GRASS THAT LEAVES GREENER by Shawn Callaway  Hays

GRASS THAT LEAVES GREENER

New Eschatons and Egresses
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KIRKUS REVIEW

A collection of poetry that spans centuries but that remains fixed in a single moment.

In this debut work, Hays creates an environment that’s heavily influenced by the writings of poets that came before him, including those that forged our contemporary understanding of poetry. The book opens with “Inscriptions,” a section in which the author has collected a series of quotes from various works. These serve as epigraphs, setting the tone for what’s to come— elegiac proclamations about the natural world, the oneness of man with nature, and the unpredictability of passion. Hays then divides his book into three sections. In “Great Are the Myths,” he uses a series of references to explore what constitutes a literary character (“the parable process of becoming more sensitive more / Artistry is the transitory fragile vanity of fleeting beauty fleeting”). The second section, “Song of Myself,” spins off of Walt Whitman’s famous title to provide readers with a more contemporary voice that resonates for readers living today (“like when I almost cried / because you cried / when we got high and saw The Jungle Book, / the one where the animals / didn’t have city words / and was about true love”). Finally, the third section, “Song of the Answerer,” functions as a reflection on love and on how it helps shape identity and language (“love colors all and covers all, / and all the variants of unlove / discolor and uncover all, / efficacious making fault thick / when love unmade is thin”).

Although thematically, Hays’ project has promise, it’s overly burdened by the weight of its context and allusions, which the author pays very close attention to maintaining. For instance, the poet’s incorporation of epigraphs to launch his poems is at times helpful to situate the persona’s framework; however, it also throws off their autonomous dynamism and makes them depend too much on the creative landscape of the lines of the poem above. The work often shines in the more contemporary language of the second section, as it’s less weighed down by allusive connotations: “I scout the sky / for the approaching clouds, / our stoic supporting cast– / artists / staggering in with hangovers / after a hard day’s night / to droop around and glisten glib lines.” Nonetheless, it’s not until this section that the work gains momentum. Before this, readers are asked to navigate poems that feel like amorphous iterations of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Although that may be amusing for some readers, it also, and more importantly, causes the work to veer off course. When the text gets more personal, as it does in “Like Escaping into Similes,” quoted above, or in “I. ever seized and seizing” (“and it is none / that can live / and die and live / again / but man ungiving, / man, I, plantless”), the poems burst with story, making the overwrought references found in other poems unnecessary.

Verses that could benefit from fewer references and more fresh air.

Page count: 195pp
Publisher: Rilke Hopkins Press
Program: Kirkus Indie
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