A review of Shocking the Dark by Robert Lowes

Reviewed by Matt Usher

Shocking the Dark
by Robert Lowes
Kelsay Books
April 2024, Paperback, 104 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1639805501

Poetry is dead. Poetry remains dead. And we have killed it. Nietzschean jokes aside, poetry has endured myriad transformations and small deaths in the millenia since the Epic of Gilgamesh was penned. It would be foolish to arrogate to myself the task of defining eras. Yes, civilizations of old (quite often Arabs during Europe’s Dark Ages) have preserved for us the early epics of Gilgamesh, Achilles, and Odysseus. Surely the early ages were devoted to the epics. But history is exacting and unfair; even leaving aside the efforts of less favored poets whose works were so narrowly produced as to disappear into dust, we do not even have the complete cycle of Homer’s Odysseus. Civilization loses far more than it can retain. What forms of poetry have been lost forever, so much dust in the wake of time?

This is to say that historical patterns of poetic forms and subjects are difficult to define. We know from Catullus and the etchings on Pompeiian walls that much filth, in poetic form or no, existed and that the bulk if it is lost to us. That is perhaps for the best. Then again, it might serve to dim the numinous light that lingers about vaunted golden, silver, and bronze ages. If society exists, it will produce such detritus. And some of it will be poetry. Some of it, too, will coexist with Virgil. Dante’s preference might be well warranted.

We pass through sonnet and acrostic, terza rima and madrigal. This is largely confined to the western world; one must acknowledge the tanka, so many of them wistful tears of Heian love; the interlocking Rubaiyat of the underappreciated Persian Omar Khayyam, singing of the fruit of the vine; the ya-du, seasonal much like the haiku, and the Masnavi of Rumi, its full title meaning spiritual couplets. Where there are words, there is poetry. It occurs even unwittingly, emergent from the musicality of the spoken word. There have been far too many forms to declare a single one regnant. However, they were often composed with meter, rhyme, and line structure. As with music, poesy in its classical form appreciates a structure of stanzas much like measures, rhyming and assonance for major harmonies, and the overall structure that gives life to the song forms of poetry. A collection of etudes is not very different from a likewise composition of sonnets.

We return, then, to the shrine of poetry standing over an empty coffin. What do we make of the modern and overwhelming tendency to drop form entirely and, if not, the accompanying meter, rhyme, or specific touches such as kireji? Poetry here has been reduced to the very bones of the aforementioned music of language: word associations; consonance and dissonance; assonance and staccato consonants. We are left with no choice but to view it for what it is; it is not, nor will it ever be, the formalized geometry as in poems of yore.

Shocking the Dark, a collection by Robert Lowes, dabbles with form but largely leaves aside structure and filigree. There are, as noted by Jason Sommer, poems from “sonnet to senryu”. Within this collection is a breadth of experimentation in forms. Less so do we encounter the impedimenta of classical poetry: shade your eyes if you seek after rhyme, regular meters, or if you are possessed of a mighty thirst for iambs. Lowes’ is a fast-paced and eclectic style, tamed here by section headings. Like many modern poets, he treasures enjambment nested in free verse. Robert feasts upon a surfeit of topics with but a few specific fascinations that may be noted. We find in these poems an unencumbered mind left free to wander between emotion and impression, a mind that leaves words in its wake as a thrush spreads the seeds of its favorite flower.


Our first heading is Some Last Ditch, which to my eye lives up to the promise of its name. It tackles the subject of expiry in the main, with dotted morose reflections brightened by biblical reflections which will prove a theme with Lowes. However, true to the theme, these are grim reflections summed up by the title of one of the entries: Divine Regret.

Their missiles assassinate through windows.
Their neutron bombs preserve Picassos.
They scum the swelling oceans with plastic.
Not so great apes—more sap than sapiens.

Scant need to explain the theme. Here we have a wistful reflection, one of the attendants of faith. The question of evil is difficult enough; here we touch upon the divine conscience. And it’s even in an almost 10-9 meter, save for the final line. Almost. Even at its most structured — in this case a regular blocking of six quatrains — we encounter Lowes not straining for a metric pattern. The vox dei muses without music; the tongue trips over trisyllables, uneven assonance, and truncated rhyme. Analyzed as free verse, it comes somewhat short of the empyrean. Elsewhere Some Last Ditch is marred by Knowledge Worker Considers Terrorism: “is a suicide bomber/in the crowd?”. Very transparently are “our enemies” profiled here. Needless to say, Lowes means to suggest certain Western Asians who have made America their home, however temporary. There is quite enough xenophobia in the world without a floral-themed poem depicting “Walls of azaleas, red, pink, and white” making brushing additions to it. The danger in this bougie garden here depicted rises barely above a skinned knee or the prick of a thorn.

