The Pleasures of the Book – Spring 2021

by Wendy Galgan



In P.C. Scheponik’s Seeing, Believing and Other Things, there is abundant beauty and grace in both the observable world and in the world beyond, particularly in the moments that reveal those two worlds as being intimately intertwined.

[Please note: As with Newman’s poetry, Scheponik’s feels true, personal, so I will at times use his name in this review as I did in the review of Newman’s work.]

Divided into the three sections reflected in the title, Scheponik’s collection is luminous with the joy to be found in nature, in family, and in friendship, while not shying away from life’s trouble and sadness that are a counterpoint to that joy. Indeed, we need the bitter in order to appreciate the sweet, and it is one of Scheponik’s strengths as a writer that he is able to give us the full range of human emotion and experience without ever losing sight of our need for each other, for the natural world, and for a belief in something outside of – and larger than – ourselves.

In “Form and Content,” the poem that opens the first section, Seeing, Scheponik presents us with the image of geese landing on a lake and how, in doing so, “each became a pair,” a goose and a reflection of a goose. In one way, the geese serve as metaphors for the art of poetry itself, how each poem’s form and content should be inseparable, the one a necessity for (and reflection of) the other. The geese also serve as metaphors for those intertwined worlds that provide the beauty in the collection’s poems; inextricably conjoined, “miming each other in the sun’s glare,” the world around us and the world beyond us existing in tandem, grounding us to the Earth while simultaneously asking us to look beyond the physical into the metaphysical. We can only begin to understand our own human existence when we allow ourselves to see the world around us and to contemplate what lies beneath/behind/beyond it.

“Daybreak” hints at this act of seeing beyond through celebrating the morning first with concrete natural imagery.

My heart rises with each note, and my soul longs
to find its way deep into the beauty this world shows,
into the perfect truth the body knows when it’s
seduced by morning.

This “perfect truth” that we must find our way into, that the world around us shows us just a portion of, holds the promise of revelation and understanding, a promise the poet shows us throughout this collection.

There is another type of truth in nature, however, and this can be found in “Moment of Truth.” Here, a mourning dove is taken by a red-tailed hawk and, while the speaker sees the bird “in the hawk’s sharp, red talons,” he does not see the aftermath, when the hawk is able “to devour its fill of pleasure, to obey / the mandate to survive.”

This mandate holds an important lesson, for the hawk has as much right to live as the mourning dove does, but only one of them will survive this encounter.

I know there are laws in this world, written in the blood
that flows through our veins, savage statutes that allow
us to thrive at the expense of other lives—
a beautiful brutality that makes us sigh
that moment the truth bleeds through.

This truth is not divine truth, not celestial truth, but rather nature’s truth, that some must die (or be killed) so that others may live. Even human beings experience this truth, albeit not in terms of actual predator and prey but rather in terms of resources (natural and human-made), of scarcity, and of power.

Another truth that lies beneath our lives is that we each must, inevitably, die. In “The End Is Song,” the speaker finds a dragonfly dying on the sidewalk and finds that the creature’s death

touched something very deep
in me.
As if fate had led me to this place,
as if earth whispered in a voice
made of grace delicate as a
dragonfly’s wing:
Look and see.
This is how it is done.
This is how you sing the end.

There are lessons that nature can teach us, if we open ourselves to the possibilities around us. Even something as ‘inconsequential’ as the death of an insect can hold a deep and abiding lesson for us by letting us see more than what is in front of us, see the sublime as it moves through the smallest of creatures.

Nature – including death – will have its way, and even the strongest of human creations cannot keep it at bay. In “Ode to Sparrows,” we see that the speaker learned this lesson as a boy, walking through the city during the summer.

The countless ants scurrying in and out among the weeds
that grew in the lifts and fissures of
concrete that couldn’t keep
mother nature away, but heaved and broke, forced to obey

the truth that you cannot yolk nature’s power to human will.

None of these truths, however, can take away from the beauty to be found all around us, especially in the creatures of the Earth. Cardinals, gulls, ants, sparrows, spiders, and dragonflies abound in Scheponik’s work. Indeed, the sparrows that fill the street with “their petit dejeuner chatter” and whose shadows (“darker versions of themselves”) — like the geese’s reflections earlier in the collection — “prove everyone has a double,” provide a link between the physical world and the metaphysical one for the speaker of “In Heaven’s Name.”

I find this both miracle and mystery, this
morning sparrow world,
such majesty in the moment.

How shall I do justice to it? What shall I name it?

I know; I’ll call it heaven.

Here and there, Earth and Heaven, the physical and the metaphysical, are always present in this collection. Some poems begin as close observations of the world and its creatures, then grow to become hymns of praise to both that world and its creator. Others express a “longing for the caress / of God’s own hand” that, while not fulfilled, nevertheless is promised by something as simple and as beautiful as “Sparrow Song. Still other poems present the world as a direct reflection of the divine. In “Trinity,” for example, waves, sky and wind mirror the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Always, there is beautifully-rendered imagery, descriptions so clear that the reader feels herself at times to be standing alongside the speaker, seeing what he sees, hearing what he hears.

