In a recent interview, Don Share says the poems in his new collection, Squandermania, were influenced by his reading of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. First published in 1621 and weighing in at over 1500 pages, Burton’s text enacts no less comprehensive a project on the subject of melancholy than its subtitle threatens: What It Is: With All The Kinds, Causes, Symptoms, Prognostickes, And Several Cures Of It. In Three Main Partitions With Their Several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Historically, Opened and Cut Up. Talk about ambition! Disguised as a medical text—but unlike any amalgamation of genre written before or since—The Anatomy of Melancholy sets out to examine the entire, entirely bummed-out universe of the melancholic spirit. As enterprises go, it may be the philosophical equivalent of Babe Ruth’s famously pointing his bat out at the stands. Burton delivered this unlikely score, creating a surprisingly whimsical and deeply personal encyclopedia of melancholy, up to and including versions of various Latin poets he translated himself. Burton’s goals weren’t simply academic: he said, “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.” And so his book is one of the first modern documents to record an author’s effort to ease his troubles through the now-questionable process of the “writing cure.”
In some ways, Share’s book reads like a fine detail extracted from Burton’s enormous canvas. Share’s poems more concisely ask many of the same questions Burton polished obsessively: What do our individual sorrows mean in relation to the larger sufferings we encounter in the world? What morality is there in the idea of personal contentment when the planet keeps devolving, as Share chants at the end of “‘This building is alarmed’ (anger language),” into “War...war...war...”? How do we commit ourselves when death is the known outcome of all mortal negotiations? And, as the title Squandermania suggests, what is behind the foolish human compulsion to waste those vital gifts we should have the character and sense to value?
Share mines these considerations through poems preoccupied with marriage and parenting, giving occasion and a focused lyric immediacy to his naturally existential turn of mind. I think a worrying obsession is good business for poets, and here it injects a necessary emotional energy into Share’s frequently sculptural craft. In the book’s first poem, “Marooned,” we are asked to consider the unsolvable paradox of mortality against the baffling product of our own generation. Addressing his young daughter, the speaker announces:
I’m an unreliable witness
I zone out
Hail, storm and tempest
in our marriage
Have wizards knotted
snarls in our nerves,
nooses in our dreams?
in the land of granite
and cod’s head,
we can’t help where we live
Share frames images of children arriving into the frequently ridiculous and sometimes-hostile territories of their parents’ lives in arresting ways, and often looks to the tenets of biology to explain this simultaneous connection and disconnection between generations. In an appealingly funky sonnet titled “Ontogeny,” in which he quotes his mother while considering his own familial rank as tribal offspring, he writes, “We each began as fingerlings resembling tadpoles, near-fish. / This was our first history. Phylogeny, after all, is selfish.” Or, as he puts it much more pointedly (and, I think, hilariously) in “Failure To Thrive”: “We are meat // That sees, and when we die / Nobody eats us.” Share may be melancholy, but he is also naturally mischievous and amusing; he knows when to take it over the top to good effect. In this case, hyperbole is the key to storytelling.
Share’s poems also create many points of connection with the greater epistemological urge of Burton’s tome. Notably, however, Share seems not to consider seriously the possibility of release from static suffering that Burton spent his lifetime pursuing. Much like its ancestor, Squandermania springs from a gigantic, nearly overwhelming frame of reference, moving relentlessly from arcane economic and scientific theories (“ontogeny // recapitulates phylogeny,” or Gary Becker’s Rotten Kid Theorem) to Greek colloquialisms (“ardzi, bourdzi, and loulas”) to lesser-known Latin phrases and popular films. Dr. Evil’s “Boo-fricking-hoo,” from the Austin Powers movies, shares a property line with a reference to signum prefixum. No borough of thought or culture is off the map in Share’s verse; the imagistically goofy, grand, and obscure are all put to his poems’ service. This quality of an egalitarian and idiosyncratic mind at play reminds me of Auden, who was determined to believe that his readers knew just as much as he did, despite general evidence to the contrary.
Given Share’s résumé—computer whiz, librarian, literary scholar, pop music junkie, and translator of both Miguel Hernández and Seneca—the intellectual variety and challenges his poems present seem like honest ones. Squandermania’s moments of esoteric allusiveness feel like a natural extension of the poet’s wide-ranging expertise, rather than the tail-feather display of an overly clever bird. And Share’s are ultimately quite pleasurable provocations. As a teacher and writer, I’ve recently been feeling the dearth of contemporary American poetry that risks asking the reader for a certain kind of old-school intellectual activity. When reading Squandermania, I learned a thing or two about parts of the world I doubt I would have easily stumbled into anywhere else. And isn’t it refreshing to discover poetry that points you to all the many things you still don’t know?