Elsewhere in Some Last Ditch we encounter the final moments of a cardboard box:

the box in the road
 now buckles
 beneath the rubber
 of a pickup truck

as well as the oppressive interior of an Office Interior:

There’s no natural light in these long halls,
 from the sun or moon,
 lightning or fireflies,
 though a painting of sunset hangs on the wall.

This latter poem is one of the more structured, and also one that makes good use of an ABA rhyme scheme and of a slightly irregular refrain. Lowes here evokes an image with which many of us are familiar: the windowless confines of an office building where “faces look sick beneath fluorescent skies.” It is a deftly spun quilt that benefits from Lowes’ mixture of near-meter, flowing enjambment, and nods to tradition.

The Temple of the Lost Cause is a poem that ought to be mentioned. By far it is the longest poem of the collection. It begins with a slight misunderstanding of the aims of the early Black Lives Matter movement at the toppling of a statue of Robert E. Lee. However, it quickly transitions to meditations on a painting of that champion of what Mr. Spratt called “a great slave republic”. This poem focuses upon the irony of a man of faith, holding a bible in the painting, wading into the murk of such death as occurred in the American Civil War, with nods to the ironies of glory against slavery. The contrasts are the “nurturing/Lee, guide to youth” and “the Word, which in the/hands of Lee and his shut-eye student” as against the “stiff corpse or two, or thousands” and “the whole of Dixie and its slave chattel”.  The meter and structure move as freely as the author’s thoughts, traveling through standouts of the painting and historical notes which are well to the purpose of the poem. As Lowes writes, “John Brown couldn’t have cursed it better.”


Next for our perusal is Overnight Snow, an assembly of haiku and senryu. It, also true to its name,  washes over the natural world, beginning in winter and progressing to spring, stopping now and again to make city reflections and occasionally a bleak mention of mental health. Here, too, we see a desertion of metrical form, in many cases not preserving the relative length of the middle line. One feels the lack of these aids to musical language, barring the few moments where they emerge. The motion must be forwarded here, then, that a haiku is a pithy three line poem upon a natural subject. Perhaps senryu covers all non-natural poems of the same type? It must be shown that there is something here that distinguishes these poems from free verse tercets.

overnight snow
 reaching for the shovel
 instead of the sled

We begin with the quite real displeasures of adulthood, a trade of fun for responsibility. The snow does not linger long; soon enough we are greeted with:

just as I hoped—
 the pink clematis
climbing the trellis

Overnight Snow is, oddly enough, strongest when the author reflects upon the simple joys of spring. Spring heralds a very tactile strain that is quite compelling. One can see the poet evoking his own sense of touch: of gardening, of guitar playing, and of taping up worn photos. Not long after, though, we encounter more of the bleakness of adult life:

a therapist
seeing a therapist—
 and on it goes
antidepressant pill
 little white moon
 for the dark inside

Here the vagaries of adult and city life dig in their talons, as with the raptor to an earlier depicted mouse. Worry not: the mouse survived. Many of the subjects here do not. One hesitates to be overly confident regarding the first hand experience of the poet in this vein of mental health, but nonetheless it is feelingly expressed with attention to the bleakness of depression. Low moments, too, are part of authentic human experience.

We emerge from the snow into After Paul Klee: Paintings, a series of ekphrastic considerations upon the more surreal and abstract works of Klee. Grim, too, as the introduction to this section sets the mood with the poet’s belief that Klee prophesied the Holocaust after Nazi persecution. This collection elaborates greatly upon the earlier gloom of Divine Regret. There is an apt evoking of Todesfugue in Death and Fire:

Was this another epitaph?
What were you saying
 when you painted TOD, 
your native word for death,
 on the face of a man smiling crookedly in fire

Death reigns at its strongest here; one sees in the eyes of Lowes a dark corpus vitae of the end of Klee’s life as he succumbed to persecution and scleroderma. To have died before the end of World War II is to have died in a grim world indeed. Lowes does not shy away from pursuing this thread to its utter end, tying it off with the catharsis, though moribund, of the following section.

Apt, too, is an allusion to Nabokov’s fascination, lepidoptery. “A shaft of light impales you./

Over and over, you throw yourself on it.” begins well Dance of the Moth, though we emerge somewhat disappointed by the plunk of metaphor dropping away: “A shaft of light impales you,/but not as specimen pinned in a tray.” One wishes for Lowes to have allowed the metaphor to sing through, to allow us the eerie twilight of a moth caught in a fatal dance with light. Here the lack of structure wins through with the irregular flight of the doomed insect. What’s needed is more trust in the cleverness of the reader.

