An Eye that Wounds: Shane Book’s Ceiling of Sticks

by Susannah Nevison

Shane Book’s Ceiling of Sticks is a poetry of transport: these poems come to rest in distinct and often unusual locations, from Africa to Latin America, and it’s the restless and almost transient nature of this collection that carries us throughout. Haunted by a sense of yearning, these poems are in many ways a search for wholeness and identity, a search for a name. In the opening poem, “_Litost_: A Style Manual,” we are introduced to litost, a Czech word meaning “a wild mixture of sorrow, regret, empathy/ an inexhaustible longing.” It is this inexhaustible longing that drives both a personal and universal excavation of history throughout the collection.

Book’s relentless examination of the past is often derived from a selection of Sebastião Salgado’s photographs, images that allow us entry into a shared world: We come to understand that it is through writing about these photographs that Book engages in the art of undressing edifice. In the opening poem, he writes:

Something about the past
makes me want to lathe it down to perfection, 
to nothing, 
the finest wood dust…

Through careful reduction, Book then reconstructs his “ceiling of sticks,” a bare-boned representation of the quintessential, within each breathtaking poem.

Photographs have the ability to move and inspire us, to horrify and disgust. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes proposes, there are two realms of response to a photographic image: a reaction that evokes nameable meanings, Barthes’s studium, which includes cultural and linguistic response; and a visceral and emotional reaction, Barthes’s punctum, a response that springs from the photograph’s ability to wound the spectator. Although many of these poems are fraught with political and cultural meaning, as in the poem “Uganda 1997,” these photographs induce a response far beyond the merely cultural or historical. These photographs wound Book, the primary viewer; in turn, Book’s poems wound the reader. The direct relationship between Book and these photographs is distilled on the page; we not only come to connect with the primary photographs through Book, but in doing so forge our own relationship with the “finest wood dust” of each photograph: the naked poem.

Not all his poems revolve around photographs, and it would be unfair to say the book is solely defined by those image-based poems. Yet even personal poems are framed photographically. For instance, the title of a poem detailing familial history is “San Fernando, Trinidad, 1954,” a title that strongly echoes “Uganda 1997.” Regardless of photographic inspiration, and perhaps in spite of it, each piece functions as a carefully focused lens. In the poem “Stop,” Book states, “I’m a pinhole camera.” That said, much of the collection confronts identity and personal history, ideas of race and culture, which link the poems to one another and allow for a kind of fluency between the pieces. Because the poems are primarily poems of place, the focus on shared themes of loss, longing, and self becomes an increasingly important way of locating ourselves within the larger work. And it’s because of Book’s careful selection, in that balance between language and the unspoken, that we come to trust the poet as filter.

Throughout the collection, both poet and reader confront human atrocity and unspeakable acts of cruelty. Ranging from modern-day racism to the dismemberment of an eight-year-old girl at the hands of soldiers barely four years older, Book’s poems insist on a close examination of the detestable side of human nature. Yet in doing so, Book doesn’t damn the perpetrators, nor does he elevate the victims. Instead, he moves slowly toward the affirmation that despite the existence and unchangeable nature of human cruelty, there exists an unshakable belief in the rare and beautiful. In his closing poem, “To a Curl of Water,” Book states:

I believe in small Ontario towns. I believe
in aging maples, the Sub-Saharan night sky


I believe in tractor-trailers,
the endless fact of a wave’s story

The success of this collection lies within Book’s dual vision, an eye for that which wounds and that which remains beautifully unchanged.

University of Nebraska Press, 2010