When I was a fellow at a writing conference in the summer of 2021, I came home with a list of books to read. Some of them were craft-related, some of them obliquely craft-related, and some of them were written by authors who read out at the conference and who I wanted to both read more of and support. I have finally gotten around to one of the books: Spinning the Vast Fantastic by Britton Shurley. (I actually acquired Open Page by Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and Universal Love by Alexander Weinstein first, but they are in queue.) When Spinning came in the mail, however, I was like yeah, let’s just knock this one out. Even though it’s a book of poetry (technically a “chapbook,” but who’s paying attention to that?), I was surprised at how darn thin the thing is. But how can you hate it when it gives you such a sense of accomplishment in just 38 pages? Read book—check!
Also hard to be mad at a book published at a local press (even though Shurley is not local (though he is regional) to me). Bull City Press (sort of like half-nonprofit, actually) published it and I live in the Bull City. That’s Durham, NC, to all you lost people. Shurley himself lives in Peducah, Kentucky (where my Grandma June and Aunt Sharon are from) and is a professor. He also must be a farmer or at least an amateur farmer, but we’ll get to that in a second.
I already knew that I like Shurley’s poetry so I was not surprised when I liked Spinning the Vast Fantastic. I starred (meaning highest marks for me) about a third of the poems and dotted (still good marks) another third. Not that the last third are bad, they’re just not so much my jam. The whole chapbook is beautifully done, well written, special. It also speaks to me. I like the way it is curated, as well. There is a slow ebbing out and then back in, from the weary world to a rural home life. There are lots of mentions of girls and boys despite occasional startling adultness (mostly in poignant contrasting between what we might normally see as crass or private and the actual way of nature and the world, even beauty). It ends up telling a story (with no plot; that’s not what I mean) about a father and husband whose internal life is rich as it ruminates on the minutiae and context of exactly what presents itself to him: rural life, gardening, raising children, the news, nature at large, family, death, modern life down a long tunnel, and, maybe most importantly for the message, Coke can sweat and hose spray in the sun.
The poetry itself is clear, concise, beautiful, full of imagery, rhythm, and of a contemporary style. It doesn’t take a lot of work to understand what Shurley is saying and his poetry mostly lacks that poetic snobbery and tight-fisted poeticizing. It is poetry for all of us, but it should be ruminated on. For me, I wanted to hang out with Shurley and be one of the friends that pop up in his poems, standing over a grill and thinking they’re just chatting when they’re actually listening to a gentle sage. It all felt special to me, like this chapbook is a departure from that narrow, sing-song nonsense we often hear at poetry readings, but it did remind me of the short stories and essays of a friend-writer, Theresa Dowell Blackinton, who writes tilting from a desk in her small-city home about her daughter’s Barbie dolls and—like Shurley himself—distressing news from far shores she and he can do nothing about but feel they must somehow frame for the next generation. Heck, he even reminds me of me: daring to write from a not completely jaded position. So maybe the innovation is in the rural setting, with the age-old obsession with moons, fruit, and dirt. It is the juxtaposition of awe and tenderness with a world gone mad that I really loved.
If you read poetry at all, I think you will like this book. It has all the thrills of a great, little amalgamation of poetry: gasping, breath-intaking, sighing, from surprises, beauty, and meaning.
My favorite poems from the collection (some of them available online from journals in which they were published) are:
- “When I Think I’m Through with Beauty”
- “To The Harvey Weinsteins et al.”
- “Spinning the Vast Fantastic”
- “To Francisco Starks, Who Stole My Car from My Driveway, Late One Saturday Night”
- “Against the Pawning of Steel Guitars”
- “Sharing a Fifth of Bourbon with a Friend Who Fears What Follows”
“…our lives to be burned with abandon” (p10).
“So we stared at that ripe / peach moon. Watched it hide / behind the hills, shine through stands of pine, / then rest in the palm of the sky” (p23).
“Learning there’s one taste to iron, / little difference in soil and blood” (p31).