As the first section progresses, we find Scheponik moving toward an acceptance of the changes that getting older bring to his life. In “Lessons Learned,” retirement turns out to be freeing rather than “challenging,” with time for poetry and self-acceptance and the realization that

I am ever the boy who watches the clouds
and talks to the trees,
who envies the birds and the graceful ease
of their wings as they ride the wind.

Yes, the speaker has moments of fear or regret when he thinks about dying:

I stand there waiting, patiently,
a dark shadow self under cartwheeling stars

whose diamond-white dance makes me sigh

for all I cannot express, trying not to die

of the love I confess for this world, for my life in it.

For the way I’ve wept when I realize it must one day end. (“Waking in the Dream”)

But he also realizes that the not-knowing is a large part of the fear:

I’ve imagined my death more than a thousand times.

Sometimes as grace? Sometimes as sin?
The question never answered.

The door, always locked, never lets me in. (“Poem for My Age Spots”)

Yet in all these observations, in the wondering and the fear, there are moments of grace as well. In “Love Requited,” after observing the landscape around him, the speaker has a moment of epiphany:

I fell in love or maybe dreamed

I saw the face of God,

separating the mounds of clouds

with living light that seemed to shout

a luminous, “I love you, too!”

Believing, the second section of the collection, brings us the geese again, this time connected directly to the divine. As they move across a pond and “among the reeds,”

They are a prayer in motion,

feathered serenity at its best,

pure devotion,
creation passing the ultimate test

of God’s love. (“Pond Song”)

By using the geese to open the collection’s first two sections in this way, and by directly connecting nature to God’s love in this section’s opening poem, Scheponik is demonstrating how nature and the divine are intertwined, showing that Seeing and Believing are dependent upon each other; they exist in our lives because they are conjoined in our human-ness, in our longing for physical and metaphysical connections.

There is an incantatory, prayerful rhythm in poems like “This Moment of Truth,” with its repeated line of “I worship You” leading into images of the moon “that sheds its light / like glowing grace,” the stars, the “sound of / the night surf’s breath,” and “the midnight clouds / that roll / across the moon’s bright cheek / and hide her loveliness.” The images build, binding the natural world and its creator together, and lead to a final moment of sublimity:

I worship You now,
in this moment of truth,

borrowed from the beauty I behold
in this world that surrounds me, takes me heart and soul,

brings me to my knees

in a prayer that feels like love.

Scheponik’s belief in some poems in this section is just that: belief, not questioning, not hoping, but knowing. “I know you are there,” he says to God, secure in “knowing there is something of You in me,” knowing that this is “something You have not forgotten” and that God’s love, his creator’s love, is vast and strong (“Stardust”).

It is not that the speaker’s belief never falters, that he never doubts. But when he does, he turns to moving among the things of this world (sunrise, birds, trees)

…………………………to reach the
face of calm I’ve never known,

save in my yearnings, in my dreams
where I can gather ripened stars

from the galactic vines of eternity.

And my fingers don’t burn. And the light is
sublime. And the darkness doesn’t
frighten me anymore. (“Walking Toward a Vision of Truth”)

He also turns to poetry when he is up late and faced with

…………………………the need to write

something that matters more than the night,

more than the fears of age, of death, of the desire

to fight them all.

The need to protect myself from the knowledge

I might not matter to this world.

I watch the words as they form on the lines, the letters as they
pour from the tip of the pen.

They are black, the color of blood before it hits the air,

the color of night when the soul throws open her doors,
when the heart strips bare, when all the universal laws

are called into question, when I extend my open palms

for my fair share of the answers. (“Fair Share”)

Yet poetry is more to Scheponik than the search for clarity, faith, or reassurance. His poems are “love letters to God, to this earth, / to my wife, to our children,” to other relations and friends, and to the elements of the world around us (“Love Letters”). And as connected as he is to the world in life, the speaker also looks toward a deeper, more profound connection after his death.

…………………………I try to visualize

what it will be like once I’m cremated and
pulverized—after this life of the body is done,
and I, transformed, once again become

an infinitesimal, granular one.

After they have spread my ashes upon the waves,
and I am free, finally free.

How I will rush home to the countless faces
that wait for me on the beach,

take my place among them in tight cellular unity
that sings earth’s song eternally through
salt-grain lips,

that praises the dance of galaxies that

offer the chance to be and be again—

infinity swimming in a grain of sand,

singing in everlasting refrain:

I am … I am… I am. (“In a Grain of Sand”)

The speaker joins all who have lived and all who will live in a joyous song of existence, an eternal celebration of creation and joy.

