At its (fist-sized) heart, Britton Shurley’s chapbook, Spinning the Vast Fantastic (Bull City Press, 2021), is a meditation on growth: growth that can sprout from God’s dead skin, spoons, an elk carcass, or even a pile of fresh horse shit. More importantly, the book teaches us that peace and optimism can thrive in decay, if viewed from a specific angle.
Shurley provides this angle. He primarily exalts his pastoral surroundings, family, household, and other blessings through the process of planting, harvesting, and consuming things that grow in the ground– “How could you not eat it all: / this field, these bushes, this sunlight; / this ripeness, this bee-hum, this dust?” – or fall from the sky– “… a girl can / make soap in her yard, look up / toward a cornflower sky, and be showered / with chunks of meat.” Shurley examines this (that is, a day in 1846 Kentucky where it rained mystery meat for ten minutes) and other puzzling phenomena, never fully understanding them, but allowing them to bewitch his readers through clear, palpable diction. After digesting these poems, you will leave craving blackberries and honey, meat and potatoes, snow and the wail of a steel guitar that Shurley decided against pawning.
Though he writes almost entirely in couplets and tercets within this book, Shurley’s practice is far from monotonous. He ensures our engagement by contrasting the softness of subjects like flowers and farm-fresh produce with the hardness of metal tools and urbanization. He surprises us by juxtaposing the portrait of house-bound comforts and meal preparation (“Our counters / filled with muffins, their tops inked dark and blue”) with the lamentation of a half-dead headless chicken (“This body that held / its hunger, this ghost that refused its call.”)
Remarkably, Spinning the Vast Fantastic feels quiet and materially anchored despite not being grounded in one specific place or season– Shurley rather traverses Southern and Midwestern landscapes and states from late autumn to the onset of summer. We see him interact with his daughters, drinking buddies, car thieves, and four-legged neighbors, all of whom become accessible to us through his warm, inviting voice. He implores: “Let’s agree some months / seem endless, like winter,” and he asks, time and time again: “But isn’t that / how magic happens— a little / something spun from nothing?” In Spinning the Vast Fantastic, the fanciful is celebrated and almost anything can become a fruit to be eaten and savored.
Alexa White is an editorial intern with Sundress Academy for the Arts and a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, which is also her hometown. As an aspiring professional writer, she is finishing her BA in Creative Writing with a minor in Studio Art. Alexa has enjoyed painting, photography, and writing, especially poetry, for most of her life and has had both art and poetry published in UTK’s Phoenix literary magazine.
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