by Adam Scheffler
(Moon City Press, 2023)
Adam Scheffler is a poet who wrestles with the current fraught times that he (and the rest of us) are living through. Heartworm, his second poetry collection and winner of the 2021 Moon City Prize, takes on a wide range of contemporary topics such as the weirdness revealed by autocomplete during a Google search, (“Autocomplete”), the wickedly incantatory nature of the name of the 45th President of the United States (“45”), the sadness of low-wage work (“Checkout”), and the presence of the dead evoked by the “six feet left between us” of social distancing during the pandemic (“The Dead”).
Though Scheffler often turns his focus on common or mundane subjects—e.g. Walmart, Facebook, old TVs, swarms of insects, his own legs (!)—what he finds there is at once unsettling, sacred, and even moving. In “Checkout,” a cashier finds themself “manning the conveyor as it / rattles its barren Torah / through miles of product.”
In “What to Fear,” the beneficial and harmful potential of one’s own hands are exposed in the metaphor of “your hands / those double agents,” while in “Charade” a medical examination is where doctors keep “covering us in the butcher / paper of gowns.” Scheffler lures his readers in with a straightforward approach and plain language, then sends them careening into a descriptive landscape striking in its strangeness, profundity, and existential questions.
There is an arc to this fine collection. It is a movement from near despair in unjust details of modern life where “waiting room TVs / spin despair’s golden honey” (“Florence, Kentucky”) to the kind of redemption found contemplating Kentucky horses in a field where the poet’s “nothing to offer meeting their / offering nothing but beauty” ends on an image where the grassy fields in the evening “become a kind of / Galilee anyone can walk upon” (“Ode to Kentucky Horses”).
From beginning to end, there is much to admire in Heartworm. The title gives a good hint at what the reader is in for—there’s a lot of heart in the poems, but like the parasite of the same name, the harshness of contemporary life is always there, dead center. These poems sympathize with Walmart workers, but curse the Walton family that thrives off their heartbreaking labor. Scheffler visits an idyllic sanctuary for old racehorses while stinging the reader with the fact that most racehorses are sent to slaughter after they’re no longer competitive. And throughout this collection, you’ll encounter a playfully serious sense of humor. Whether it’s the poet finding other “Adam Schefflers / besmirching my good name” in “Googling Myself,” or the absurdity of a Florida roadside sign offering an “All Day Happy Hour” in “Tamiami Trail Signs: a Collage Poem,” or the poet, in “Objet D’art,” musing on his rear end, that “most humble and taken-for- / granted part, my greatest asset,” as a “piece of art” after his lover describes it that way.
Scheffler is adept with a poet’s sense of the possibilities of language. He employs variations of stanzaic poems and poems with no breaks. He has short, pithy poems and longer meditative poems. He includes poems he has built on anaphora, and they are fresh and surprising. And always Scheffler is generous with word play: cash register beeps are “the secret / name each of us will never / be sweetly called” (“Checkout”), “joy / is a hive that you have to / be tiny and pure to enter” (“How to Party”), and a used condom is “a good omen [ ... ] reaching / down to us from a filthy / star” (“Ode to a Used Condom in a Park”).
In his poem, “I Want to be Jeff Goldblum,” Scheffler writes, “I want you to sneer at me, then laugh and feel good in spite / of yourself.” After reading the accessible, smart, and pointed poems of Heartworm you won’t find yourself sneering at Adam Scheffler, but you will laugh, and you will feel good—in spite of yourself or not.