A Long Time Coming: David James on Marc Sheehan’s Vengeful Hymns


Marc Sheehan, Vengeful Hymns, Ashland Poetry Press

It’s encouraging to see a second book, Vengeful Hymns, from Marc Sheehan, published eleven years after his first book, Greatest Hits. In this day and age of rapid-fire publication, usually for purposes of employment and tenure, it’s refreshing to hear the voice of a man who is writing for the sake of it, not for a promotion or the next job interview.

In this Richard Snyder Poetry Prize book from Ashland University, Sheehan writes to set his life and experiences, past and present, into some form of order and meaning. You actually hear his thinking process in poems, like you would from an observant friend confiding to you in public, as in “Dancing through Nebraska”:

These are the kind of thoughts that haunt you

when you stop the truck to piss and consider
how full of Nebraska Nebraska is,
how there are people who live without regret

even in Nebraska! They say
“I just can’t see being blue,” and
“That’s just water under the bridge.”

To think on these things helps to bring
the soul into a state of grace—
and the body with another hour’s drive to Wyoming.

Most of these poems have a midwestern feel to them, or at least a rural feel, sprinkled with intelligence and a sense of loss. Whether Sheehan’s writing about Ireland or Michigan or Texas, his attention to the common detail of his landscape makes these poems real:

On the cliffs outside Kilkee, County Clare,
fresh rivulets falling to the sea
are lifted by the wind and driven inland
back over the narrow road running between
private fields and a strip of common land. (Genealogy)

*

A few abandoned beach chairs, half-hidden
by dune-grass, wait for a final visit
from their vacation home owners, busy now
with earning my envy. (A Postelection Walk along the Lake)

*

The weather has turned warm suddenly, melting
the snowbanks, driving sap in maple, herding deer
along their annual, mysterious path. (Vernal Equinox near the 45th Parallel)

But when Sheehan ties this concrete imagery to deep emotion, his work shines into the core of our hearts. He does this in poems like “For John Fahey,” “A Field Guide to the Native Emotions of Michigan,” “A Note on Rejection,” and “Some Notes Concerning Love and Hemmings Motor News.” My favorite poem, “Alter Ego,” is a story about a man taking his aging mother with dementia out to eat in a small town diner. Here’s the end of the poem:

We’re sitting almost exactly where there used
to be a phone booth that had a dimpled tin
interior that looked as if someone with
a miniature ball-peen hammer had
tried desperately to hammer his way out,
ignoring the booth’s neatly folding glass door.
I ignore it, too, and the intervening
years, so I can use it as a fitting
room to don an unlikely superhero
uniform to save my mother from
the effects of the kryptonite of time,
forgetting I am not immune myself.
Let me report, therefore, in my mild-
mannered way, that I brandished a napkin
like a paper cape to wipe my mother’s chin,
having no other powers at my command.

Vengeful Hymns is a serious, touching book full of familiar details given to us in surprising images. It’s rare for me to read a new book containing so many good and moving poems. It’s obvious that Sheehan has been honing his craft for over three decades. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another eleven years for his next book.

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