lions review / interview in 'the tavern lantern' / blog of literary orphans (will be reposted here as well in next issue) / big thank you to mike joyce for such a thoughtful review of the work / love it
. If you’ve heard Shelly Taylor’s Lions, Remonstrance mentioned, you’ve likely heard the phrase “war poetry” mentioned with it. This isn’t the half of it; Lions, Remonstrance explores the broader context of soldiers’ lives and the romances those soldiers leave behind. It is not didactic, but instead an intensely personal meditation on the stories we lose in CNN newscasts. We hear these stories from the soldier’s voice, the left-behind voice, and from the no-voice of the omniscient. You won’t find many dead combatants mentioned–nor will you find any white flags. What you will find are the heartbreaks wrought from trauma, from burdened minds, from looking back.
When Shelly Taylor’s book arrived in the mail, I opened it and was a bit startled. The cover took me back immediately to a childhood spent playing with toy metal rifles and camo jackets and roasting beef jerky over Bic lighters underneath plywood forts. The cover is a dangerous green, with military surplus stencil painting on the title and name.
To read this book is to have an experience; increasingly these days I’ve come to appreciate book design and structure and the path a poet or writer can take us on in a collection. Everything in here connects thematically–and indeed some pages exist (in this Editor’s opinion) solely to further our reading of others–it’s a fantastic craft. Shelly Taylor has left out the titles to the poems, and we move between them as if underwater.
Textually, Shelly Taylor has broken this book up into a three act play. You’ll feel this abstractly more than through the content. We start with the first act, the leaving to, the before, the dreams of glory. The second act is has a “to be-ness,” a present feeling of poetry in action and the tension of the outcome still in flux. The final act, subtitled “What have you become to ask/ what have I made you into” is half reflection and half fever dream.
Contentually, the first thing you need to know is that Taylor is a master in the use of negative space. The second thing you need to know is that the story hides there. Her prose telescopes the expanse of years into a seven line stanza. Dilates a moment to Beckettian eternities. We’ll get details like memories induced by smell or sight that will tell the tale of a year–this is especially prevalent in the final act of the book. Almost every poem in this 72 piece anthology contains expertly broken spacing; giving you birth, passage, or reflection from line to line. The dramatic . . . pause is used for this effect as well–this negative space is key here and connects the fragmented line–lines that often read as whole in their own right, as Taylor spits them out in machine-gun music that ricochets back to the lines around before it.
So Taylor has some excellent paint and paper here–or if you’re more of a poetry pedestrian like me, these are some good cuts of meat and aged cheese we’ve got here, but so what? What about the sandwich, what about the story? That reader, is ultimately what will leave you feeling full. The characters of Lions, Remonstrance are shifting and often out-of-time. We see the soldier reoccur–we see the girl with red nails, red shoes, red lips reoccur. We see Arizona take it’s place in the cast, as well as Taylor’s swampy Georgia, and we remember Iraq as it looms. There is a frustrated sense of desperation here, of hopeless anger, of things getting messed up to the point that you can’t fix them–all told via a cast of nameless character memorable by their idiosyncrasies, color choices, and pickup trucks.
I had the opportunity to ask Shelly Taylor three questions on my mind after being filled with the beauty of her work, please read her responses below:
1. What was the inspiration to write this poetry collection?
After my debut collection Black-Eyed Heifer (Tarpaulin Sky, 2010) came out, I wanted to earnestly try my hand at fiction. Let me say that I had zero intent to write another poetry book as my second collection, much less one on the subject of loss and war. I even got about sixty pages into a novel-ish thing when the verse took over, as I imagine it will always try its best to do (cause it’s happening again now…grrr.).
It seems to me a weird thing to set out to write a specific book because the subject matter will always get out from under your feet, but this one, Lions, is one-hundred percent not a book I wanted to write. Four years later I am still having interior debate with the subject. I continually wrestled with the question of what right do I have to write a book mediating on war having never served myself and knowing what I knew only from living with and loving a solider post-three tours, all of this after the relationship had ended. In the end I believe the book chose me because of what was literal in my life at the time. I have always written in order to process and work through things. So it’s ultimately not a remonstrance of war because I don’t dare go there—it’s simply a statement of the speaker’s grief, how she deals with her loss.
2. Is there a story behind the cover?
Bruce Covey, Coconut founder and editor extraordinaire, brought on Atlanta-based artist Stephanie Dowda to design the cover. The photo is from Dowda’s photography series titled “Natural State” in which she spent two years of weekends investigating Georgia State Parks. All of this made sense to me as I am from rural southern Georgia.
The photo is flushed in a deep green hue and is a stark forest scene of brambles and stillness that I think gets close to the general timbre, the interiority of the book. There is something for real sad about the cover to me. I mean the deep green filter brings me back to that Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” poem I love, love to teach to students, that “thick green light, / As under a green sea” the soldier succumbs to so violently because he can’t find his helmet when the company is gassed, that “old lie” of go to war for your country—such glory in war!—that gets blasted by Owen with such legendarily sick imagery not at all for the faint of heart. And the salmon color of the title pops out in a manner that seems to contradict. It’s almost too cheery. And this also seems to mimic something of the book’s feeling—the whole thing a nod to something about the nature of war in general, one big green gloom, one big contradiction.
3. Do you find yourself drawn to particular words?
I am naturally drawn to soft l-sounds: liminal, quell. If I had to live with but one letter it’d be an l. But this is not what you are meaning here I’m guessing…
During Lions, words often began to repeat themselves as I free wrote my way into shaping the thing. Both title words became symbols, ideas that I latched onto that became larger than life, though I had the title right from the beginning of the writing process, something that always seems to happen for me. The image of the lion became everything, the addressee the book muses over in its grief—remonstrance, this statement of lamenting in all its many shades. Phrases also like “to stay the magistrate” and the image of seagulls became repetitive as I wrote one summer in northern Florida and the next in Key West.
To get outside of my head during writing I obsessively watched the old 60/70s TV show Bonanza. Da-duh-da-duh-da-duh-da-duh-daaa-daaa! These characters, especially Ben and Adam Cartwright, found their way into the work and rip and tear at the streamline narrative as a point of reference for me to make sense of my own life stuff. Ben Cartwright (Lorne Green) became the godhead figure whom I looked to for wisdom to justify man’s behavior, odd as that might sound. He is fatherly and oracular and I needed him to shepherd, whereas Adam seemed to resemble the book’s subject, always leaving, troubled, and unsatisfied, though handsome, handsome.