Complete Physical, the third full-length collection by New Brunswick native Shane Neilson, explores the poet's profession as a physician. In an era of MRIs and CT scans, among other magic lanterns, the book's title raises potentially challenging questions about human self-understanding. Pervaded by the metaphor of doctor as priest, here mediating between patients and their bodies, these poems depict identity threatened by death and disease. Their themes of communication and reticence echo 2009's Meniscus, which centres on the poet's relationships with his deceased father, his wife and his daughter.
Unfortunately, for all its thematic weight, the writing in Complete Physical rarely achieves real poetic coherence. Despite moments of wit ("I necromance," Neilson says, in erotic recall of the dead) and suggestive imagery, the language rarely strays from slightly distorted literalism. Many poems are little more than dressed-up prosaic anecdotes. Syntax, rhythm and sound-patterning are often inexpertly handled. The following excerpt from the title poem is all too representative. It wonders what would happen if the doctor asked his patient, "Have you ever been in love?":
It seems to me a more pertinent question than the latest burp or cough. But if there was a diagnosis, and it was love, would I order an unlovely blood test to confirm, would I measure love's telltale bump with my hands, remarking on colour, border, size, and consistency?
Even when more implicit, the imagined conversational situation between doctor and patient keeps many poems trapped within its social dynamic - where informality serves to maintain social distance. As a result, figurative language must often remain hermetically sealed in clauses beginning "I think" and "I wonder if" and the like, or else be neutralized with politely ironic asides. Though juxtaposition sometimes rehabilitates clichés ("I have turned the yawning abyss / into a silk purse"), there is often too little regard for how residual or potential connotations interact with each other poetically.
Though all these problems appear in Meniscus, it displays far greater imaginative accomplishment. Certain weak points aside, the poems reprinted from 2004's The Beaten-Down Elegies reveal a poet reaching towards, and sometimes achieving, significant unity of theme, structure and language.
Elsewhere, Life on 8 Lane explores the doctor-patient relationship more searchingly than anything in Complete Physical. Three sections of controlled free verse modulate from the patients' viewpoint to a detached perspective including the speaker (addressed as "you"), to the emergence of an "I" at once more vivid and more universal than in Neilson's recent work. The first two sections each contain the word "halo"; the third contains its echo: "We all say hello in the halls." Divergent interpretations of this turn fuse into insight: Simple acknowledgment here appears otherworldly. Neilson's pointed "We all" not only includes hospital staff as beneficiaries; it also colludes with the section's epigraph by Alden Nowlan to suggest a microcosm.
Other poems refuse this complex architecture, apparently on the premise that - as one poem puts it - "Strategies / of careful expression are grotesque and few, / and need not rely on pretense, only lacquers / of practice." And yet, to the extent that these lines are convincing, it is not because they lack pretense but rather because of their dramatic context and subtle poetic image: layered transparency revealing the grain of the wood. To this extent, they convince us of their message's opposite. Too much of Neilson's writing neglects this impolite irony.
Though some of the more extravagant tall tales in Complete Physical (like The Test and Inside the Examining Room) hold out the promise of a fruitful new type of poem for Neilson, one hopes he will approach it with the precision of his earlier autobiographical work. The early poem Beaten-Down Elegy closes with one of Neilson's best images - at once a figure for the mute realignment of son and father after one of the latter's rages, and an emblem for the minimum connection this type of poetry must establish with the reader. If it avoids complex overtones, it must at least strike the low chord of alignment: "the thump of wet hay on wet hay."
Paul Daniel Franz is a writer, editor, and translator. He holds degrees in classics and medieval studies from Harvard and the University of Toronto.