Even in the midst of joyful prayer, however, there is darkness. In “My Youngest Brother Calls Me,” the speaker describes a disease that will eventually rob his brother of the ability to move. “I don’t tell him how I don’t understand / how God would let him have this disease,” or how “life is cruel / and fate sadistic.”

These thoughts are too ugly to have—
maybe too ugly to write.
But though they lack even an iota of beauty,
they are heavy with truth—dead weight heavy,
heart-crushing heavy, soul smothering heavy.
So I tell him I am sorry.

I tell him to keep me posted, as if talking were a cure.

I tell him I love him before I say goodbye and hang up.
These words alone are good, are pure.

These words alone are the only things I am sure of

in this world of chance and odds stacked against us.
Even the strongest believer,

Even the greatest dreamer

walks away with only what this world is willing to give.

To live in this world, to love the people around us, is to open ourselves up to pain, to doubt, to feelings of helplessness when those we love are suffering, and to wondering how a just and loving God could allow bad things to happen. By placing this poem in this section of the collection rather than the third one (with poems that have similar themes of illness and loss), Scheponik is showing us that doubt, sorrow, and even anger – at God, at the world, at other people – are as much a part of our journey of faith as joy and wonder are.

This juxtaposition of faith and fear is modeled in the two poems “Morning Prayer” and “Night Song,” In the prayer, the speaker lifts up his voice in praise, and celebrates how he has “become a thing worth saving, / an expression of indelible grace.”

There is nothing more to do

than feel,

nothing more to say.

So real, this moment,

so perfect, this day.

All that remains is worship and this poem,
praying from this page. (“Morning Prayer”)

The joy of the morning then becomes the bleak emptiness of “Night Song,” where the stars “know who we are, / who we pretend to be.”

How we cry in sorrow to save our souls.
How we try with futile hands to hold

the image of who we are.

Ultimately, truth be told,

we are made of wounds

and made of scars,

and know not what we do.

Again, we need the bitter and the sweet, faith and doubt, joy and despair, in order to be fully human and, in that human-ness, come to be able to recognize those moments of grace offered by a loving creator:

I am bathed
in the goodness of God,
my heart, engraved
with His fingerprints of light. (“The Imprint”)

With Other Things, the collection’s third section, Scheponik’s focus shifts to address our humanity more directly, in poems with themes such as aging, death, love, and poetry itself.

The section opens with “The Sorrow and the Shame,” where an unidentified “he,” dying of cancer, “wants to go home to die.” There is nothing left, “there’s no reigniting / the power to heal or the will to live,” which is the sorrow of the title. The shame is that he has to ask for them “to let him go home, to let him die / in the bed he calls his own.”

Sheponik has a fine eye for this type of detail, how illness or aging can take things away from us. In “What of Forever,” it is the speaker’s wish that what he has written will abide after he has died and, in the process, grant him a type of immortality.

I have sanctified the pen.

I have made a paper bed for my heart to

lie down upon, for my mind to pretend

that my soul might live forever.

Being nearer to the end of his life than the beginning does lead to regret. In “Learning to Read at 63,” the speaker, now retired, finds that his “life is like the last / chapter of a book I don’t want to end.” He is discovering “the nowhere / between who I am and who I was meant to be” and realizing that “if only I had been able / to read between the lines, I might have / seen the real story being told.”

In poems such as “For the Woman Crying at Kohl’s” and “The Need,” Sheponik uses the detailed imagery he brought to his observations of nature to works about his fellow human beings. And in works like “Book of Life” and “The Fear,” he turns his poet’s eye upon himself, bringing us further into his contemplation of his own mortality, yes, but also into his poet’s craft, his poet’s heart. He writes of sex (and the absence of sex), love, loss, and the death of his father. And he describes his mother, living in an efficiency apartment, and how she

…………………….holds on to the life left

to her through memories she fears she
might lose to illness, to age. (“Efficiency”)

After the poems about his parents, Sheponik ends the section, and the collection, with the poem “Blame Game.” This was a surprising choice in some ways, given that, while grief and sorrow can be found throughout the work, there is also so much joy and beauty (particularly in the first two sections). With lines like “I’ve always felt there’s more sorrow in me / than I’ve earned though thought or deed,” and “What have I done to merit such misery, / to deserve such psychic pain?,” the poem is strikingly stark. [Note the circling back in the last line to the title of the first poem in this section.]

My mind is divided into two great ravines:
one of guilt, the other of grief
caused by rivers of sorrow and shame.

Yet, in the end, ending the collection with this poem is not such a surprising choice after all. The bitter and the sweet do coexist in our lives, and we justly celebrate the sweetness, but it is often the bitter that stays with us, the shadow beneath our feet, the reflection we see in the water below us, and just as a poem’s form and content are inseparable, so are the good and bad within our lives. “Blame Game” acts, then, as a reminder of this, a reflection of Sheponik’s deep and loving understanding of what makes us who we are – our frailties and our strengths, our sorrows and our joys.