Voyage to an Unknown Country: Shadow-feast by Joan Houlihan – reviewed by Eve F. W. Linn

Voyage to an Unknown Country: Shadow-feast by Joan Houlihan

Four Way Books.

64 pages. Paper. $15.95


The searing impact of Joan Houlihan’s stark and tender collection, Shadow-feast, published by Four Way Books,  comes from a total rejection of sentimentality, while maintaining intimacy and emotion in her account of a terminal illness.  From the first poem to the last, the reader struggles along with the speaker(s) to comprehend the reality of death, its turns and twists, the good days, the bad days, and the days that possess their own temporal logic and texture, a viscous consistency that enters the mind and body, letting the mind travel on uneven tracks, veering at one moment to the positive and the next moment to somber reality.

Our culture does not provide time for rituals of grief. Speed and convenience in death, like almost everything else, is desirable. Excessive sadness is regarded as pathological and inappropriate. To explore at length the painful process of grief and the awareness that consolation and recovery might actually not be possible, that loss is always with us, is the inescapable truth of Shadow-feast.

Joan Houlihan, author of The Us and Ay, the imagined and imaginative narrative of a tribe of hunter-gathers and their interaction with each other and another rival tribe for scarce resources, borrow from the traditions of epic and quest literature, while focusing on the family units within the group. Shadow-feast, on the other hand, transforms the elegy into a series of lyric invocations and utterances to and from the three speakers, Hers, His, and Theirs. Her elegy is domestic, private, and internal. Form and craft shape the narrative of grief so that it can be understood and reclaimed.  Shadow-feast, a three part lyric sequence, is told in dramatic monologues. Houlihan’s language is stripped of all connective tissue, leaving minimal punctuation and deliberate use of idiosyncratic spacing to convey meaning.

Each poem is titled in capital letters which is also the beginning of the first line. There is no separation between the event described and its introduction. The lines are short, syntactically connected by deliberate spacing (blank spaces of varying lengths) but minimal conventional punctuation to avoid interrupting the speaker’s consciousness. The process of dying is a voyage into an unknown country. In the first section, Hers, the speaker is trying to establish the border and boundaries of this new place, where the couple must learn to navigate an altered power dynamic. Illness forces adults to become children, caregivers become parents.

In the first poem, it is very easy to read SET OUT instead of SLEPT OUT.  Indeed both readings are true. The couple is setting out, “uncertain what was in the hold…”  and the reader can imagine for an  instant a different outcome. Each word has multiple readings. The hold can mean a place for cargo, the hold can mean a bond, a holding pen is place where livestock is kept before slaughter. There is slippage, the syntax is deliberately obscure and past and present are conflated, ”       then comes from years: a comb, a roof, a bowl of him and          ” the abrupt drop-offs into white space are a typographic equivalent of uncertainty, the mind’s action trying to understand the altered circumstances, where once there was order, now there is none.

Houlihan immediately sets up the central theme of the book. The benign images of a boat, sailing the sea are at once undercut with with or by negation. “It was no ship. It had not hold.” The ship is a fiction, the reality, impending death, “The only way to keep him, hand or eyelid, was to rise.”  There are opposing motions in the poem, sinking and rising which parallel the states of death and life that the speaker is caught between. The speaker’s endless efforts, “She ate her part and his…”  are to keep herself alive so that she can keep the beloved alive, as if his only succor is steam from a cup of tea. Repetition and alliteration work as a percussive heartbeat in this poem. The fragment, “…handle worn/by him, the rim, the rim….” rings like a death knell.

The speaker is at first determined to do everything possible to keep Him alive, even as she acknowledges the futility of that effort, even as he accepts it, “Scaffold. There’s no fixing it.”  Death is a mechanical problem which the doctors and scientists are unable to solve. The beloved enclosed in a bed with rails, grows cold, his ebbing life likened to “…his boyhood train/smokes, coils away.”  In HANDS TRACE AIR there are number of recurrent themes that connect it to SLEPT OUT, the emphasis on motion and movement, (under, over, away, down, behind) the opposition/contrast of up/air and down/stair. The references to classical mythology  “Awake on a shore where it’s never the future… ” and “Give me a mirror so I can see behind me. impart a timeless quality to Houlihan’s book, for if this collection is an elegy, it is also a love story.

The dying are bodies, first and foremost, objects to be tended and cleaned, “with sticky squares….” stranded by some colossal mistake in a place where no one wants to live. With mental acuity still present, the truth of the situation is inescapable, “Clarity without remedy.” Like Beckett’s characters in Waiting for Godot, this couple is condemned to wait, trapped in the existential dialectic with only one solution. Since God does not exist, then it is Death that will release them. The impossible wish to turn back time can never happen. “To rescind, to wind back clean as the wind,      I would give anything.”

