As society faces civil unrest and what feels like a never-ending pandemic, Spinning the Vast Fantastic, Britton Shurley’s debut chapbook, finds hope in images of black-eyed Susans, meat falling from the sky, red-winged blackbirds and—ultimately—the nature of the unexpected. Shurley, winner of two Emerging Artist awards from the Kentucky Arts Council, spins a fantastical, lyrical collection out of the everyday. The book rejuvenates the reader through a bulwark of nature, family and history that both recognizes a broken world while disrupting it in lieu of a positive outlook.
Shurley’s hopeful tone stems from a love for the little things that feels timely as society finds a moment to reflect on the subversion of our expectations in the places we know best. In fact, one of the first attributes readers will discover in this collection is that the poems’ speaker is first and foremost a loving dad. In poems like “In Case Our Daughter Still Wonders Why Poets Sing of Spring,” Shurley maps out how to pass wonderment down to the next generation, a similarity shared by another poem “If Our Daughters ask One Day of Past Lives,” where the speaker declares to his daughters that “in a field / of black-eyed susans / we were a thousand / black-eyed susans.” Hope grows in the gardens of our broken world where it’s “not hard to be a glutton. / When you’re out before noon in June / in a west Kentucky field / bursting with dusky berries.”
Another common theme throughout the book is the parental hope that our children will not only love nature as much as us but nurture it back to health. It’s a pertinent desire as we increasingly see the effects of climate change and our attempt to save nature. A prime example of this is in Shurley’s imagining of the life of a child not yet born in “The Red-Winged Black Bird”:
And as if that’s not enough, a child’s
on his way in fall. Now I know
I know nothing for certain, but this boy
will be born amidst magic, in a home
where cabbage, apple, and ginger
turn to jars of kraut so crisp
my mouth wants to shout and dance.
I hope his name holds such a tune,
that it sings like the sound of the red-
winged blackbird and can bear
a hyphen’s weight. Maybe Banjo-
Nectarine or Cannonball-Daffodil Abdon.
Either way, his life will be music;
he’ll make this cold world swoon.
Unfortunately, the world is not solely the warmth of the spring sun on a field of black-eyed susans. A common theme that threads its way through the book is the idea that the world sands down our offspring: “Though I know that nothing’s perfect, / that children will always get splinters / and skin will bruise like fruit.” However, this doesn’t stop the speaker from warning the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world that “you should know as you wake at night, soaked with sweat in the cold / these girls hold spells in their bones.”
Yet I found myself most drawn to the poem “To Francisco Starks, Who Stole My Car From My Driveway Late One Saturday Night.” As someone who has gone through this experience, I found the tone honest and hopeful. Britton’s speaker takes the stance that his car being stolen is a teaching moment, and subverts the obvious feelings of violation to send well wishes towards the one who stole his car:
I like to think you desperately needed it.
That its missing rearview mirror
must have spoken like a haunting past—
some ghost on your heels like a hound
you’d love to forget exists.
I hope the smell of hay and compost,
worked through seats and floor mats.
from loads I hauled all day
for the garden my family was planting.
somehow called through the night like a song.
Like the song of a rare wise owl
neither you nor I could name.
The book thrives when Shurley does what Kentucky does best: making bourbon out of oak trees that age the fantastic out of the mundane. “Parthenogenesis” could easily be the alternative title of this collection, “Warming what no one / expected—these things that were not, then were.“ Another poem, “The Headless Wonder,” chronicles the story of Mike the Headless Chicken, who lived for 18 months in “This body that held / its hunger, this ghost that refuses its call.” The titular poem, “Spinning the Vast Fantastic,” recounts a story from 1876 when meat fell from the sky for ten minutes and shows the poet skillfully weaving lyrics “clear and clean as the o in wonder.”
Spinning the Vast Fantastic is a ray of sunshine to kick off 2021. Sometimes the most amazing images fill the spaces we know best. So, while “we’ve been watching the news” and “have no idea what follows,” this book reminds us to “look hard at this banquet: our table filled with love and plenty.” Next time we sit on our porches or stare out our windows at a world in stasis, do a double take. We may just find the fantastical, the hope we all crave, in a piece of meat falling from the sky or in the cry of a red winged black bird.