There’s much to like about Times Beach, even for the casual poetry fan. John Shoptaw’s strength is unhooking poetry from its past form – a strategic uncoupling of couplets – to turn the medium into its own monstrous and vital form of energy, all the while telling stories of great depth and enchanting readers with its realism. Think of the imagery of Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar’s 2012 film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, but written in the free verse style of Amiri Baraka, with the verbal fecundity of detail of Kristy Bowen, and finally, with the humorous, but pointed footnote commentary of Junot Diaz, and you have a better idea of how innovative Shoptaw can be.
As the first poem in the collection, “Blues Haiku” admirably sets the tone, and begs the question why this paperback didn’t come with an accompanying CD of Shoptaw reading his work, because his writing begs to be heard aloud. How else do you explain a stanza like this?
What moving violation, unpaid citation, peccadillo,
drove you, bandido, from what Amarillo, what crime against nature, peccadillo,
so far to the north, oh nine-banded tire tread, armadillo?
Times Beach, winner of the 2015 Notre Dame Review Book Prize, is less a collection of poetry as it is an anthology of performance art presented under the guise of poetry. Over the course of 49 poems – including a set of triple sestinas and a 27-page poem/play – Shoptaw combines elements more in line with theater, free-form jazz, art cinema, and Southern Gothic literature, all the while predicated on Shoptaw’s own life in Missouri, as well as actual historical events and persona such as the 1811 and 1812 New Madrid earthquakes, Henry Schoolcraft, and the contamination and eventual dismantling of the town of Times Beach.
This collection reads like the best travelogue that never set out to be one. Nowhere is this more evident than in the very country poems “Castor Glands”, “Times Beach”, “Salome”, and “Tongues”.
This collection represents so many things, but to those readers like myself who are new to Shoptaw’s work, the two most surprising themes are his unbridled environmental activism, as well as his homage to Native American history and culture, and the concurrent commentary directed at the people who sought to displace those traditions. His own personal statement is summarized in one line and displayed at the top of his faculty page at the University of California, Berkeley: “If you’re not a green poet, whatever other kind of poet you are, you’re not paying attention.”
My favorite poems that addressed the themes of the environment and Native American history, sometimes at the same time, were “Such Was Lucy Jefferson Lewis’s Hold”, “Oh Well”, “Corn Maze”, “Every Creeping Thing”, “Ghost Squirrels”, and “Itasca”.
The last poem on that list, “Itasca”, was particularly moving as the sharpest social commentary possible by Shoptaw against Henry Schoolcraft and other “explorers” who renamed geographic landmarks that already had Native American names that held meaning, and replaced them with names that were often not even indigenous in origin, but were invented. Worse, these men used the principle of divide and conquer to create enmity between tribes that had not existed before. Writes Shoptaw,
Just the way that Henry Schoolcraft, he who founded Itasca Lake, who
married an Ojibway woman, Maiden-of-the-sound-the-stars-make,
pioneering Chippewa linguist, (thanks to her) Algonquin linguist,
chief ethnologist of his century, font of Native-American studies,
U.S. Indian Historian, far-flung tribal census-taker, who
bound the myths his wife had Englished, Jane, the unattributed author
(this anthology, Algic Researches, being the source for Hiawatha),
four years on, as Indian agent, in the capital, on his birthday,
negotiated a general treaty, Indian titles all extinguished,
played the Ojibwe off the Ottawa, turned the one against the other, a
cession of sixteen million acres, nearly half of Michigan, their
trading debts forgiven, payments, twenty years of cash annuities,
Chippeway, a fertile precinct, happy tilling grounds for hunters,
occupancy with an eye to their eventual removal.
So from winding lakes and forests Schoolcraft hacked out their salvation.
After reading and re-reading Times Beach, I’m less sure now that this is even poetry, at all because it consistently defies convention. Whatever it is, and however we try to box it, these works are brilliant. In “Floodplain”, Shoptaw etches this verse on to our minds: “Each and every one of us writhes with undercurrents. Maybe that’s why we write down our tales. They clear the fertile bottomlands of alternate courses we wouldn’t otherwise have known how to till.” Shoptaw’s “undercurrents” run deep, and give us a taste of what true originality represents.