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A Review of: The Beaten-Down Elegies
by Susan Briscoe

In the small but complete range of poems (only twelve) presented in The Beaten-Down Elegies, Maritime poet Shane Neilson focuses on a single subject, a boy's relationship with his abusive, alcoholic father. This is heavy material, and Neilson does well to allow it its full weight in physical detail. He does not cringe at "the fist to flesh, bone-crack, jaw-snap" of a beating, and so we see "teeth eject like seeds from pumpkins" and hear the "slurred breath heavy now." This could all be too much, but Neilson explores the full complexity of this relationship, including its unique intimacy, with an honesty that doesn't allow pathos.
Neilson's attention to poetic language, though it makes the violence uncomfortably vivid, also balances the brutality with a near grace. In many poems the language is lush and generous, as in one of the best, "Drunk Driving":

The tire-scream and swerve,
the unbelted aplomb: an old Ford's
pregnant ballet on the country highway,
the fat oscillations and dips
of a motorized drunk, his wave and shout
to neighbours out-of-doors - Hellew! -
and open-throated gulp of rum
a signal to his son to pass the Coke chaser.
We hurtle in wide berths,
take corners in swaths

But at other times he could use some restraint and a greater respect for linguistic logic to keep the poems cleaner and clearer; small things like "sate" instead of "sated" detract from the powerful effect of the poems. So much attention is given to the dramatic nouns and verbs with their attendant adjectives and adverbs that the humble connecting words are often poorly chosen and confusing. Another editorial sweep might also have tidied up some cluttered lines, smoothed the syntax, and caught the repetition of certain words and images that comes to feel more like carelessness than leitmotif: too many "fists" and "flesh" (despite their truth to the experience of the beaten boy). And "godhead" is a word that should not appear more than once in a collection, let alone in a single poem.
Neilson might also want to think about pulling back from the urge to explain and interpret, as in "a man who drank to drown and ruin / his dream" and "the Oedipal story / twisted up and reversed though true enough." And though he usually resists it by sticking to the concrete details of his scenes, Neilson does succumb to the lure of melodrama with endings like this:

his head lolling on the way to bed
pulled by a child with a wish
he were dead.

But these are the flaws of a passionate poet whose genuine excitement about his art gives these poems their engaging energy.
One last small complaint: though Neilson's rhymes enrich his several sonnets, they are occasionally forced beyond the acceptable, as when "teachings" is chopped into "teach- / ings" to form an end-rhyme for "each"-which is just plain cheat-ing.
And while book design is rarely mentioned in reviews, this beautifully crafted chapbook merits a recommendation for its handmade covers and hand-set printing-the textured papers are a sensual delight.

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