In The Goldfish we have a nice use of a sort of reverse anaphora:

The center burns with a fish of gold.
Blue-green murk wets its flesh of gold.
A body electric, Whitman’s pet, 
shocks the dark with a flash of gold.
Muted juniors swish to the edges, 
fleeing a light so flush with gold.
If I touch it, will I shine too,
like a son of fish, refreshed by gold?

The effect is well presented, allowing the viewing of the various inflections of the shimmering skin of a goldfish. It swims as its subject does, taking stops to lightly touch upon allusion and personal reflection. It is a well presented poem that lightens the grimness of the ekphrastic cycle.


Last up is Next Exit, a suitable ending to this collection. We begin with a very exact depiction of an Ex-Pentecostal, lamenting the loss of the numinousness in a faith grown rigid. The poetry is strong here, feelingly expressing what seems a very personal subject. This is followed by September 1, 2019, a rumination upon the octennial of the invasion of Poland. It draws well from personal touches, but its warm touch is undercut by a glib use of a slur that one thinks is not quite warranted by the poem. An accurate depiction of parental racism, yes, but why in a poem about your family navigating the invasion of Poland? This is ill-thought and a disservice to those who read the collection. We close on a better note covering the unintended consequences of history and the ephemerality of self and of love. This emerges further in Such Rippling Flags and Fiftieth Class Reunion, twin treatments upon senescence. Not even a lawn rake is spared from the ravages of time: “the curve of time has come for you, as it will for me./Thanks for what you gathered. Now go to sleep.”

Packing the Swimsuits is another standout of this section, building up a refrain: “She summered in the Great North Woods/and swam Hen Lake to prove she could.” It’s a neat memorial poem composed of tercets that paints very well a portrait of the loved one for which it is inscribed. Epitaphs of the Road is more neutral regarding death. It is a series of couplets forming the eponymous epitaph of various types of humans in transit. The use of rhyme here is perhaps a little flippant; Lowes is uncautious also with the subject of suicide. Life insurance is not the greatest motivator. The next poem, from which the section draws its name, is Last Exit. This one echoes Whitman in its “dog carcass stains the asphalt shoulder” the matter of fact nature of Whitman’s “putridity of/gluttons or rum-drinkers, peculation, cunning”. Both poets are very accepting of things as they are, no matter how filthy. They repose within the soul for Whitman and for Lowes “a straight shot to the center”. Lowes is not all that far from a transcendentalist himself, with his love of nature and focus upon the development of faith. He is a little too earthy and treasures mundane subjects too much for transcendence, however.

Breezing past Prelude, wherein the sonnet’s poetic voice is nearly scared off a concert by the orchestra warming up, we come to the end with Possession and Eucharistic Views, a pair of Christian poems that serve as the end of the collection. Possession is a sort of inversion of its namesake, where the subject is an outcast for being too sane after he is cured of madness: “They liked me better as a lunatic.” We come to a common theme in biblical works, the lone worshiper: “I’m still an outcast, alone in my praise.” Possession is a rare use of form with an AAA BBB rhyme scheme ending in an AB couplet. The tercets do fall into one another in enjambment, undercutting the separation of themes. That said, each in itself does tie together with its rhymes a well-realized sense for the purpose of each section. The final poem is, as its name suggests, a meditation upon undertaking communion. This is an apropos ending to the collection, summing up much of Lowes sense of things in:

No one will be perfect after we eat
the wafers dipped in pinot noir, just rough
 drafts until they bury you and me, when
we’re laid down and priests loom over us.

Lowes’ world is one of simple pleasures and worldly ills that prompt, from the poet, mundane and pious reflections alike. Reflections that are most often neutral and accepting, save for very pointed exceptions. It is a world where the serious and the lackadaisical intersect freely, one without much direct humor. He sings this world into being with a permissive voice, one that prioritizes meaning and feel over structure and artifice. At just over 100 pages, it’s a quick read with mostly single page poems that may be grazed easily. If you like free-form verse, acceptance of things as they are, and pairings of natural and spiritual touches, consider picking it up. If not, it’s worth considering so that you may decide for yourself about whether this is a strain of modern poetry’s life worth nurturing.

About the reviewer: Matt Usher is an agender, highly neurodivergent writer and musician who likes poetry, tabletop roleplaying, trading card games (mtg and ygo), and professional wrestling. They are based out of Brooklyn with their two partners in a happy polecule.  Most of their works are short stories but it happened that their first credit was in literary criticism. If you want to reach out and/or contact them regarding their reviews or stories (please do), you can find them at https://bsky.app/profile/mattusher.bsky.social