Here's the opening sonnet of 'Warrant Error':
Immensities blade rushes the wind and
grieves a full deck of bad luck.
A managed democracy dances in tune
to a spread-cleft litany, as the Queen's English
warbler, toned to death, unstrews his truth
The blind justice hangs his slogan. Stop.
Burgeon a burden for the chat laureate
entuning and consuming his own genius. The comedy
terrorist brags his mince as roast beef
No peace fries up on a multiple mind grill,
dithering states in desperate times; the sandy
trap-door promise of paradise rusted by frost.
The biggest part of self weakens its softest
option: its cast out old alibi song
This poem shows a mastery and a thorough understanding of the sonnet form; a tension between compression and expansive discursion, sudden switches of meaning, and a lyricism resulting from close-knit sound and expression. It reminds me of Geoffrey Hill in its tightness and allusiveness (a comparison Sheppard would probably be uncomfortable with); but the crucial difference is that, with Sheppard, there's no patriarchal persona running the show; instead, the borrowings and appropriated texts speak for themselves.
I can't say I get it all, and maybe new insights will reveal themselves over time; but there's plenty to enjoy at first reading. The comments here are on the British parliamentary process in the run up to the Iraq war – ‘a managed democracy’ - and the expression ‘toned to death’ is an echo of 'stoned to death', as well as a reference to Tony Blair ("The Queen's English warbler"). 'Peace fries' refers to the way French Fries were briefly renamed 'Freedom Fries' in the US after the Blair-Bush propaganda campaign to blame everything on the French.
‘Warrant Error’ is a collection of one hundred such sonnets, divided into four sections, and the twists and turns in the sonnet above are echoed in the shifts between sonnets, and in the connections between them. The title is a pun on War on Terror, and the collection has the element of a diary about it, documenting the speaker's reactions to events, or their linguistic representation, over a given period; the sections are dated: September 12th is subtitled 'December 2003-May 2004', Ordinary Renditions is labeled 'Liverpool. January-December 2006' etc. The more the collection progresses, the more the poems relate to personal experience and reportage:
Arctic wind shoulders me back. Flurries
Of imaginary snow fritter away the lake...
... How much is that author in the window, the one with
the easy life?
and reportage like this:
The foreign secretary, spotting bare-headed top-brass,
swipes the tin hat from his head as he follows
down the steps to Iraq's soft tarmac...
The second section, 'Smoking Gun', is based on the 'photo-image hoard' which Hans-Peter Feldmann collected in his book ‘Voyeur’, and it's hard to fully appreciate these poems without knowing the images they relate to, but their language is so lively that it’s possible to enjoy them and, in a sense, work backwards to imagine the pictures they describe. ‘Smoking Gun’ ranges from brutal sexual imagery:
Whatever she does she
cannot bring herself off, condemned
to a purgatory of porn where oily
lovers worship each other’s tools.
To a mixture of slapstick and political satire:
waggles his ears as corpses are pulled out of nowhere.
Personality teeth gleam from his chattering person
His coiffure set atremble like a tea-party jelly.
The next section, ‘Ordinary Renditions’, returns to the diary-like recording of the language of the post 9/11 media and to commentary on the events of that time. One of the things the poems in 'Ordinary Renditions' investigate is the act of writing, and the writer's response to unfolding world events. The sonnet on page 82 begins:
I steal myself into the flow of writing,
tilting diagonals against recilinear plots.
Rain slants, scored across the sheet.
The attention to the details of a room, a page, what's happening outside the window, anchor the writer to the here-and-now as a way of dealing with the reported horrors of war. And those horrors are tackled head-on in these sonnets, like the one that begins:
Sparky the Iraqi drops to his knees, slaps his palms
in the pooled blood of the freshly-slaughtered.
But the child chilled on the mortuary slab
bears my name on its blackened toe.
This poem, like many in this book, expresses anger and impotence in the face of atrocities committed 'in our name'. This anger is countered by a return to the 'ordinary'; on the facing page to the sonnet just mentioned is another which begins:
Caught beneath both wipers,
clinging to the windscreen,
clutches of brittle leaves
that the winds have driven home.
glimpses of the natural world, of ordinary lives past and present, of the day-to-day, are an alternative to the global forces of violence and power, which the poems encompass. It's all in here: Osama bin Laden, Condoleeza Rice, the Twin Towers, Abu Ghraib; the whole of that sordid story from February 2003 – the date of the first text - to August 2007 when it’s still on-going. Then, among the sound-bites, satire and political observation we find something different:
But the sunflower you now place for me in sunlight
is staged on the other side of sense, making love
This sets the tone for a moving return to the personal in the final section 'Warrant Error', where the we have another poem 'for Patricia':
...this is all times
becoming a new time which is a now time
becoming all, a swoon though cracks in the paving
where vanished children crouch over hidden play.
Next day, a narrow canal house lips at its reflection;
we stand in front of it to stand for ourselves.
This is the personal seen in the context of political events and large impersonal processes. This poem is set in Amsterdam (and there’s an echo there of the Anne Frank story), and the poem on the facing page is a phantasmagoria of sexual language and the imagery of the Amsterdam red-light district. There's much more in this book of poetry than can be covered in a brief review: I'm sure for example, someone could write an essay on its use of language drawn from the sex industry and pornography, and the way the poetry works through this to arrive at poems of real delicacy of feeling.
Introducing Sheppard at a reading in London, Tony Frazer said something to the effect that his work shows that political poetry can still be written in our times. I'd certainly agree; there's something liberating about reading poetry like this, in which the clichés and lies we're daily subjected to are appropriated, satirized and exposed, and yet which still finds space for the small human lives caught in these processes. It’s political poetry of the first order.