Push, Fall 1999
by Anitra Budd
Irregular Conjugations by John Christopher Shillock (self-published) ."Irregular Conjugations," by John Christopher Shillock, is a study in contradiction. At times both graceful and crude, this self-published collection at poetry and prose runs the literary gamut, from lines inspired by Greek mythology to a less-than-charming limerick about punchline-of-the-minute, Monica Lewinsky. Although this chapbook contains many touches of lyricism and depth. they are too often obscured by the self-indulgent humor and rambling diatribes that do this work such a disservice.
Take for instance the book's first section, "2nd Person Singular - Accusative Case." Prefaced by beautiful translations of Sappho and Carmina Burana, this section starts with  one of the collection's strongest pieces: "The Ancient Scholar" The poem fuses seductive images with a classical sensibility to form a voice that is both haunting and unique. a wonderful opener. However, the section soon starts to spiral down into an MTV-esque series of meaningless descriptions, most clearly shown in the poems "Eurydice in Nightgown" and "Smoke and Ice." Following a roller-coster ride of highs and lows, the chapter almost redeems itself toward the end with the allegorical "Romance" only to finish with "Limerick," a poem that seems better suited for the corner of a bored Latin student's desk. With a bad taste in the mouth, readers are left to brave the second section at their own peril, hoping for something more satisfying than the book's shaky beginning.
The second section, "1st Person Singular - Familiar," gets to a similarly good start with an adaptation of "Ballade des menus propos," by Francois Villon, and Shillock's "'Home for the Holidays," a poem that is reminiscent of good T.S. Eliot, Then suddenly come "Bathroom" and "Blind Minotaur Led by a Young Girl," two hefty pieces that beat their perfectly good ideas into the reader's head like twin sledgehammers, In "Bathroom," every microscopic sensory detail is swelled to mammoth proportions, effectively clouding the poem's main focus, while in "Minotaur," a prose beginning explains in four paragraphs what could have been summed up 'in a succinct epigraph. The beautifully hypnotic poem  .'Silences" comes as a welcome relief, but that satisfaction is quickly shattered by the lurching rhyme in "Jazz Dance Macabre" and somewhat cliched "Vamp." Then, as if to add insult to injury, Shillock throws in "Tango," a piece written in four different Ianguages "just to show off" (as he writes in the epigraph), One can only think that if Shillock had spent less time indulging in his own cleverness, perhaps he could have spent more time honing his work.
Finally, there is "Third Person Plural - Political," the book's most consistent and (regretfully) shortest section. Here, in musings about such subjects as Minnesota's history, bitterness in aging, and the '60s, Shillock seems to have found a comfort zone, and offers commentary that is both interesting and thoughtful, "Prairie Haiku," for example, is an exemplary poem that speaks volumes without ever straying from its elegantly spare style, Perhaps unwittingly. the author himself points out the one flaw in this section in "A True Story," recalling a woman who mistook a poem by Sappho for one of Shillock's own. Throughout the entire chapbook, this third section in particular Shillock uses so many works from other writers that he shifts the reader's focus away from his own writing, seemingly in a misguided effort to showcase his favorite poems, This technique, while very useful in small amounts, can be lethal when taken too far and throws a shadow over an otherwise outstanding part of the book.
That said, one should by no means ignore this author. Some of the works here are quite good, hinting at a deeper, unplumbed talent. Shillock shows a potential that, with a tighter focus, could lead to truly outstanding work in the future. But for now, read "Conjugations" for its hidden gems and skirt around the more tarnished writings.
Not entirely complimentary, but I'm pretty happy with it. She read my book carefully and  takes it seriously, which is the most I could ask of any reviewer.

No comments:

Post a Comment