That Said is a collection of both old and new poetry by Jane Shore. It stretches back to the highly regarded Eye Level collection (1977) and ends with a selection from her most recent book, A Yes-Or-No Answer (2008). It opens with a selection of sixteen new poems, and then the older selection begins—this odd starting position gives the reader the feeling that they have entered a narrative halfway through. As a result, there is an urgency in the order as if the collection is straining to keep the reader entertained right from the very beginning. Despite this, the opening poems themselves are interesting and lively, many of them (as with Shore’s older poetry) explore vision, and what can be seen. The opening poem, “Willow,” plays with the concept of vision, and of missing what is really there:
It grew eight feet a year until it blocked,
the view through the first-,then the second-
story windows, its straggly canopy obstructing
… I was the only one on earth who saw it fall.
Jane Shore excels at highlighting what details the eye can see, and therefore what the brain wants to understand. Shore is a poet of detail and “Willow” is a perfect example of this. Her poems are heavy with watching eyes and moments of clarity. In fact I found the poems that weren’t so focused on vision to be Shore’s weakest. Among them is “Chatty Cathy,” a lengthy poem about the demands of a toy doll echoing the selfish demands of childhood. The poem loses its strength by the third verse, so eager is it to make the reader listen, that it forgets the feel, the touch and the sight of objects, of people and of the world around it.
The selections from the 1977 collection Eye Level were the most enjoyable to read. Shore’s eye for the actual happenings of life, the small, often domestic, details of experience are moving, and always beautifully written. In “Advent Calendar,” Shore uses vision and sound to create a wonderfully naïve and yet poignant image:
Can light be so intense
The future’s in a glance?
If I hold my hand to light,
The bright lattice of my bones
As you move through the collection, the big disappointment comes in the realization that the poetry swiftly feels rather alike and indistinguishable. Scanning through the selections from different books, there is the distinct feeling that the poet has stalled and Shore stubbornly continues to write about what can be seen and what is seen, rather than developing the unseen, or the hidden. It’s as if Shore is frightened to delve into another self, a poet not of wholly conversational sight but of blind silence. It is in her most famous poem, “The Russian Doll,” (which also inspires the striking image used on the cover) which I felt was the closest to approaching the self in a different manner, Shore writes:
… who has yet to discover that self,
Always hidden, who grows, and shrinks
Who multiplies and divides.
It is in these lines that you can hear Shore for the first time question the nature of self and broaches that divided self of a woman, questioning the nature of the woman’s responsibility of creation and the sadness of hidden desires. In “The Russian Doll” the reader can enjoy depth as well as detail, and it is a poem that really encapsulates the ambition of Jane Shore’s earlier poems.
That Said is an uplifting read, even if the poems often lack depth and originality. A collection that is full of quiet watching even as the world continues to spin.
Jane Shore is author of five previous books of poems, including The Minute Hand, winner of the Academy of American Poets Lament Prize; Music Minus One, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and most recently A Yes-Or-No Answer, recipient of the 2010 Poet’s Prize. She teaches at the George Washington University and lives in Washington, D.C., and Vermont.