Ersatz Anatomy by Steven Sherrill

Ersatz Anatomy cover“I hope you find some poems you like in here,” Steve wrote on the cover letter when he sent me the book last November (he’d read a few of the poems on the Woodrat Podcast the previous March and knew of my interest). I quote this because I fancy it says something about his ambitions for his poetry: not necessarily to please all the people (or at least the small subset of people who read poetry) all the time. It might also be a good strategy in general for poets sending out review copies to lower the expectations of reviewers. It worked for me: for every poem that made me say “Huh?” there were at least two others that found me penciling underlines or exclamation points.

It might be interesting sometime to do a comparative study of bestselling novelists’ poetry. I suspect quite a few would choose, as Sherrill has in many of these poems, to regularly confound readers’ expectations with fractured clichés, inconsistent punctuation, willfully obscure references and abundant blasphemy and absurdism. Who but a novelist would write “Our attempts at omniscience comfort me” (“Real Estate”) or “In the Book of Hours/ this moment is denied” (“Why He Wants to Paint the Gate Red”)?

The ordinary reader wants to know what a book is about. Another reviewer resorted to arithmetic to show that Sherrill’s main subject is desire:

The poems in Steven Sherrill’s Ersatz Anatomy use the words “want,” “need,” “desire,” “longing,” and “yearn” 74 times. Those words appear at least once in 36 of the volume’s 74 poems, clearly suggesting that desire is the primary subject of this poetic inquiry.

I’m not going to count them, but I’ll bet there are almost as many references to faith, religion, or God. Like many professed atheists, Sherrill never seems to get tired of arguing with God. His “Psalm of the Malcontent,” for example, contains these memorable lines:

God of the taut larynx, taught— homonym. God
of all that bids me to speak. My question is this:
is it possible that God on the Seventh Day did not
rest, that God instead broke down— terrified?

Even poems not explicitly about religion seem to have been infiltrated by a certain Biblical consciousness — must be Sherrill’s Southern upbringing. Allow me to quote a favorite poem in its entirety:

Hocus Pocus

Deuteroscopy: a thing seen only
on second glance. Take for instance
the dung beetle charading as his heart.
See how the hard gray shell goes red
and pulses softly for your sake.

Some days he can eat the whole Sunday paper
one letter at a time. Other days
the paper eats him. Here is the secret
he cannot let slip: there is an abacus
where his soul should be.
Put your ear to his belly. The incessant
Tick tick ticking will drive you mad.

Replacing the heart with a gold dung beetle was part of the funerary rites of the ancient Egyptians. I didn’t pick up on the allusion until my second reading, appropriately enough.

Somewhere in these 120 pages — I’ve lost the reference — Sherrill (or his narrator) claims not to like nature poetry. If true, I’d say he dislikes it the same way he dislikes religion: the book is chock-full of evocations of nature and landscape. Picking a few almost at random:

the rapture of okra once you succumb
Like the mud dauber’s spastic black dance.
(“Literalist at the Altar”)

Above stratus, above nimbus
Maker and made are the same
Birth, death, and all the other little ecstasies
Occur between wing beats
(“Geese at 9000 Feet”)

I mourn for the alewives
Dead or foundered by the thousands
Scattered in the sand like forgotten parentheses
Rung from the belly of Lake Michigan
Rung by the incessant honesty of Spring
I mourn for their spines at the shore the sun
Climbing nowhere

Bird delineates its day
with bush, fence line, branch and stone.
How obvious my thick snout
my muddy hooves must appear.
Of your penciled nights’ endless

black acres, I know little.
(“Preamble to the Treatise on Desire”)

The leaves are falling in Pennsylvania
Rothko’s color fields, those luminous
prayers, are fading. My sweet daughter grows.
The bowl is a vessel; fill it or not
Listen. I have nine syllables left
I offer them all to the mountain.
(“Anatomy Lessons”)

Yeah, so I’m finding a lot to like here. Lines that seemed obscure on first reading are revealing a method to their madness. Song-like elements are beginning to emerge from poems I initially read as deranged prose. I don’t personally resonate with Sherrill’s intense and obsessive exploration of sexual desire — not like I did with Diane Lockward’s poems of culinary desire, for example — but I found something to admire on almost every page. I mean, how can you not love a poem titled “Treatise on Desire” that features a grackle flying over a snowy field? It concludes with a seeming aside to the slumming novelist, the storyteller who has done his best to untell stories:


flies the grackle over snowy ground
Tell me a story of the air
between them: glacial, pernicious, buoyant

4 Replies to “Ersatz Anatomy by Steven Sherrill”

  1. Is this a Carolinian? Either he feels like one or I’m remembering him from the past. Have not read his novel(s). Have not read anything except these bits, but I think I will read this book.

    Sometimes novelist-poets (or poet-novelists) make poems that are just broken prose, but there’s a lot about these pieces that seems to lie on the other side of the fence from prose. And I like that.

    1. Yeah, he’s a Carolinian — check out the podcast. Or at least he was — he seems to be putting down roots here in PA. You’d probably like his novels, too, given your interest in mythology and high-brow genre fiction.

        1. Yeah, he lives about 15 miles away — one of three poets in a 20-mile radius of me whose work I’ve blogged this month, the others being Gabe Welsch and Todd Davis. PA has lots of colleges and universities, so you can’t hardly throw a dead cat without hitting a poet.

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