Daniel Lusk's newest volume of poems, The Shower Scene From Hamlet, spans a thousand years, a handful of visual art genres and a veritable encyclopedia of historical characters. While the journey can be exhausting — as most are — it is well worth it.
The title provides a few clues to how the reader might approach this latest from the Pushcart Prize-winning Burlington poet and essayist. The invariable first response is often: "I'm not sure I remember a shower scene in Hamlet."
That's not for lack of close reading; at no point in the Shakespeare play do Hamlet and Ophelia hop into a tiled box and tilt their heads under an artificial downpour before returning to their respective dramatic unravelings. No showers are found in the play — unless you count Act 4, Scene 5, in which an increasingly insane Ophelia offers Queen Gertrude a song that mentions "true love showers."
No, it's not that the reader has missed something. Rather, Lusk seems to be inviting us to reexamine characters from literature or history and to contemplate their unknowns, to consider the moments that might not have made it into Hamlet or other volumes.
The collection's title ascribes value to the dusty corners of history, the odd stories and daily habits of painters, conquerors and prophets. It suggests that their lives were full of shits and showers in addition to the honors and achievements we typically tie to their names.
With that in mind, know that Shakespearean drama isn't the only genre you'll be called to reconsider if you crack open this collection. The poems are divided into two sections, the first titled "The Artist's Model" and the second "Footnotes to the Millennium." The latter takes its name from Felipe Fernández-Armesto's Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years, which Lusk notes contributed abundantly to his work. The former looks back to Lusk's previous publication, The Vermeer Suite, which paired poems with paintings that inspired them.
This volume is broader in its associations than Vermeer, although it does contain a number of poems inspired by specific paintings. Lusk dips a brush into the well of history's characters, as well as his own past, and uses those varied shades to craft a glittering new portrait.
The effect is simultaneously exhausting and enthralling. Take "Call It Fondness," described as "after" the French-Russian modernist painter Marc Chagall. Not only does the poem invoke the artist's visually fractured style in its wordplay and structure, but it also references The Book of Kells, American craft woodworker George Nakashima, Standard & Poor's financial services and musician Barry Manilow as supporting actors.
That poem reads more like Chagall than Lusk in that it's colorful, surreal and painterly. The author manages to be more direct, while still bouncing through the past, in poems like "Going Up." That piece, which opens the second section, approaches the concept of love through the ridiculous:
Rising from the seedling bed, Nurse Jenkins tells me
basil eases heartache. Yes,
and I'll get through winter with a pail,
a dish and spoon.
Why can't love be simple?
Readers will hear the writer's derision in that "yes," especially if they're accustomed to the cold climes of the Northeast. A garden herb could as easily mend a broken heart as three utensils could suffice to get us through the winter.
The poet goes on to cite two examples of faith tinged with the ridiculous: Bathsheba Bowers, a 16th-century Quaker who believed God would save her from death; and the Millerites, who wore their Ascension robes on hilltops, trying to bring their cows with them to heaven. "Who did we think made those angel prints in the snow?" Lusk asks, suggesting that such gestures are as beautiful as they may be absurd. "Why could we not have fallen on our backs and let our bodies also find a fitting elevation?" Why can't we — collective humanity or the pair of broken lovers implied by the opening — give in to that blind belief and embrace something greater than ourselves?
The poem closes with a sweetly sad stanza that feels about as universal as anything in this collection:
A century later I am waiting for Love
to walk out of the woods
playing an accordion, singing instructions
for the dance. In this world hands
must be told what to do, though they appear
made for grasping and letting go.
The collage effect can be overwhelming, but this collection has an emotional payoff, much like Chagall's work — or at least, it feels like it does. These poems are slippery. They pivot through time periods and artistic styles. While at times it's hard to keep up with Lusk's references, the ride is an experience to be savored.