Finishing Line Press, 102 pages
Susan Baller-Shepard’s “Doe” is a striking poetry collection. I was captured by this slender (66 poems) volume’s cover photo of a doe standing in a late autumn field. The doe knows you’re watching her. So do the poems.
The sustaining metaphor of this collection is the doe as a figure for the lives and concerns of women, and the world women live in. Though written with particularity, with a poet’s eye for detail, these are not small poems, narrowly confined to the poet’s life experience. In all their intimacy, they move between personal experience and larger questions of living in creation.
“Muliebrity” is a literary synonym for “womanhood.” In that one delicious word hides the key to the dual vision of both poem and collection. Doe is a poetic tour de force on muliebrity that refuses to be tamed by grammar.
The book has five sections: “Does and Fawns” – about the intimacies of mothers and offspring; “Bucks” – meditating on maleness and femaleness; “Other Creatures in the Woods” – Baller-Shepard casting her poetic imagination on her (metaphorical) neighbors; “Territory” – poems that keep a watchful eye on the land at the edge of the forest; and “Bigger Game Beyond the Woods” – poems about global issues that nonetheless impact her sylvan home.
Baller-Shepard knows what she is doing with poetry and theology. A product of the undergraduate Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, she holds master’s degrees in both social work and divinity. Her poems echo with wonder and awe, and never clamber over into ham-fisted explanations of the numinous. She is equally at home in both free verse and classical forms; indeed, some of the best poems in this collection are villanelles and pantoums, with their recurring-yet-shifting language and imagery. But her poetic craft never obscures her emotional authenticity, restrained though it is
Doe nds with “Paraclete,” a lovely evocation of Emily Dickinson’s “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers.” In 20 tightly-written words, Baller-Shepard gathers Dickinson’s image of hope as a fragile-yet-enduring little bird, the gospel’s heaven-descending dove and the Johannine promise of the Holy Spirit to those trying to live according to the way of Jesus:
A thing with feathers
rare bird —
perches in the soul’s spire
drops white feathers
“Doe”does what short collections of poetry are supposed to do: make you see your world differently. But it does more: it makes you feelyour world differently. That’s more than a flash in your peripheral vision.
Paul Hooker is associate dean for ministerial formation and advanced studies at Austin Seminary, and the author of “Days and Times: Poems from the Liturgy of Living.”