Review of Anne Shaw's Undertow

Shaw, Anne. Undertow. Persea, 2008. (80 pages).
ISBN 978-0892553389

Anne Shaw’s first book-length collection of poems, Undertow, explores many underlying pulsions—sexual desire, gender identity, and mortality to name a few. In her exploration of these various libidinal and thanatopic subjects, Shaw provides a kaleidoscope of style, place, and theme. Unafraid to explore a myriad of genres and styles, Shaw experiments with Anglo-Saxon caesuras and alliteration, sonnets, prose poetry, and Eliotic, modernist free verse. Her settings range from the heart of the USA to Thailand to the landscape of the imagined. Her subject matter deals with hope and despair, devastation and persistence, drag kings and witchcraft.
     At times, the reader becomes immersed fully in the moment of the personal such as when the speaker dreads getting out of bed to leave a lover or mows the grass with her father (Wonders 17 and Summer 18-19), but with a heightened vocabulary and a lyric rather than narrative approach, Shaw’s language often positions the reader outside of the immediate experience. Occasionally the metaphor strains to escape the literal landscape, but if the reader hangs on, the ride is worth it. In “Aegean,” for example, the speaker begins with this scene:

“posit a hull    unbroken
in the broken book of sky
seam of air and water
whelps    the hard blue furl
the lunar sailor   pricks    her oar
unsex me now    o sun [sic]” (6).

The literal landscape fades somewhat as the play of language dominates; we see a boat on the sea, but then someone cries to be “unsex’ed.” This cry could come from the boat or the sea or from a witness of the sky and sea, but ultimately the source does not matter. Odyssean imagery blends with Anglo-Saxon caesuras and alliteration to entice the reader to follow these compelling lines to their culmination:

“inerrant scud    the map   spools off
salt like the body’s

eros     opals not
the sea.” (6)

How can one resist rounding these opals of desire on the tongue? This poetry is intelligent and intellectual in scope, yet the rhythm and sound suggest a meaning all its own, something older than Old English, something preternatural.
     The mythical and literary allusions link the reader to a larger scale of discourse as Shaw creates landscapes addressing the mythical lands of Odysseus, the lovely summers of Maine, and the post-tsunami recovery of Thailand. The Thailand poems work exceptionally well and provide achingly beautiful acts of witness. As T.S. Eliot “does the police in different voices,” Shaw also provides us with various voices of this natural disaster. In “khao lak paradise resort,” a poem centered on the aftermath of the tsunami, the reader bears witness to both the lovely and the desperate. We watch children swept into the ocean, ripped from their mother’s arms as yellow geckos “ripple” down the wall (42) and the “sun is a finger pushing through/ the plastic sheet of sky” (40). One speaker, Patrice, relates that she must break her leg in order to survive. After the pain subsides, she notes, “it was very beautiful/sound and light” (41). After witnessing numerous scenes of beauty and destruction, the reader is not sure whether to revel in the power and potential violence of nature, to bask in the glory of the survivors, or to weep with the helplessness of a bystander who can save no one. Shaw offers no simple solution—we must embrace it all. We must bear witness to the tragedies and the triumphs of our age for that is the job of the poet.
     This poet takes the act of telling seriously, and a direct address of language appears in twenty-six of the thirty-two poems. In this postlapsarian landscape, “we cry in our broken/language through the limbs” (Natural Selection 62) in a somewhat futile hope for connection. In our world, “the strong/ do not survive” but the “mudfish/ too fragile for our sea” manages to exist. Nothing makes sense, yet not all hope washes away in an undertow of despair; we remain, against the odds, flailing in our solipsistic attempts to communicate.
     Shaw also presents playful and deliciously irreverent moments as in “Hymn,” where:

“The pink troll of our decade snickers from under its bridge
as the country goes crazy for jesus and the grey men
in the alley start to stink. I am humming under my breath in the key of doubt
as you pray to the god of washrooms, make us clean.
Each day's bitter ribbon and its calculus of light. I sing o bastard of my heart
be still.
Your god is the god of mirrors, and the house a paper wasp builds
is paper. There are broken slats in every tiny thing. The pupa
and its carapace. The celery salt, the stalk. The way my birchy skin
peels off. Your hennaed hand. Your hand. How grief runs
through me like a pack of eels. Silver and colloidal,
the tides have seen us coming and turn back.
Like them, our work is breakage. To plunder to from fro. Inside us
something pliant, soiled. Bearing the dent of thumbs.”

In this creation myth of sorts, out of destruction, something pliant takes root. The dent of thumbs reveals a molding of character, of life and desire within grief and breakage. These are not the thumbs of the Judeo-Christian god and this is not the miraculous birth of a savior. We humans lumber to and fro in our stupid manner, destroying all that lies in our paths. We exist by accident; nevertheless, Shaw seems to suggest that we should embrace this lucky accident.
     Shaw’s book plays with language in such a way that it demands several readings. A reader should allow the time to wallow in the desire of the lover, the intensity of a daughter’s interest in her father, the manifesto of a drag king. In her final lines of the collection, Shaw sums up her purpose as she reminds us that “Words are a machete we use to slash a path/through the ancestral undergrowth.” She then pointedly questions, “And where shall we go now?/ Into what strategy of camouflage?” (75-76). Humanity survives, and, as such, we move forward. The landscape may change, but we will don new camouflage and forge ahead. We continue our attempts to connect and we create various forms of language and communication, for this is humanity and our purpose is to live and bear witness.

Cindy Cunningham graduated from Wake Forest University with a B.A. in Psychology and a Minor in Women's Studies. She also holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing (Poetry) from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Ph.D. in English from Georgia State University. Her poems have been published in several small journals and she has many poems currently floating around in the limbo of submission queues. She currently serves as Director of Literary Arts for the Appomattox Regional Governor's School for the Arts and Technology in Petersburg, Virginia. She is at work on a collection of poems and hopes to send this collection out in the summer of 2008.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761