Still, in these poems it is family that appears as the front line of disorder, the microcosm (a word repeated throughout the book) in which all the macrocosmic shenanigans begin. In “On Original Intent,” the poet considers what is behind our present mania to photograph every aspect of contemporary life, and how we bequeath these slippery and mostly unremarkable documents to our “glib survivors”:
. . . what is
to be done in time
of pandemic, anyway:
Laundry? Halloween decos?
The skulls and pumpkins
of October ogle our love-smeared
preschoolers who are damned
if they do, damned if they
don’t in their pre-
packaged celluloid capes, faces gory-
painted like apples in all their crisp
Lined up two-by-two on
a field trip to the fire
station, our tiny descendants absorb
such survivalist tips as how
to rescue an orange kitty from a tree
or what meaning lies in the story
of Sparky in a safety-tip coloring book.
While it caters to those of us who prefer our comedy blackened, Share’s take on family isn’t quite as misanthropic and curmudgeonly as Philip Larkin’s memorable “man hands on misery to man,” etc. In “To Father,” Share says:
O, father you can no
Longer keep me in the custom
To which you were styled,
Turning at every breath
My halting adumbrations,
My heritage, wild viper vine—
The baby’s long cry and reach.
And in “I Will Go Out For More,” perhaps the only unabashed—if not uncomplicated—love poem in the collection, Share captures the poignant aftermath of an argument with his daughter:
You held up bread, to make peace
I held out my fist, with all the cleverness
Of a backloader on dry land, plow an
In my roaring I am a father, and no
father at all: your father.
What better means to illustrate the possibilities for one’s own tyrannical nature than the image of being held at the knife-edge of a toddler’s whim? As Share composes it, there is nothing suburban or cute about the pain father and daughter have caused one another. But eventually the speaker’s better angels come forward:
This bread you hold out—
We must all subsist on it; and when it is
I will go out for more, I will go out.
Share indicates that there is some opportunity, if we ever grow aware enough to take it, for humans to promote their higher selves over their blunt animal nature, to improve what begins and often ends in a seemingly random, biological cycle. As he says in “Dead Language,” “a few virtues are what make us human,” even if “the rest is death.”
The allusiveness and tight interconnections of Share’s poetry make it difficult to excerpt meaningfully for review. I also think that Share is one of the more gifted craftsmen we have writing in America today. His poems’ formal maneuvers are often sonically exhilarating and more than a little adventurous, as he moves between free verse and his own versions of received form, pushing hard on the vowels and internal rhyme while racking up the consonants like points on a pinball machine. Inasmuch as the visceral texture of his language is meant to amplify the poems’ movements and thematic concerns, Share is in obvious kinship with two of the poets he appears to admire most, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Basil Bunting. But the most intriguing inspiration I find in his poetic genealogy is that of Sylvia Plath. Her influence can be felt not only in Share’s handling of subject, which evokes her emotionally complex poems on parenthood, but can also be seen in the aural structure of Share’s work. The beautiful “The Sandpaper Ministry” is one of several poems in which Share shapes linguistic surface and stanza structure in much the same way Plath might have:
I see the intelligent design
of your shriek marks,
‘staggered tandem over time . . .’
you are no globalist,
Our house is not a
Here we worried
about ticks, rabbit fever,
in which the sins
of the mothers multiply,
are visited willy-nilly
upon the sins of the sons
and vice versa,
and so on.
And now this reversible
a song cycle.
Labor is fickle commotion,
a wombling an unlost
labor of love . . .
Given the puzzling hostility directed at Plath's work in recent years by some prominent critics, it's particularly heartening to read a male poet who knows better than to throw the lady out with the bathwater. Share takes some of Plath’s more interesting formal qualities and fits them to his poems’ allied concerns: the carefully carved, half-rhymed tercets, the final stanzas that consciously echo the tone and rhythms of British Renaissance verse, the tense images of the domestic played against the “shriek” of wildness and illness.
It is also heartening to encounter a poet who is willing to risk writing a book that not everyone will have the patience to explore. There is something ultimately winning about the book’s lack of easy salutation, as well as a lot of sly amusement and good will to be found in the purposefully kvetchy parts. Squandermania is a grownup book with grownup concerns, and it unapologetically expects more of its reader than a permanently disconnected pose. These are poems that invite us through their many dark requirements.
Erin Belieu is Associate Professor of English at Florida State University. She has written several poetry collections, including Black Box.