Every supernatural creature needs a mode by which to exercise magic. In mythical tales the world over, powerful beings make use of words as a means to channel their energy in order to create objects they desire. Reginald Shepherd’s Fata Morgana is a book of incantations written by a modern day words sorcerer. Assonance, imbedded rhyme and trickery that play on the reader’s expectations are best revealed when individual poems are read aloud. Through this collection of rhythmic poems, Shepherd transforms himself into a god of words in order to explore the limitations and acute pain creative beings face when wanting to completely possess their creations.
In the first section of the book, Shepherd likens himself to Orpheus while putting his mother in the role of Eurydice. In Five Feelings for Orpheus, the god, gone “to pieces” in “the amniotic sea,” is asked by “the laughing rain …Who have you ever loved?” The poet answers in the following poem, Orpheus plays the Bronx by painting a portrait of his mother. Like Eurydice, Shepherd’s mother is a woman who is separated from her poet by the chasms of hell. She suffers “one death every other day, Tanqueray bottles” are her “halo.” Her venomous “asp” would have been “a handful of pills” had her first suicide attempt succeeded. Eventually Shepherd’s mother becomes “lost among the spaces inside letters,” succumbing to an untimely death, leaving behind two young children, Shepherd and his sister. “I don’t want my dead back,” Shepherd finally admits “not any more,” relinquishing the Orpheus-like desire to be reunited with the woman he loves.
Shepherd’s journey as a poet continues to parallel Orpheus throughout parts two and three of the collection. Poems in part two focus on Shepherd’s desire to attain love in the arms of men, just as Orpheus does after losing Eurydice. To Shepherd, the essence of young men, “smells like spring preserved in a December jar.” That essence is something he cannot hold. It “escapes” him, “haunts” his “room all day.” Shepherd can see ‘the Egypt buried” in men’s bodies, but his “ lips don’t get to touch” it.
Learning the “ecology of lack and want” leaves Shepherd dissatisfied with the memories of men who love him “nowhere but in words,” so he turns to charming natural phenomenon with his words in part three. “Write only what you see” the trees tell him. Shepherd falls to the task, detailing every squirrel and doe with the precision of a taxonomist although he continues to wrestle with the distant observation of the gods.
In the final sections of Fata Morgana, Shepherd combines all that he has learned as a poetic god to comment on the transient nature of life by evoking earthly elements. Pondering on the composition of the universe, Shepherd concludes everything contained within it is built of the most humble building blocks in the verses of Dust. “Condensations connecting earth and air” still leave the poet alienated in spite of his efforts to encompass that unity in his work. Shepherd “wants to touch all that mortality, but his hands slip through” all that seems tangible. Finally, the poet sheds his godlike posturing, climbing his way out of “garish hells” to reclaim his humanity. “Love finds the way,” leading the poet to appreciate the beauty that is life, in all of it’s paradoxical states.