Despite the fact that Shane Neilson has been writing and publishing poetry for some time, Meniscus is his first trade book of poems. It combines previously unpublished writing with material from earlier publications, such as his 2004 chapbook, The Beaten-Down Elegies, and the 2008 limited edition collaboration with wood engraver George A. Walker, Exterminate My Heart.
The first section of the new book, “The Beaten-Down Elegies,” is the most thematically arresting, as well as the most stylistically impressive. Using the language of beatings and drunken binges, it focuses on a violent, alcoholic father and the rural setting of the speaker’s childhood.
These twinned subjects combine most poignantly in “Rooted”: “Part of this nightmare’s craft / is its grip on the bones, pulling memory / towards home,” Neilson writes. The announcement of the father’s death in the sonnet’s final couplet comes as absolution, a release from the prison of bad childhood memories.
Poems like “Lithium” (“The missing element. / Goodbye to high, // a lift past low”) and “Bipolar” announce the second section’s obsession with manic depression and related strains of suicidal contemplation. Section three, in similar fashion, obsesses over an open head injury, tracking a single accident and its after-effects through a series of poems with titles like “Seizure En Route,” “Ambulance Delirium,” and “MRI.”
If the first three sections of the book engage brutally with their subject matter, redemption comes in section four, “Love Life,” in which Neilson reckons with love’s various manifestations. Largely, the poems here manage to be tender without being sentimental. In “On Realizing His Toddler Will Become a Woman,” the speaker yearns to shield his child from the dangers of the encroaching world. “That you will suffer,” the poem begins, “that you will learn / worlds, that you will leave / here and contemplate failure.” The theme repeats itself over the course of several poems.
Indeed, Neilson has a predilection for saying and re-saying what could be dealt with more effectively in a single poem. This habit highlights the subtle difference between exorcism and poetry. Neilson sometimes strays into the former, which is a weakness in this otherwise impressive collection.