In Jane Shore’s poetry, two themes dominate: family and history. The first, family, is the most significant in that scenes of family members and family interactions serve as the subject for the vast majority of her poems. Her parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles play a pivotal role in all of her volumes in shaping the young Shore and guiding her toward universal truths. The second theme, that of history, is the vehicle by which Shore makes comparisons between her contemporary existence and her memories of the past, implying that her perception of the former necessitates and shapes her continuing hold on the latter. The two themes, when intertwined, form a view of life with which any reader can connect: that it is how one perceives the past, rather than the past in and of itself, that forms the largest part of one’s self-awareness. Current perceptions shape memories, which define who people are as individuals. Ironically, Shore’s work with poetic memory has allowed her to come to terms with circumstances in her life that might otherwise have forced her to give up a loved house and forgo any sense of security when away from home.
Lying Down in the Olive Press
George Starbuck, introducing her in Lying Down in the Olive Press, the chapbook she published at the age of twenty-one, said:Jane Shore knows us, gets us, talks of us or hears us talk of ourselves, with a faultless, unsettling, illuminating interest. And of herself . . . [I]t’s a good voice and good judgment. Not only, not even mainly, in the comic vignettes, there’s the joy of precise observation.
It seems obvious in retrospect that Shore’s powers of observation are exactly what always drove her to create such vivid images of her personal history. The people inhabiting even her earliest poems are fascinating in their variety, from the soldier poet Archilochus, halted in an archaic olive grove, to Shore’s vision of herself in the future, wheeling a shopping cart in some suburban community. Shore’s characters bring an essential liveliness to verse that celebrates the diversity of human experience.
While Lying Down in the Olive Press is a small book of verse that represents only the embryonic form of Shore’s vision, it nevertheless serves to demonstrate the compelling nature of her poetic gift. Even at the age of twenty-one, Shore felt that her family and her experiences somehow transcended the level of the individual and could be reshaped to give a reader, any reader, a sense of his or her own history’s importance.
Shore’s second volume of poetry, Eye-Level, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press as the winner of the Juniper Prize in 1977. The book is concerned largely with miracles of human life: transformations, alterations, and adaptation. One poem describes the adaptation of the blind albino fish to the underground cavern that is its native habitat. Another poem creates a miracle of “resurrection,” transforming a corpse into a living, breathing human being, as her father’s movie camera stops and rewinds a trapeze artist’s fatal fall. A third poem sends a chained and restrained Harry Houdini, the magician, underwater to escape his bonds. Each of these images allows the body to change and, sometimes miraculously, overcome its restrictions. Shore’s work is deep and reflective but still more accessible than that of many poets who write in a more academic style.
Shore reflects on the truths of existence but manages to reach down to the level of common life. “An Astronaut’s Journal” makes this point aptly:
Because we landed on the moon, all Americanscan walk a little taller.Planting our carpet roll of flags,one for each state in the Union!I feel so proud of my own Garden Statewith vegetables stitched onto the blue fieldof sky instead of stars.
Shore takes the quintessence of human achievement, the moonwalk, and relates it to a walk around her garden. The “Garden State,” her own birthplace of New Jersey, becomes a “garden state” in which she grows her vegetables. She moves from the grandiose to the small in a pattern of simple images. Even the common vegetable is compared to the celestial star. It is a trait Shore continued to develop in later books of verse.
The Minute Hand
The Minute Hand, Shore’s third collection of verse, displays a cover painting that epitomizes the blend of familiar and alien that won for this book it status as a Lamont Poetry Selection for 1986: an uneasy child in old-fashioned formal clothes whose haunted eyes and fearful mouth contrast with her domestic...
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