When I was younger, the Police popularized the concept of synchronicity, or the belief that an apparently random coincidence carries some sort of deep meaning or significance. Jung was of course beyond me at the time (though I would later take great interest in his theory of the collective unconscious), but synchronicity became a buzzword in every conversation (and a predictable prompt for charades). I also learned later that the song “Synchronicity II” owes a creative debt to Yeats, who held immense influence on my development as a poet. Can that just be a coincidence?
In any case, even if I hadn’t been listening to the Police again lately, I might still have latched on to the concept of synchronicity because in my last two journal publications, I shared space with another poet. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. The writer is Faith Shearin, and the odd confluence prompted me to grab her book, The Owl Question, from my shelf. That was her first book, published shortly before my own (in fact, it’s a safe assumption that I received the book because I also entered the May Swenson competition that year). The judge for the prize was Mark Doty, another poet I’ve always admired.
It was a great choice. Shearin’s poetry, even then, combined an unusual maturity with a youthful exuberance and sense of wonder. Many of the poems in this book look back on childhood events and memories with an eye that is not entirely critical or nostalgic. Rather, they read more like an examination or a documentary in which the poet seeks to explain—to herself, at least—how she came to be the person she is. One of my favorites in this vein is “Frogs,” which recounts a third-grade science exercise dissecting frogs. The poem bounces (leapfrogs?) around a bit, as her poems often do, providing bits of information that gradually form a larger picture. And the language is vivid: the frogs arrive “dead and soaked in formaldehyde / so they looked like wet vegetables dug up on some // other planet.” That fabulous description is another hallmark of Shearin’s work, as is the deft and unexpected turn of phrase. This poem, for example, extrapolates from dissecting the frog to dissecting her own life, with equal rigor but equivocal results: “And because of her I have taken my life apart many times, / to examine it, though I have never understood what it was.”
The first poem in the collection, “Piano Lesson,” ends on a similar crescendo: “I want to be like the girl upstairs who has braced / herself before a grand piano and taught her own blind fingers to sing.” Like many in the book, this poem speaks of both the unknown possibilities of life and the known tragedies—but it’s the optimism that wins out in the end. The view of an indifferent universe that piles life upon death shows up a lot, as in “Flat World,” which literally places a pregnant woman in a cemetery. Although wry social commentary is not a recurring trope, it is certainly on display in the line, “even without bodies, the rich slept better // than the poor.”
Which draws attention to another aspect of Shearin’s work. It is frequently quite personal, and tells of a genteel southern upbringing—but that family history is far from gothic, and the depictions never stray into caricature. In fact, it could be argued that the conventionality of her life became a source of underlying unease and self-doubt. We learn about her engagement and marriage in terms that are ambivalent, to say the least. In “Matrimony,” for example, she tries out the role of “wife” and finds it “like gaining / fifty pounds, all on my ass” (a phrase that is delightfully out of character in the book). Shearin also evokes the complicated mess of emotions that accompany pregnancy and birth in several poems, the most visceral being “Childbirth Revisited,” which conveys the sense of absurdity and helplessness when the one giving birth seems to have the least control over the entire situation.
The title poem puzzled me for a long time, until it finally dawned on me that it’s not a question about owls, it’s the question the owls ask: Who? Who are you really, in this world, which imposes such expectations and assumptions on you? How much of what you do—even falling in love—is the result of your own pure desires, your own pure persona, as opposed to the gestalt, the collective unconscious, you may have accepted without question or examination? “Surely I am pure beneath the layers I’ve grown for love.” Note that sentiment ends with a period, not a question mark—as though punctuation can differentiate between the real and ideal.
The world the Shearin grew up in was vastly different than mine, but I feel a strange affinity for her work. Granted, it is a bit more prosy than my usual fare, but it is carried off with grace and aplomb. Also, I think we can all get behind the desire for the world as “a picnic where the wine is free and sex / turns everyone to swans.”