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Boy with Flowers (Barrow Street), selected by Carl Phillips for the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, is one of the most assured collections by a first-time author to appear in recent years. Touching, lovely, and at times harrowing, Ely Shipley thrills the reader with snapshots of childhood, family, relationship, the inner life of the outsider.
Often Shipley acts as ace war reporter, focusing his lens on the skirmishes waged at the borders of gender and sexual idenitity, using his precise craft to measure the toll exacted on those who cross those borders.
Section 1 looks acutely at childhood, and its closing poem, “Magnolia,” offers up pungent proof of Shipley’s skill. Shipley conveys the magical realism of childhood, but from the outset, the idyllic scenes are suffused with tension:
In the cul-de-sac shaded
by trees, Marissa and I
played all summer where magnolias
hung, hands withering over us
“Magnolia”‘s lilting language and neat four- and five-line stanzas belie the chaos just under its surface, a surface that’s finally broken. When the stepfather comes home early one day, liquor on his breath, “each syllable a balled-up / fist,” Marissa asks the speaker not to return to the house. She offers the speaker a parting gift, a magnolia blossom, its petals “darkening everywhere / they’d been touched.”
Throughout the collection, flowers are used to great effect, as in the title poem, in which the speaker is cajoled into wearing a dress for an aunt’s wedding. Asked to be the flower girl, the speaker replies “I’m not / a girl” but agrees to “throw rose petals // onto the aisle,” in exchange for the right to “wear anything / I wanted after: army pants, a sheriff / badge, cowboy hat, and pistols.” Avoiding facile happy endings, Shipley brings the reader to a present in which the past lingers:
— my lover is tracing fingertips
around two long incisions in my chest. Each sewn tight
with stitches, each a naked stem, flaring with thorns.
The final poem in Boy with Flowers, “Etymology,” investigates the beginnings of things.
Strange that you’d let me
to my own body
even though I’ve always been
a boy, moving
toward what? Manhood?
–a thick needle
filled with your fluid, thrust every
two weeks the rest of my life
into my thigh.
With “Etymology,” Shipley not only shines light on the shadows of masculinity-what it means to be a man, what is essential, what gets performed-he also gamely employs line breaks such that, for instance, “two weeks the rest of my life” conveys the tension between the ephemeral and the eternal, weaving in and out of the liminal spaces in time and gender.
As transporting as Boy with Flowers is, it adroitly brings the reader full circle. The speaker recalls being an “eight-year-old boy,” picking a flower and putting it in his dictionary, a gift from his father. When he removes it after it has dried, there is a stain left on the page, “the handprint of / a child / quieting the words.”
BOY WITH FLOWERS
by Ely Shipley
Barrow Street Press
Paperback, 71 pp., $15.95