NICHOLAS T. SPATAFORA Reviews
The Shepherd’s Elegy by John C. Goodman
(The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, Merseyside, U.K., 2011)
John C. Goodman’s The Shepherd’s Elegy:
One Man’s Inner Pilgrimage
“He saw many faces—which all came
and disappeared and yet all seemed
to be there at the same time.”
“Tapi justru setelah dari”—I find it uncannily coincidental that only recently had I lectured on the Hindu concept of “Aum”—perfection, unity, the now, the absence of time and space—only to encounter this Eastern precept in author and poet John C. Goodman/s The Shepherd’s Elegy, a juxtapositional prose-poetical account of one man’s spiritual pilgrimage and another’s auspices.
A lone, weary, spiritually “displaced” (1. 1. 1) traveler encounters a shepherd, a practicing [monk], atop “a mountainside near the village of Todos Santos in Guatemala,” the “shepherd” metaphoric of the altruist (1. 4. 1-2). “Macaw semua karunia di tengha belitan!” the sage euphorically proclaims (1. 6. 1). The “marvelous moment” is indeed a Divine and providential epiphanous link in the vast, sacred scope of unity and perfection, available to all yet realized by few. The traveler, as we all, albeit lost and asleep, quests for wisdom, peace, inner utopia and ultimate awakening, his vehicle being a wise, friendly, solitary “maharishi,” a willingly and compassionately self-appointed spiritual guide (1. 6. 2-3 – 1. 7. 2). He leads the supple disciple up the apex of the mountain to a “ruined temple” (1. 9. 1). “Live life,” the teacher melodically bids the traveler, alluding to the necessity of embracing the present (1. 10. 1 – 1. 13. 23).
The plot continues, the shepherd leading the seeker amidst a cacophonous, bewildering, illogical medley of surrealism, symbolically typical of the profound and paradoxical mystery he aspires to comprehend:
[T]he promise of meaning just beyond reach
[H]e led me into colours
into sculptures of leaves
into craters and waterless seas
the wind still as silence.
(1. 16. 2, 1. 18. 1-4)
“[T]he was is were now then” (1. 15. 1) is repetitive throughout The Shepherd’s Elegy, Goodman emphasizing the enigmatic nonexistence of time and space that is unity, perfection, analogous to the omnipresent river in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (107). “[L]ove, hate [,]… // the blues … / tracks [ ] I covered in snow…, the past’’ (1. 29. 11-
-John C. Goodman’s The Shepherd’s Elegy: One Man’s Inner Pilgrimage
12, 1. 54. 1-15)—all melodious, all necessary and perfect, howsoever incomprehensible, to the traveling stranger who is beginning to comprehend the source of it all—“I could see into the patterns of things” (1. 50. 1):
[T]he time we went swimming in the old quarry and Steve was afraid to jump in, the time we went for a picnic by the lake and got too drunk and the park rangers threw us out, the time you got sick on the way to the concert and we had to stop the car by the side of the road and I held your hair back as you threw up and said, ‘I know the routine.…’ (1. 54. 1-5)
The traveler’s mind and heart continue to embrace memories and feelings, those of loneliness in a past life (2. 8. 1-2), love for a maiden long gone (2. 1. 1-6) and regret for a lover he abandoned in this life, leaving her for a “song” (2. 41. 1). Philosophical adages materialize: “Some truths are best said where no ears can hear” (2. 53. 1), paralleling that of Proverbs—Buy the truth and sell it not (23.23) and “Humility takes strength [whereby] seeking peace takes courage” (2. 45. 1), reminiscent of turning the other cheek in Christian theology (Mt. 5.38).
The stranger sees the horrors of war, sickness and death (1. 3. 1-2). He fathoms sadness, symbolized through a continual “drip” (3. 4. 1-3, 3. 12. 1, 3. 15. 1 – 3. 16. 1). The shepherd reveals “raised voices, bulging veins, red faces, clenched teeth, balled fists and knotted brows,” discounting the word “anger,” an allusion to the artificiality of words in the greater spectrum (3. 10. 1-3).
The wanderer proceeds, alluding to the material world, a componential and complementary factor in the great realm, in the absolute: “It’s a long way from the mountain / here in a midtown bar… // but it’s the music that holds everything together” (4. 1. 1-2 – 4. 2. 1). Recurring lines reveal an incessant longing (4. 11. 3-4), the bereft once again reminded of a past love lost to death (4. 15. 1), “gently [ ] l[ying] down beside her” (4. 11. 3-4):
But the dead worm their way into our lives
scratching inside veins
leaving the skull grinning future
somnambulant in twisted alternatives.
(4. 15. 1-5)
The speaker discerns the futility of words, the ordinary mind’s compulsion to complicate and categorize thoughts, feelings, knowledge and epiphanous experiences:
It’s impossible to say what we mean
words are the only shared reality we know
to frame the world in plain language
to world the language in frame plain
to language the plain in world frame
[W]e live in worlds of language
a clandestine of meaning.
(4. 16. 1 – 4. 17. 1, 4. 18. 1-3 – 4. 19. 1, 3)
Indeed, there are no words to describe heartbreak, for one, as he so-concisely avers (4. 39. 1).
Universality is devoid of time and space, as the visitor discovers when guided by the shepherd to a “woman we[eping] before a tombstone / to show [him] a past [he] did not know and a future [he] could not remember // as if eternity hung on a moment” (4. 42. 4-6 – 4. 43. 1).
Time and space; love and hate; anger; sorrow; words and expression—Tibetan Buddha Tilopa once stated that “[t]hough words are spoken to explain the Void, the Void as such can never be expressed. Though we say ‘the Mind is a bright light,’ it is beyond all words and symbols. Although the Mind is void in essence, all things it embraces and contains” (164). Thusly does the wandering seeker of truth discover through an inner pilgrimage, so-guided by a shepherd sage and mentor in John C. Goodman’s The Shepherd’s Elegy.
Goodman, John C. The Shepherd’s Elegy. Merseyside, UK: The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2011. Print.
Tilopa. “Song of Mahamudra.” Teachings of the Buddha. Comp. Jack Kornfield. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1996. 163-166. Print.
Nicholas T. Spatafora is an educator at Joseph Pulitzer Intermediate School in Jackson Heights, Queens, and an English Professor at the City University of New York. He holds two graduate degrees from Hunter College in New York City and has enjoyed a successful career in education spanning twenty‑five years. Contemplating a life in Catholic ministry, he attended Cathedral Preparatory Seminary in New York. He is a member of the Tao Society in Tai Pei, and prior affiliations include the Religious Society of Friends and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. Spatafora is the author of Hurt, the feature article “Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha: A Fictional Account of the Life of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha,” “A Review of Jack Lynch’s Manhattan Man and Other Poems,” “Challenging Perspectives: A Review of Thomas Fink’s & Maya Diablo Mason’s AutopsyTurvy,” “Kingdom by the Harbor,” “Allen Bramhall’s Days Poem: A Critical Analysis of a Dying Art,” The Word: An Analysis of The Chained Hay(na)ku Project,“ “The Victims of Circumstance: Abandonment and Estrangement in Jack Lynch’s Girl in the Mirror” and “Make a Wish…and Blow out the Candles: An Explication of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie,” featured in Eileen Tabios’s Galatea Resurrects, “Love Stories: An Analysis of Eileen R. Tabios’ Silk Egg,” featured in Remé Antonia Grefalda’s Our Own Voice, and “Love Loss: Reflections on Eileen Tabios’ The Thorn Rosary,” published by Marsh Hawk Press. Spatafora and his wife Hsiaochen (Judy) reside in Flushing, New York.