The following is Pianonoise's first, and so far only, book review:
There are two images to take note of on the back of Steve Shoemakers' new book, "A Sin a Week" (Mayhaven Publishing). One shows a heavily bearded, stern looking preacher who could have led an 1890s temperance rally, railing against the dangers of demon rum. The other shows him, less bearded, sitting at home, eating an entire bowl of frosting, licking the spoon. Does he preach? Sometimes. Does he have a wicked sense of humor? Sometimes. And there is plenty of subtle wisdom in between.
A good example of that is the poem that begins the book, "Lie." Steve's titles are usually what we can safely assume are the particular sins being addressed. What we can't always safely assume is whether these are things to avoid or not. As the prologue puts it, these are [poems] "for folks with the inclination to sin and ability to do wrong, but who have run out of bad ideas." Surely not, Steve? A preacher actually encouraging us to go wrong? But in the opening strophes we get a kind of apologia for sin. And not the cloven hoofed, oh come on, everybody's doing it variety of defense, or some version of I've got it coming to me, which we could all see coming a mile away, and know with our superior moral compasses just had to be something good people wouldn't do, but a much more sinister, snake-in-the-garden kind of argument. Riffs on the theme: this will actually be good for other people, not just for selfish you. If you want to love your neighbor, and who shouldn't, wouldn't you want to lie if it will make everybody feel better about themselves? We lose our innocence only later in the poem when we realize that that could also mean everybody else is telling little white lies to us, too. That just isn't right!
A more telling adumbration of this goodness-of-sin argument is the justification of greed in the 7th poem. The speaker beings by complaining that somebody else got something they should have, too, but inversely ("I don't want too much, I just want my fair share.") It is hard not to hear the voice of Lucy van Pelt exclaiming "All I want is what's coming to me! All I want is my fair share!" But then Steve adds one word to take it out of its self-centered orbit: "Equality." It's all about justice, now, isn't it? Are you sure that's a bad thing? Or is it just self-justifying rhetoric? C. S. Lewis said that he was never less sure about a doctrine of the faith than after he had just defended it in his own words and thoughts.
Not that all the poems are subtle. When it comes to themes like televangelists, ambitious politicians, or conformity, the poems are solidly in the don't-try-this-at-home camp. The author doesn't need to work very hard to have this reader nodding along comfortably, and they do at least provide a contrast with the other poems, which, although they aren't in themselves the more interesting of the bunch, do keep us off balance as to whether or not we really want to try, or not try, a particular sin. Being uncertain about the advisability of a given sin encourages us to think.
The book doesn't actually call these selections "poems," as the author has pointed out in a radio interview, and often they neither rhyme, nor show the kind of metric discipline one might expect from a poem. Some of them have a mostly prosey quality. But there are times when a poetic technique shines through, and despite what you may have assumed in English class, this can shed light on the poem's meaning, as well. Poem nine is called "Follow" and involves a curious rhyming technique. Twice the poem devolves to near slogans. "Have faith. Do not pass or brake" it exhorts. Only faith doesn't quite rhyme with brake, does it? (it's a vowel rhyme, I guess). And later "Follow the leader. Peace comes from trust and order." Another pair (leader/order) that doesn't quite rhyme. Which makes us just uncomfortable enough to wonder, should we really be following this leader after all? It seems like a smooth ride--slogans always do, and it is often because they rhyme. But in the realm of the not-quite, we have to pause. And, of course, the sarcasm makes it a bit more obvious. This is supposed to be a sin, but if it wasn't at least a little inviting, why the need to warn away from it? Or have the curiosity to indulge?
Which brings up the work of illustrator T. Brian Kelly. Often Kelly can simply take something from the poem literally to make it humorous, as he does here with the last line ("decisions pass as easily as fence posts") showing a line of people, heads buried in newspapers, sitting side-saddle on a fence in a long line. Generally he follows something from the poem pretty closely, which is often startling enough, unless the poem itself takes an obvious line on whether or not we should view this sin with moral outrage or more ambiguity. A few of the sins even double as religious practices. But then, how we react to the sins may themselves be sins. In one poem, Steve describes a neighbor's car in detail, without apparent jealousy, until the last line, when he sniffs in regard to the high powered headlights that his neighbor leaves on even during the day "when the sun is shining you can't even see them." There are several poems about cars, and one of my favorite lines in the book is the exhortation that concludes the preceding poem to "shoot the tires relentlessly. " It's the relentlessly that gets me. Often it's just that one word that turns a poem into something great.
Visitors to Steve's Facebook page know about his penchant for limericks, which makes it all the more curious that he saves the form for the last poem in the collection. The limerick trips along in its rhythmically hypnotic way, perfect for traipsing along happily on the road to hell (and, happily, more book sales!), which is, after all, paved with good intentions. It might take a preacher to get us to think about where we're going and whether or not we ought to change course before we regret it. Most preachers would attack the problem with righteous fury, fulminating against a long list of things not to do. Steve's method is to get down and wade in there with us. With humor, insight, and a lot of questioning, these poems have more to them than meets the initial eye. Steve has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and does not have a lot of time with us. He has complained that this group of poems is "not much for a life's work." But besides the decades of pastoral care, the lives he's touched, the good he's done in his community, and countless things that one person won't even know, this slender volume, finally published after 25 years, contains a lot more than a word count. A good poem presents a lot in concentrated form. These poems are short--rarely more than a page (in fact, only one requires you to turn one; another is less than a word long). But even some of our greatest poets (T. S. Eliot comes to mind) published very little. Although epics have been written in meter, just as often the reader is left with few words and much to think about, inviting continual engagement with the same poem or poems. Send for a copy--you'll want to keep it on a near shelf. For future reference. Just in case you can't kick the sin thing after a mere 12 months--or you don't want to.
A Sin a week is published by Mayhaven publishing, and is available from mayhavenpubishing.com or by writing to Mayhaven publishing, P. O, Box 557, Mahomet, IL 61853