The Last Person to Hear Your Voice
by Richard Shelton
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007
Reviewed by Evan Hanczor
In his newest collection of poems, The Last Person to Hear Your Voice, Richard Shelton begins in a place where it is raining, "and a line of light is just beginning/ to open the lid of the horizon." His book attempts to serve as that line of light amid shades of darkness in the world we inhabit. With the perspective of one who has labored in areas of darkness and of light (Shelton has been both a Regents Professor at the University of Arizona and has established writing workshops in the Arizona State Prison system) Shelton examines the places where the multiple varieties of light clash with the seemingly insurmountable darkness of the world.
Shelton separates his collection into three sections. In the first, "Children of the New Crusade," he explores sufferings of today, climbing the stairs of emotion from the level of the personal to the most public sadness. He documents loneliness and insecurity in poems like "Yes Miss Emily." In "In Search of History" he brings to mind the cost of war felt by each generation, as "the history of war passes a hat and we/ put our children in it." Many of the poems in this section are marked by a seething indictment of the complicity of individuals in the suffering of others. Our biggest failure is our ability and willingness to look away from the suffering surrounding us. Shelton includes several poems about homelessness, contrasting the situation of the unfortunate that people choose not to help with the "6 p.m." lives of the masses, hurrying home to "frozen suppers, happy/ to avoid eye contact with history." This section also contains Shelton's most political pieces in the book, as well as the haunting "One Morning," which stretches the tension between the insignificance and extremity of the individual pain felt on September 11, 2001.
The second section, "The Pope and The Contortionist" is, as the title suggests, a lightening-up from the dark nature of the first. The poems in this section mostly work their way through explorations of place, curiosity, humor and storytelling. The poet's mind is freed from the shackles of responsibility, but even in light-natured pieces there is the awareness that this peace of mind is not ignorant of the context in which it exists. Place poems like "South Paradise" and "Here in Ecuador" are pleasant, rolling commentaries on quirks of expectation and knowledge. "Therapy Session" is one of the poems in a Q&A format Shelton likes to use which allows him to explore interesting back-and-forths in his own mind. The section ends with "The Golden Jubilee," a folkloric piece about the type of pseudo-fantastical worlds that Shelton seems to adore creating.
The book returns to a more serious state in its final section, "Suburban Life as We Know It." Here, Shelton writes about childhood, absence, his parents, and the way the river of the past slides into forgetting. He notates "Brief Communications with my Widowed Mother" and remembers the barstool storytelling of his father in poems like "Let me Tell the One About" and "Red, Ed, and Clyde." In "The Hole" he looks at the absence of something as a thing itself, and much of this section is based around the absences caused, or revealed, by the passing of time. In a poem about blindness, "Canes," Shelton contrasts the blindness of the sightless with that of those who have the ability, if not the inclination, to actually see. This third section is a slowly sliding group of poems with a much more subdued tone than the ferocity of the first or the lightness of the second. He ends with "Glen Canyon on the Colorado," a poem which starts "soon it will be thirty-five years/ since the gamblers passed a leather cup." These lines encapsulate the thrust of the final section of the book, that soon it will be thirty-five years since anything, and we may or may not be around to see it. The poem, and the book, closes with the statement that amid all the darknesses Shelton has explored, it is ultimately "despair/ the darkness in ourselves we fear."
As a whole, The Last Person to Hear Your Voice is a complete, winding exploration of the role of the individual living both among a society of sufferers and against the backdrop of time. Shelton tries to provide light among the darkness, and does so not only by lightening the situation and wrapping himself in humor, but by staring at the dark long enough for his eyes to adjust to the point where he can make out objects in the shadows. This is when he is most effective. The book could certainly be tighter, but it is well-crafted and succeeds in many places. Shelton dips his hands into the river of time and suffering again and again, but never in exactly the same water, and more often than not scoops out something refreshing.
EVAN HANCZOR is a recent graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans. He is currently writing and working as a chef in Connecticut.