Zach Eddy | Contributing Writer
Not For Luck
Michigan State University, 2021
In Derek Sheffield’s second full-length collection of poems, Not For Luck, much of the narrative is set in the Pacific Northwest, where the speaker lives and feels at home outdoors in the Cascade mountains. Approaching midlife, this speaker finds himself feeling too grounded—complacent—held helplessly in place by his roles in the world—large and small—as he witnesses his budding family sprouting up and off without him, the fast-moving world racing off into the unknown. Watching the clock, counting the seconds, looking inside and out, he pleads for more time. The poems in Not For Luck consider the impermanence and complexity of the world viewed through the lens of a doting father, environmental activist, and teacher. The poems manage to broaden the traditional concept of masculinity along the way.
Derek Sheffield is a master of the quiet poem. Although each piece in Not For Luck stands alone, the entire book can be read as one long ode to his two daughters—and to the dying planet: “O just a while longer, // a day, maybe three, give them / a rest. Have the bark remain in the dog. // Have the thinnest veil of dusk, / fog, or drizzle, call stillness / near, her sister, silence, here.” The book takes the risk of privileging moments of fading stillness and white space over the flashier aesthetics and scattered focus common to so many contemporary poems; the carefully placed turns and effective juxtapositions within (and between) the poems allow the louder, messier pieces in the collection to shine.
Consider “The Wren and the Jet at a Research Forest near Fort Knox, Seventy-One Years since the Bombing of Hiroshima, Eight Months since the Photo of a Three-Year-Old Syrian Boy Facedown on a Turkish Beach, His Red Shirt, His Blue Shorts.” Placed after an aubade in the middle of the book’s first of four untitled sections (each section introduced with a single epigraph), this messily titled poem is unforgettable. It sings out from its place between quieter poems, and its shout makes ongoing echoes: “As the wren pecks / through a beetle pried from a sill, a jet / roars back to the fort.” The poem sends shock waves and ghost ripples all throughout Not For Luck by locating the speaker (who has been pulled across the country, away from his family, by the endless pressures of work) in the midst of an Anthropocene era of unchecked capitalist structures tied to the horrors of nuclear genocide as well as the ongoing refugee crisis worldwide. The poem forces us, along with the speaker, to face the crises.
Again and again, Sheffield’s poems forge kinship with the more-than-human world. That is, rather than separate from it, they aim to view humans and human culture as aspects of the larger body of the natural world. This aim is expressed by the actions (and reactions) of the speaker, who holds back traffic while stopping for deer to cross the highway (“Emergency”); witnesses, through the anxious eyes of children, the shared and suspenseful horrors of a dog being launched into space (“Good Girl”); fills up with wonder during an encounter with wild irises in a roadside ditch (“A Response to a Pair of Forest Plots”); pauses to save the life of a white moth (“hitch”); and sings loudly over ocean waves with the fading shoreline’s “oscillating anemones” and its “teeth of barnacled rocks” while on a protest hike with Save Our Coast, a grassroots ecological conservation organization (“What Will Keep Us”).
The book’s four sections build and stack on top of one another like the “perfectly conical accretion / of turds” the speaker discovers one morning in his woodshed in “The Seconds,” a poem that showcases many of the recurring themes circulating inside Not For Luck. The ‘turds’ have been left there by a mysterious creature with whom the speaker identifies (and sees as a secret curator), a pack rat who has been collecting the dog’s remains for a nest: “Let us not let go / ever, is what I took from your cave-wall stare, wood rat, who would grab every bloody tooth / my girls have tucked under their pillows, pack rat.”
The book’s third section is especially noteworthy; in it, the speaker turns inward to take a head-on look at the childhood trauma that in many ways has shaped his life. “Abortion Wish,” which comes directly after a self-facing poem titled “Exactly What Needs Saying,” is especially prescient today as Texas and other states begin to challenge Roe vs. Wade and a woman’s right to choose. The poem takes us into the 1960s to witness the speaker’s mother, who, unable to choose to abort her unwanted child (the speaker’s half-brother and the person to whom the poem is addressed), neglects and abandons her children. The poem seems all the more crushing taken in conjunction with the collection’s many poems which take as their primary subject the speaker’s undying bond with his daughters. His own father avoids the difficult conversations, and the speaker searches for fictive kin and surrogate parental figures.
“Her Yarn” is another crusher. This is a special poem—one which tells the story of a late aunt in rural Oregon who knitted doilies—set in a world where no one says “love that much.” Still, the aunt manages to embrace “any in need, which was all,” into her “wiry arms.” The bookish speaker, who admits he “can’t build or wire the way my cousins can,” weaves this ode to his warm, loving aunt in much the same way she wove yarn, blurring the mediums of art into a cherished doily, which he calls a “bicolored hexagon of triangles / making green and violet stars in my hands.”
Along with time, range and scale are effectively manipulated within each poem in Not For Luck. Every line manages to feel both effortless and well-calculated; each line does essential work. The combination of first- and third-person narration with the direct addresses throughout the book creates a triangulation that successfully includes the reader. Sheffield writes to a wide audience: poets and non-poets alike. Like geologic sediment, Not For Luck operates on multiple registers, layering high lyric moments with unflinching, plainspoken narrative. It transports us from the constriction of plotted forests to the raw and wild beauty of dirt and flora, from childhood to parenthood, from the loose associations of free verse to the strict repetitions of the villanelle—these poems feel embodied, rich with vivid and mysterious beauty, communications between the human and more-than-human worlds.
A former aluminum worker, Zach Eddy received his MFA from the University of Idaho. He has been awarded the Wenatchee Valley College Earth Day Poetry Prize, a Centrum Writers’ Conference Fellowship from Central Washington University, an honorable mention in the 2021 Academy of American Poets University and College Contest, and his poem “Before the Closure, Before I Quit” was nominated for the 2021 Best of the Net anthology. His work has been published, or is forthcoming, in High Desert Journal, Terrain.org, Northwest Review, and elsewhere. He teaches English composition at Wenatchee Valley College and is an operations coordinator for the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center.
Derek Sheffield is the author of Not For Luck, selected by Mark Doty for the Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Prize, and Through the Second Skin, runner-up for the Emily Dickinson First Book Award and finalist for the Washington State Book Award. He is a co-editor, with Simmons Buntin and Elizabeth Dodd, of Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy and, with Liz Bradfield and CMarie Fuhrman, of Cascadia: A Field Guide through Art, Ecology, and Poetry (forthcoming). His awards include a special mention in the 2016 Pushcart Anthology and the James Hearst Poetry Prize judged by Li-Young Lee. Derek lives with his family on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains in Central Washington and is the poetry editor of Terrain.org.