Reviewed by Raquel Thorne
Paperback: 73 pages
Publisher: The Broadkill Review Press (2015)
The past wants you back. It wants you to leave
whatever you’re doing now:
eating oysters, brushing your hair,
and return to the scenes where
you were already yourself.
…The past needs you.
Every day someone dies
and, with them, all the scenes
from those rooms.
from “The Past Wants You Back”
Winner of the thirteenth annual Dogfish Head Poetry Prize Book, Faith Shearin’s Orpheus, Turning takes that moment before Orpheus loses Eurydice a second and final time and applies it outward to mythologize her own life and act as a lens to interpret a broad array of both factual and speculative subject matter. Alongside historical and familial figures, dinosaurs, aliens, and Cain all seamlessly make an appearance at their own moments of truth.
While narrative poetry is often the exploration of consequences—the recounting of a story to its climatic end—in Orpheus, Turning, each of Faith Shearin’s poems instead explore that pivotal moment that, once passed, cannot be reentered into nor undone, leaving the fallout to be sleuthed by the reader. Like the title poem, “Orpheus, Turning,” in which our narrator watches “grief returning to him instead of his wife:/his new companion,” the inhabitants of this collection seem unable to do anything but turn to bear witness, even though this act often becomes its own simple invitation of grief.
Why look back? Shearin gives many reasons, least of which is to act as a witness to a familial event. In “My Brother, Trying To Go Home,” our narrator introduces us to her brother and recounts a pivotal moment of his childhood: his refusal to vacate their family’s old, empty, unsold house for their new family home down the road:
…Sometimes I see him
standing in the place where the stairs turn
towards the bedroom he did not want to leave.
The narrator seems compelled to pull the memory into the present, immortalizing her brother in his young act of defiance. This is the sole depiction of her sibling—as if this painful childhood experience defines him. Why look back? In this case, because our narrator is obligated to do so in order to interpret her brother.
On the other hand, in “My Grandfather’s Last Errand,” anxious to keep that memory from fading, the speaker looks back eagerly in an effort to commit her grandfather’s final acts to paper. She mourns, “Even as I tell this/the rooms where I loved him are disappearing…” Choosing, again, to willingly look back in “Picking Apples With My Father,” it seems enough for the speaker to recall before her father’s accident, to remember how he was alive: her daughter up on his shoulders to pick fruit, the three of them wanting “more than we could eat.”
Other poems are more speculative in nature, each endowed with their own reason to turn. Many ask the reader to reconsider well-known characters in a manner which reexamines events and often speculates on an unknowable pivotal moment. The Pied Piper is a reoccurring character—much like the mother, father, and grandfather portrayed in the familial poems. In “The Children of Hamelin,” Shearin leaves a strong first impression of the piper, portraying him as an irresistible reaper, and projecting the consequences of his music outward:
Just before we die we will
hear it too, turning like a key. No matter
who calls to us we won’t return, the cold river
beyond our dreams suddenly important.
In the subsequent poem, “Hamelin Without the Rats,” the piper does not need to make an appearance in his own mythological narrative of medieval Hamelin to act as a harbinger of change. The point of turning has not come and gone with the disappearance of the children, but instead, there remains a hanging sense of dread, of a turning point yet unseen, but fast approaching.
Allure by an inevitability is a common theme running through Orpheus, Turning. In “Amelia Earhart’s First Flight,” Shearin invites her reader to imagine, not the first time Amelia flew her own plane, but her first time in flight. She imagines Earhart viewing the ground below:
…how small her life was:
her house the size of a radio,
the trees she spent her childhood climbing
no larger than her hands, the rules
she intended to break too tiny to matter.
Shearin’s placement of the poem in the collection says volumes—it is this first flight which sets Earhart’s route towards her inevitable final flight and disappearance, aviation her pied piper.
Those looking for a volume with a singular story line will not find it in Orpheus, Turning—Shearin refuses to adhere to a certain reality or timeline. Instead, Shearin’s collection hinges on cleverly reexamined moments of truth. Perhaps best described as full of kinetic energy, Orpheus, Turning is a smartly ordered collection which pines for that moment “before.”
Orpheus, Turning is Faith Shearin‘s fifth book (The Broadkill River Press, 2015). She is the recipient of awards from the Fine Arts Work Center, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Her poems have appeared in Poetry East, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, and in Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, American Places. She lives with her husband and daughter in a cabin on top of a mountain in West Virginia.