Her is unwilling to abandon her fight to preserve Him. She refuses to give in to weakening flesh. “She sat him up to sip/a bowl of broth––”   as if alliteration and stressed syllables could promote action which is negated by “when to lie down was all he wanted.” Again, these lines contain opposition, the up of the first and the down of the second and the long drawn out sound of wanted, echoing the physical state of Him. The stakes become higher and more intense, like the impossible tasks set in fairy tales that the hero or heroine must complete in order to win the object of desire. At first it is broth Her must give, followed by pills that must be ground to dust so that Him can swallow them. The caregiver Her suffers mortification at her own hands, (penance, embarrassment, and physical pain) because she cannot accomplish the impossible, she cannot save the beloved, “…my force not enough.”  Still, she perseveres, “…stirring clouds into water.//”

As Section One continues, Her confronts the ugliness of approaching death. “he is pitch looked into/and the room a dread to enter….//”  The beautiful menace of COME TO THE WAIT highlights the author’s lyric power, the two speakers Her and Him float “benign on a breeze/without guile or a yet-to-come…(yet behind them) a body, slow…My shut eyes, my cannot see./Your shut eyes, your cannot see…The white of its head, bobbing.//”  Her and Him are sailing on the boat that destroys their future.

WHAT DOES YOUR SEEING WANT? exposes the hypocrisy surrounding death and bereavement, the business of dying in this country. “What’s a good death”, Her wonders as she washes her hands and concludes, “Of course you held on and I held on to you. We had married ourselves to a trance.”  We are all conditioned to believe that life must be preserved at all costs, hence the trance. We know no other way. It is rare that patients are presented with any other alternatives to medical interventions, instead of comprehensive plan for end of life care, that allows the patient and family to make the most of their time together. Houlihan conveys the relentless wasting that devours both the patient and the family, in language as fierce and uncompromising as a flint striking steel.


“Skin without mind, tissue-

timed, blood and detritus––

slow murder. What ate you away

keeps on eating.”


It is always December for Her, the month of His dying, when the world is colorless, the shortest day and the longest night are the turning of the year. It is only blood, its collection, spillage, circulation, that is mentioned by color. Houlihan leaves nothing out of these poems.  Her’s feelings of guilt over petty arguments, her fear of being left alone, ” And who knew the whole of it, minded us, cared?” There is no longer an extended family or close knit community to support those in need. Technology cannot fill the emotional void when dealing with personal tragedy. The truths no one speaks. “No one told us, but I tell all.” Every single stark and horrifying detail. The reader is left, like the speaker, desolate, hearing “…the bottom of the world crack.//” as the first section ends.


It is at the moment of transition from one section to another, that the power of sequence is revealed. The poet is freed from strict chronology and linear action, able to use whatever craft elements best fit the poem’s requirements. There is a flexible relationship between the sections.  For example, alliteration and repetition, anaphora, sentence fragments, hyphenated word combinations (kennings from the Anglo-Saxon epic tradition, that add description in a compressed way) are seen throughout the book.

His, the second section, opens with AWOKE DARK, a plea from the dying man. Let me be seen, not just as the dying patient but as human being. They, the impersonal doctors, come and examine him, “No one heard me…He is the same. They left eaten cities inside, left famine to work its way through… Please don’t leave. It is I…the labored light of a going sun.”  The combination of conversation (low diction), high diction, graphic imagery and the last line of such sonic power make this poem indelible.

The language of His is more visceral and focused on the body than the vocabulary of Her.  The poems in this section speak of the intense desire to speak, but His is told again and again, “They say I cannot speak.” Here the reader hears the voice of the silent speaker, the passive patient, who is desperately trying to speak and be heard, while His knows he is detaching from the physical world, in order to die. “I am rid of wish./ The earth is worthless/The earth is beneath me.” The recurrent symbol of the boat reappears, UNMOORED, AND EVER, “…I rang for a boat/and sailed backwards on it./Nothing for me here. Only water. Only mouth. I am nod. I am torn. I am socket./I am hellbent on heaven. On whatever you believe.”  The afterlife or whatever might be after death is coming closer. The relentless negation clamors. Here again, the attention to direction and placement is metaphorically important. There is also the distinction between high and low, between heaven and valley.

The concluding poem, I WON’T QUIT, is a tribute to the life-force of Her, “What hums in you unsnuffed/while I blow away.”  and to His’s boyhood memories of gladiolas, abundant and uncontained, as the love shared between the two speakers. The common name of gladioli is sword lily, from the Latin “gladius” for sword. Symbolically, these flowers are associated with strength, integrity, remembrance.

