straight Lines of Cities” he considers how “no one thinks about” the work that goes into making “the sidewalk under our feet.” How the cobblestones were fitted together. The “bent-axle\wheelbarrows and sweat-fogged safety glasses” behind the work. And no one knows about the lad who contributed his index finger, via a circular saw, to the project’s completion.
Birds, animals, and flora also frequently star, and I applaud how Shepherd compounds (via hyphenation) plants and animals in his work. He writes of “deer-coloured grass,” “coyote-coloured earth,” and “fish\-shaped leaves in the wind.” This is a writer who does the watching few have time for, then presents his observations to the world in fresh ways, ie: “With his tail the squirrel ratchets himself up the tree.” See how he’s taken a mechanical tool\action, and paired it with nature?
The excerpts above speak for themselves; this is damn fine work.
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