Orient Point

W.W. Norton. May 2006. c.128p.
ISBN: 0-393-06191-4/$23.95 Hardcover
ISBN-13: 978-0393330359 Paperback

Paperback

Winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, judged by Linda Gregg.

Nests woven of bird guides and self-help books, legal argot and street slang, Whitman’s long-lined grass, and the sway, jangle, juxtaposition, joy, and far-flung syntax of the vast field of English—going back to its gnarly old roots in Chaucer—all populate Julie Sheehan’s exuberant poems. Sheehan’s poems are concerned with navigation and with choice; with how to live in an increasingly urbanized, global, technological world; with how to orient oneself as, for example, a woman in a still largely patriarchal society; and with how to make moral choices when the options seem either rich to embarrassment or shamefully narrow. In Sheehan’s world, hip-hop reverberates throughout Southern swamps and “men / have left their honeysuckle sows for yields / of telemarketing.” Yet there are coyotes in Greenwich, Connecticut, where “our sinks back up, our toilets will not drain, / our nature disobediently tends toward nature.” Orient Point seeks balance between the boundless joy and the tragic irony of today’s existence, asking essentially, Do we make our way through abundance or debris?

“Julie Sheehan possesses a range of tones—tender, sassy, quietly observant, deeply cutting—that will keep this book’s readers pleasantly off-balance. She also has a true poet’s ear, alert to the texture of every syllable. Orient Point delivers the goods, a collection bursting with verbal and existential exuberance.”

— Billy Collins

 

“In this fine book Julie Sheehan’s wit, imaginative power, splendidly controlled diction and sense of pace are apparent in the way in which she can engage matters of deep feeling with a comic exuberance that can beautifully modulate in the course of a poem’s unfolding. ‘Ghazal: Orient Point,’ and the longer ‘Archaic Smile,’ exemplify in particular both the energies of her language and the range of knowledge she brings to the construction of a poetic world.”

— John Hollander

 

“The natural impulse of Amy Clampitt, the unveering gaze of Marie Ponsot—Julie Sheehan is a surrealist in the kitchen, a documentarian of dreams. She is everyday fearless, an unassuming beauty. Orient Point, that’s Long Island, right? Right. And yet. Here are poems that fade slowly as sunset, only to rekindle, catch light, refract, burn. It’s a family saga, right? Right. And yet.”

— Bob Holman

 

“Julie Sheehan, dancer of language, plucks ripe vocabulary from the air as she leaps across her poems with a grand elasticity of imagination that stretches surprise as if it were a forgotten muscle, twists with vital delight, and always astonishes.”

— Molly Peacock

 

“The poems are simultaneously formal (evoking Chaucer) and organic (evoking Whitman), yet emit a star-like energy… Like a forensic historian, Sheehan connects seemingly unrelated elements as she shuttles between history and modernity, between nature and urban grit.”

— American Poet

 

“[T]he poems of Orient Point have a lot at stake emotionally and perceptually, leaving the reader astonished at the joules of linguistic energy that have been adroitly expended and deeply invested in the work.”

— Ravi Shankar, American Book Review

 

“I was struck by the muscle, size shadows, and nuance of her work.”

— Linda Gregg, Barnard Women Poets Prize citation

***

Winner of the Barnard Women’s Poets Prize, Sheehan’s second collection (after 2001’s Thaw) evinces a complex sensibility both playful and serious, refined and gregarious. Her vision is broad and anthropological, pointing outward to the physical world and empathic with those inhabiting unfamiliar or uncomfortable surroundings, from the Virgin Mary living among the mothers left childless by Herod’s decree to a Sudanese refugee in the Midwest (“He chews alone, he swallows alone, pristine/ he talks to no one”), to inner-city teens competing for the role of Shakespeare’s Juliet. A skilled technician, the poet will sometimes heighten her subjects’ sense of dislocation by filtering their narratives through unusual rhetorical registers, such as mock Middle English (“Bifel that rehearsen the girls; on occasion they rehearse;/ between trips to the bodega, they rehearse”) and litanic pronouncement (“May ill repute visit her in smashes”). Sheehan’s linguistic adventurism and ease with traditional formal structures are complemented by a wry wit (in Greenwich, CT, “…hedges are upholstered, each cobblestone/ has an appointment”; a cat is “loyal as tongue to tuna fish”) that may surface when least expected. Recommended for larger poetry collections.

–Library Journal Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca, NY

 

Sheehan’s curious poems have a skittering energy as she conflates the past and the present, the comedic and the serious, the wild and the human. Her language is free roaming and pickpocketing, shape-shifting and punning as it chimes with Shakespearean resonance and Chaucerian sauciness, then shifts into hip-hop and cell-phone-age colloquialism. Sheehan’s first collection, Thaw (2001), pleased readers with its lively inventiveness, and her second is dazzling in its unexpected imagery and connections, its vital compassion. The seashore evokes musings on the human rampaging of the natural world as honeymooners recoil from a beach wantonly strewn with busted conch shells, the aftermath of slaughter, and lovers and families stroll past Coney Island concessions. Sheehan takes a slant approach to saints’ lives, the city as an ecosystem, and such endangered species as the ivory-billed woodpecker and young black men. Ancient Greek statues, a mother addled by age and a daughter refusing half-baked platitudes, shrinking gods, and the adamncy of love–all are freshly illuminated by Sheehan’s oblique perspective.

–Booklist