You May Not Take the Sad and Angry Consolations by Shane Neilson

You May Not Take the Sad and Angry Consolations opens with an epigraph from the Book of Lamentations: “Behold, O Lord, for I am in distress …”. Like that ancient book, this newest collection of poetry from Shane Neilson mourns the destruction of what was and laments the state of the world. Written from the perspective of a father speaking to his children, Neilson explores the intertwined themes of shame, fear, suffering and despair. But, unlike the biblical book, the overall tone of this poetry collection is one of tender hope.

“This is a passionate and generous collection.”

Neilson is an award-winning New Brunswick-born poet and practicing physician. He also completed a Ph.D. dissertation on the representations of pain in CanLit. You May Not Take the Sad and Angry Consolations, his sixth book of poetry, continues this exploration of pain and how it shapes our ability to be human. Neilson often refers to himself as a disabled man and his experience living with bipolar disorder is a throughline for this collection of cautionary poems. 

The collection is organized around a one-page opening poem, followed by three distinct sections. Although the poems are addressed to Neilson’s three children (who are named in the Acknowledgements), the intimate tone allows the reader to feel the poet is speaking directly to them.

The opening poem “Epistemology” (which won a Walrus Poetry Prize in 2017), creates a powerful frame for the entire collection with a rush of beautiful and challenging questions about what it means to be human—

Why does it hurt when emotion spills out of a body? When I say need, what do you hear? Do we look at the sky hoping for deliverance?

Section one (which has the same title as the book) is a series of “Trick” poems that offer reflections and direct life advice, beginning with an explanation of the trickery of shame—

Long ago, the shame-trick renovated forgiveness into an apocalypse of injury and correction. 
The life advice in these poems is direct and passionate—
O children who must take care, know that freedom and control are both invisible, equally. 
Daughters are urged to— 
… slip under the stream to save your brief, tricked life … 
And sons are advised to— 
… dip your head as self-baptism and scream: Free!

The poems continue with a cacophony of cautions, advice and sage reminders, such as—

Remember, shame is not your fault/ 
Remember you are free/ 
… never let freedom lose its sting/ 
We blame the things that save us/ 
We all have so little time together/

Each of the “Trick” poems have succinct and distinct names: Shame-Trick, Never-Trick, No-Trick, Obligation-Trick, Fear-Trick, Satisfaction-Trick, Fatherhood-Trick, Freedom-Trick, Protection-Trick, Beauty-Trick, Disbelief-Trick, and Death-Trick. Most of the poems are written in single double-spaced lines. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reading them aloud like incantations.

Individual words and phrases from the title You May Not Take the Sad and Angry Consolations are slipped into several poems in this first section as visuals, sonics and/or metaphors. (In the Acknowledgements Neilson explains how this evocative title was inspired by Geoffrey Hill’s writing on the purpose of a poem.)

The middle section, “Take Everything, but Leave the Flowers” offers a brief reprieve of four poems that share an almost-prayerful tone in their quiet attention to image and detail.

“Deep Religious Faith”, modelled after a poem by fellow poet/physician William Carlos Williams, explores the state of not knowing through the context of flowers. The poem plays with sonic images and transformations: flower is an image that is a metaphor that is a prayer that transforms into  praying. “Hell around the Flowers” echoes the lament of how little time we will have together. “Driving Across Pennsylvania, I Had a Great Notion” is stream-of-consciousness road trip diary in couplets.  “To All My Followers, I Propose the Photosynthesis-Dopamine Hypothesis” plays with the polarity of science and spirituality—

I feel, O Lord, your voice in my head, but I do not see you. I see the world only, the green and threatened world of sad and angry consolations.

The third and final section, “The Weeping Tense”, is a suite of sixteen poems that continue to explore and expand the themes introduced through the “Trick” poems. Several of these works are set within the context of American culture, often with a nod to one of Neilson’s poetic heroes, Walt Whitman.

Neilson saves the best for the last with the final flash fiction poem “The Hostage Tells a Love Story (Mental Health Check)”. This moving two-page narrative is his final advice to his children (whom he calls out by name) as he, finally and tenderly, tells the sad and angry story of his own father—

All of my father’s missed chances to tell the world Thank you and Sorry and I miss you and I will 
always help you, I care for you, I love you, I love you so— 
stories he told by himself in the rain as police came with the citation; stories monsters 
whispered in his ear about loveliness and narcotics, all of us powerless 
to stop the song.                                                                                                                

Neilson covers a vast emotional territory in the 34 poems that make up this book. The relentless questions, unexpected twists of language, and weaving together of fatherhood, Walt Whitman, and the echoes of trauma—his own and those he has witnessed—make for a powerful and memorable reading experience. Many of the poems have an immediate resonance. Others may require a second-and-third reading to gain fuller access to the kaleidoscopic magic of Neilson’s take-no-prisoners storytelling, wordplay conjuring, and clear-eyed philosophical sorcery. Neilson is a poet who believes in his readers and trusts that they can and will follow the leaps (and linguistic twists, sonic turns, and unexpected detours) that he makes.

This is a passionate and generous collection. Ultimately each poem builds upon another, urging us to have compassion for those who suffer—whether that be others or ourselves—while remembering always, that we have so little time together.

Shane Neilson is a disabled poet, physician, and critic, who grew up in New Brunswick and now lives in Oakville, Ontario. Neilson is the author of four non-fiction books on medicine and literary criticism. His poetry has won the Walrus Poetry Prize and Arc Magazine’s Poem of the Year Award (twice). His five previous poetry collections include Dysphoria, winner of the Hamilton Literary Award for Poetry and Complete Physical, a finalist for the Trillium Award.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ icehouse poetry (March 15 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 80 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1773102486
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1773102481

Catherine Walker (she/her) is an instructional designer and writer/editor living on the South Shore of Miꞌkmaꞌki (Nova Scotia). A founding member of Lunenburg's Little Books Collective, Catherine also walks down the street every second Thursday for Spot of Poetry Get Togethers. Whoever said poetry was a solitary pursuit?

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