Theirs is a sequence that looks backwards and forwards, initially posing the question, “Time––what was that––” What does it feel like soon after a beloved dies? Is it a fleeting sensation, “pent and spectral,/strung with old words, rare to hold,” that persists as long as the body remains and vanished once it is taken away, or does that “skin made of her and him”  stay imprinted on the survivor?  The sequence leans more on the voice of Her. There are colors here in this place of in between, mostly white, blue, lilac, darker ones, pitch, flame, ash.

SNOW-LIGHT CHILL is a poem that like COME TO THE WAIT includes three personas,  Her and Him and the ghost of Him. Her and Him are searching for refuge in “a lifted drift, a hill they could lie down on …They had each other and the one they drag…”  like the body pulled behind the boat. The not Him is a “Botched man…(yet Her and Him) are committed to keeping the not Him alive, “…murmuring hotly into his neck: don’t go.” The crescendo at the conclusion of this poem, “…and his body, about to be grit, about to be sifted,/about to be ash sharp with busted bones, finally went./No home but what he left, spent.//” demonstrates Houlihan’s masterful control of sound and pacing.

The experience of death changes everything that follows for the survivor. The vivid colors of fall are “…dipped instead in pitch:             (like) their life, the one they forged/and stood beside.       No longer the manner            in which they lived,     calling each other home––”  Life is a series of empty places where once there was someone else; where there were two, there is only one. The use of spaces as disjunction, interruption and punctuation return.

DON’T ASK HOW LONG, a companion piece to ONLY A FUNNEL, details the process of dying:


“His whole body opening,

the hours delivering, pouring their minutes

onto each other, pouring and pooling

toward evening, after


that rash push of day…


Don’t ask how the room looked after.

The chair with its loose nest of tubes….”

ONLY A FUNNEL is the standout in this fine collection. The speaker recounts the cremation of the beloved and the aftermath in this long poem in two sections. Its complete originality resides in the straightforward catalog of body parts that are being consumed by flame, “I sense the flame by finger-lengths:” interspersed with lyric observation and self-interrogation. The absoluteness of absence and its pain has rarely been captured with such exactitude and desolation. “The might of my wish….” is the universal cry for the beloved to return coupled with the knowledge that this can never happen. The speaker is left with memory, of the happy past before the illness, and of the reality of the present, the remains  “the heft of a brick, /and handed to me as a gift.”  Following this visceral account, is ABOUT THE ENDURE, a stunning short lyric which focuses on the aftermath, the shock and disorientation of Her (speaker) “…the panic I have, no plot I have…no stone I have…what cannot be touched I have…. ”  The constant rumination and repetition that characterizes grief thinking, that collision of the impossible with the logical. “How will he walk?/I have given his shoes away.”

Houlihan gives the pain of grief space in this last section. “…two years gone and your jacket still hung/at the end of my endless day.”  and the persistence of the presence of the beloved in an altered form. “Phantoms grow from my body,/transparent limbs perturbed awake.” For a brief moment, the beloved is returned to the speaker IN THE SHIRT YOU WORE, “Now you are sensate in me––/you, only whole, who altered earth away from me…And loose in the room, undoctored, a cranial arc and glow, your forehead, face, leonine and kind.”  Death is for a moment reversed, and the whole person of the beloved is recalled, his intellect, kindness, and appearance. Here, Houlihan gestures towards the process of healing, with longing, while not letting the reader forget the loss.

Houlihan is a poet who values the mind, its precision and capacity.  In the penultimate poem, TO SEE THE LOOK, the speaker says, “We are nothing but mind after all, she thought.”  The power of that awareness is what allows the art of Shadow-feast to exist. The mind enables us to survive, holding within it the self. The last poem, “AFTER IT COMES to calm/a sound remains in the bell.” leaves the reader with a powerful image. The bell, once struck, is now finding its equilibrium, its oscillations slowing, until finally there is no audible sound, but sensation, perhaps memory, perhaps healing. The great temple bells of Japan possess multiple tones that create a complex sonic experience for the listener and embody the on-going connection between the living and the dead. In Buddhism, the ringing of a bell has many meanings, but the most common, is a call to mindfulness and a marker of important events.

The intensity of Houlihan’s lyric compression and her unflinching observations on death and loss define the poetics that impart such power and emotion to the journey experienced in this collection.  The sequences of Shadow-feast give the reader the opportunity to experience the lives of the protagonists as they engage in the process of dying and grief. It is not one moment, but many; an on-going meditation on consciousness and the enduring bonds of love and attachment.


–Eve F.W. Linn

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