Shield the Joyous
By Christopher X Shade
40 poems, 80 pages
Price: $16
ISBN: 978-1732302594
Publisher: Paloma Press
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Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Christopher X Shade is the author of the novel The Good Mother of Marseille. His stories, poems and book reviews have appeared widely. He is also the co-founder and co-editor of Cagibi, a journal of poetry and prose at He teaches poetry and writing at The Writers Studio. Raised in the South, he now lives and works in New York City. Shield the Joyous is his first full-length poetry collection and it is dedicated to the memory of his half-brother, Matthew Stephen Misko (1984-2017).

Following the death of his half-brother, Shade went on a series of retreats to a monastery on the Hudson River in New York in order to come to terms with his loss and to search for a deeper understanding of the human condition. As he explains in his preface, his ‘baby brother’ as he affectionately calls him, died of acute liver failure secondary to alcoholic liver disease. He suffered the disease of addiction and died on Christmas Day in 2017. The loss hit him hard. In his preface he likens to a raging forest fire the loss of a loved one to addiction ‘– one we suggest could never happen at our home, until it suddenly does.’ Using the structure of an horarium, a schedule of monastic prayers, he explores in poetry and prose his own inner grief as he works through his loss. The title of the collection comes from the prayers at Compline, recited at the end of the day. This phrase, ‘shield the joyous’ means a lot to Shade, because his half-brother was a joyful child. At the end of his preface, he says ‘if only I had known to, or thought to, shield him.’

In an interview for 12th Street conducted by Maximilian Hamilton (12 March 2021), Shade acknowledges the influence of other writers. He says that his poems for this collection were styled after what he sees as the emotional fragility of James Wright, the clarity of Philip Levine and the fearlessness and depth of Auden, Larkin and Clifton, to name but a few. It seems to me, however, that he has already found his own unique voice. The key to this process has clearly been his ability to distance himself so far as he is able from his subject-matter through the use, perhaps surprisingly in this case, of humour as an antidote to pain and grief. Holding on to that word ‘joyous’ he honours his sibling with a kind of wonderment, a steady presence, amidst ‘the ghostly whirl’ of his own loss.

Humour breaks out right at the start of the collection in a poem where Mary and Joseph give 5-year old Jesus a large pair of spectacles to enable him to see things better. The humour continues in ‘MY RICE KRISPIES tell me that every night and morning are a death and resurrection’ although breakfast at the monastery soon becomes a vehicle for expressing deep thought in telling prose:

‘…there are deaths with a lowercase d and deaths with a capital D. This morning I’m furious, reading that in 1970 Celan leaped into the Seine, and I’m furious that my baby brother was lost to pills and booze on Christmas Day. When we lose poets, we lose language. When we lose the young, we lose the future.’

Humour comes out from behind the clouds again in AMBULANCE RIDES where paramedics, waiting in their ambulance for their next call, pass the time by trying on each other’s sunglasses. Interestingly, since this is the final poem in the collection, it shares with the opening poem this image about glasses and begs the question about the strength of our vision. As Shade states in the interview I referred to earlier, ‘we were a Mom and four kids whose early years were interrupted by the deep trauma of loss – my dad was killed when I was two. To this day in my family, we hold each other close with the deep-set fear that we might lose another of us.’ None of us knows what the future holds.

Returning to the breakfast cereals, in the prose poem MONASTERY JOURNAL, CORNFLAKES Shade writes:

‘Yesterday, when I heard joyous humming of a Christmas carol, I leaned into the kitchen: the happiest brother I’ve ever seen, wearing a white apron, flung pizza dough into the air.’

It reminds him of his half-brother who worked for a time as a short order cook in Rainesville, Alabama. In the very fine poem BEFORE HE STARTED UP THE FORKLIFT, with its frequent mention of angels, Shade makes reference to the other job that his half-brother did working his final days driving a forklift in a warehouse in rural Alabama:

Before he started up the forklift
he said let angels watch over me
in this forklift today.
The way Mom had said it
before starting up the car
when he was a child.

Beyond recollections of childhood, riding bicycles, mowing the grass, playing board games when it rained, poems in which Shade sees the vulnerable side of things, we sense the silence of the monastery, the presence of the Hudson River and the healing balm of the natural world. There is a meditative feel to these poems as Shade seeks solace for his grief.


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