Meniscus, by Shane Neilson
Reviewed by Monique Mathew
The hard work of unearthing, examining, and then finally, cataloguing a lifetime’s hurts is the task of Meniscus (Biblioasis, 2009), Shane Neilson’s first tradebook of poetry. Meniscus contains both new work and writing previously published in his chapbooks The Beaten-Down Elegies (2004) and Exterminate My Heart (2008). Divided into four sections, Meniscus starts with “The Beaten Down Elegies”, a collection of poems which recount memories of Neilson’s childhood and adolescence. Set against the stark backdrop of rural New Brunswick, the poems restage the fear and alcohol-fueled violence of his family life. Episodes of abuse at the hands of his father are conveyed like sharp and unwanted flashbacks, as seen in the poem “The Beaten Down Elegy”: “His slurred breath heavy/ a pant as blood flows/ From my mouth, the sawdust/ dreams of a kid thrown/ from a rafter to land/ in copper straw. The dread/ of Dad, down the ladder and looming, steel toes/inches from a broken/ boy. He’s on me now, blows/ of closed hands, cries smothered / in the collapsed bellows / of my chest. His curses/nothing next to his bawling.” Neilson describes his stomping grounds of fallow farm fields and dilapidated vegetable stands with the same breathtaking detail, with his family home and the surrounding landscape competing in their inhospitableness. The poems demonstrate that thriving is not always possible, as even survival under such conditions is precarious.
The second section of Meniscus is “Manic Statement,” a tunneling exploration of mental illness. The poems examine states of depression, mania and paranoia, with the swings of mood between the poems exemplifying the instability of the subject matter. In “Christmas Morning,” Neilson recalls the childish joy of opening presents with his wife and young daughter: “Joy amidst festive wreckage. / My girl laughs in an ornament jungle.” This moment of pleasure is quickly followed by the poem “Method” which meditates on ways of committing suicide with an unsettling quietude: “To jump— / in this, real freedom. / No swallowing of gunmetal, / no deliberation of knots, // Only the urge of footsteps. / Then air. /”
“Seized,” the third section of Meniscus, plumbs the strange territory of sustaining a head injury—with a faint narrative that begins with an accident, followed by a dizzying ambulance ride and estranged states of awareness. The poems in “Seized” bear titles like “Seizure en Route,” “Second Seizure en Route” and “To the O.R.” The graphic and literal nature of these poems begs deeper interpretation, leading one to consider head wounds, seizures and delirium as metaphor. While “Manic Statement” explores the impact of trauma on the psyche, Neilson uses “Seized” to tell the same story of pain, using blows to the physical body to dizzying effect.
Neilson concludes Meniscus with “Love Life”, a dark portrayal of love as the primary source of emotional pain, a fitting follow up to the book’s earlier explorations of psychological and physical suffering. The” poems consider love from many angles—from the perspectives of an impassioned lover, a husband in a fading marriage and a new father regarding his child. The poem “Rebound” describes a love relationship: “Love was forgotten / and bastardized and / flecked and fucked, we / woke and fell and fell / again, knees skinned / then cracked and I / buckled, I swore / you off like a lifestyle / drug, and it’s lifeless, / lifeless I took you, / and take you, and like / the brittle brown / of a dead diseased leaf, / ”.
There are several poignant moments in “Love Life,” such as when Neilson recalls his daughter’s early years, using allusions to fairytales and fantasy to recapture the wonder of childhood. This paternal joy becomes eclipsed by a pervasive fear that his daughter will one day suffer and perhaps become the victim of abuse herself, as seen in “On Realizing his Toddler Will Become a Woman”: “That one day, the tally of wonders / commonplace, your body marked / by routine violence, you will return / here and seek to retreat / from the marksman. / That I could offer / protection, that I could draw you / close and, as now, hum / you a lullaby—one from your childhood, / the words forgotten.”
The ability to observe emotions from a place of detachment can often be an after-effect of trauma, characterized by numbness and cognitive distortions toward feelings. This detachment seems present throughout Meniscus– the varietals of pain described in the work are described with a consistent coolness and emotional disconnect. Given the topics of child abuse, mental illness and marital discord, this impassivity in the poetic voice is somewhat unsettling and at times, works to diminish the emotional impact of the poems. Neilson’s use of language is stark, but this off-kilter beauty is arresting. On the whole, Meniscus chronicles an individual’s trajectory from childhood to parenthood, with keener attention paid to the millstones than the milestones. Although the territory Neilson covers in his debut tradebook is undoubtedly dark, there are still many worthwhile moments to be forged in its depths.