Sunday, April 2, 2017

National Poetry Month: John Shade

John Shade

Title Unknown
(John Shade)

... My best time is the morning; my preferred
Season, midsummer. I once overheard
Myself awakening while half of me
Still slept in bed. I tore my spirit free,
And caught up with myself--upon the lawn
Where clover leaves cupped the topaz of the dawn,
And where Shade stood in nightshirt and one shoe.
And then I realized that this half too
Was fast asleep; both laughed and I awoke
Safe in my bed as day its eggshell broke,
And robins walked and stopped, and on the damp
Gemmed turf a brown shoe lay! My secret stamp,
The Shade impress, the mystery inborn.
Mirages, miracles, midsummer morn.

Since my biographer may be too staid
Or know too little to affirm that Shade
Shaved in his bath, here goes:
                               "He'd fixed a sort
Of hinge-and-screw affair, a steel support
Running across the tub to hold in place
The shaving mirror right before his face
And with his toe renewing tap-warmth, he'd 
Sit like a king there, and like Marat bleed."

The more I weigh, the less secure my skin;
In places it's ridiculously thin;
Thus near the mouth: the space between its wick
And my grimace, invited the wicked nick.
Or this dewlap: some day I must set free
The Newport Frill inveterate in me.
My Adam's apple is a prickly pear:
Now I shall speak of evil and despair
As none has spoken. Five, six, seven, eight,
Nine strokes are not enough. Ten. I palpate
Through strawberry-and-cream the gory mess
And find unchanged that patch of prickliness.

I have my doubts about the one-armed bloke
Who in commercials with one gliding stroke
Clears a smooth path of flesh from ear to chin,
Then wipes his faces and fondly tries his skin.
I'm in the class of fussy bimanists.
As a discreet ephebe in tights assists
A female in an acrobatic dance,
My left hand help, and holds, and shifts its stance.
Now I shall speak...Better than any soap
Is the sensation for which poets hope
When inspiration and its icy blaze,
The sudden image, the immediate phrase
Over the skin a triple ripple send
Making the little hairs all stand on end
As in the enlarged animated scheme
Of whiskers mowed when held up by Our Cream.

Now I shall speak of evil as none has
Spoken before. I loathe such things as jazz;
The white-hosed moron torturing a black
Bull, rayed with red; abstractist bric-a-brac;
Primitivist folk-masks; progressive schools;
Music in supermarkets; swimming pools;
Brutes, bores, class-conscious Philistines, Freud, Marx
Fake thinkers, puffed-up poets, frauds and sharks.

And while the safety blade with scrap and screak
Travels across the country of my cheek,
Cars on the highway pass, and up the steep
Incline big trucks around my jawbone creep,
And now a silent liner docks, and now
Sunglassers tour Beirut, and now I plough
Old Zembla's fields where my gray stubble grows,
And slaves make hay between my mouth and nose.

Man's life as commentary to abstruse
Unfinished poem. Note for further use. . . . ."

This curious poem has a byzantine history. Poet John Shade lived in the Appalachian college town of New Wye. His fame is sufficient for critics to often mention him in the same breath (just "one oozy footprint behind") as his fellow poet Robert Frost, an association which Shade dId not entirely enjoy, perhaps because Frost is always mentioned first. Shade was married to his teenage sweetheart, Sybil. Their only child, a daughter named Hazel, apparently committed suicide. Shade's own dates of birth and death remain a mystery to this day but it is assumed he lived long enough to have "fields where my gray stubble grows."

Though he was once a popular poet, Shade's work—The Sacred TreeThe Swing — has fallen out of fashion as well as print. The longest sample is Shade's untitled 999-line work excerpted above, rendered in heroic couplets (rhyming pairs of lines in iambic pentameter). Shade's poem describes his life, his obsession with the senses, and his boyhood-to-maturity preoccupation with death. The work is notable for its description of a near-death experience (Shade treats it with a mixture of skepticism and reverence), and for the "faint hope" of an afterlife which it provides. 

Divided into four cantos, the work remains available only because an obscure Russian novelist made an English translation from the only Russian-language copy he could find. Since the book was missing a title page (it had been ripped from the binding) the unsure and clumsy translator gave the poem the nonsensical title Pale Fire.  It was published in 1962, although the publishing date may prove to be as untrustworthy as the translator himself.

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