Review: Jeanne-Marie Osterman’s Shellback

by: Eric Stiefel

Jeanne-Marie Osterman’s debut full-length poetry collection, Shellback (Paloma Press 2021), does the difficult work of using inventive and unflinching verse to deal with a lineage of familial trauma, alternating between the speaker’s father’s wartime experiences in World War II’s pacific theater, the difficulties of a childhood with a father who’s haunted by the war, and her aging father’s final days.  

The collection begins with an explanation of its title (“shellback” is a nickname for a veteran sailor who’s been hazed through a violent initiation ceremony after sailing across the equator) and a poem called “Epilogue” (p. 13), which paints a portrait of the speaker’s father during the last days of his life.  After opening with the lines “He’s losing his grip / Last Saturday night, / trying to shave for church.”  While sitting in the dark, the speaker’s father asks her to read to him: “This is how we talk about death: / He asks me to read / the last part twice / where Sam’s frozen corpse / comes back to life.” 

This move sets the stage for the rest of Shellback—a daughter trying desperately to understand the life of the man who raised her, a father who doesn’t know how to explain.  Fortunately, Shellback isn’t afraid of dealing with challenging subject matter, whether the speaker is recounting kamikaze attacks her father survived during the war or navigating the indignities of her elderly father’s decline. 

“End Like a Sponge” (p. 25), for example, guides us from the grotesque imagery of a mangled kamikaze pilot ejected from his cockpit to a reflection on mortality: “They say a prayer and lower him / into the sea.  My father, / remembering trees, / doesn’t know why he’s alive.”  Meanwhile, “Portrait of My Father as a Dad” (p. 37) shows the speaker’s father telling her “I’ll break every bone in your body if you don’t turn down that TV” while drinking a martini and “Horny Goat Weed” (p. 46) uses scene to explore unspoken shame.  

Shellback works as an elegy and as a character study, interrogating the connections between lived experiences and their aftereffects through the lens of a relationship between a daughter and a father.  The poems themselves are nuanced, full of moments of brutality and introspection alike, both poignant and perceptive. 

Over the course of the collection, Osterman constructs a compelling portrait of a man through his memories.  “Left to Right” (p. 41), for example, shows her father telling her the same story again and again about Catholic school forcing him to write with his right hand instead of his left.  “Not repeating himself,” she tells us “the way old people do // but trying to get it all out, / trying to convince himself / he was innocent.”  Over and over again, Shellback invites us into intimate, emotionally complex scenes, letting a reader linger in moments that others might find uncomfortable.

As eloquently as the collection paints its subjects, Shellback shines a light on the intergenerational trauma of war as well, telling a series of personal stories that speak to a broader, often unspoken, American experience.  Both aptly and tragically, “Left to Right” ends with a couplet that speaks to the rest of the collection and its concerns as a whole: “We will never know / what it cost him.”

Eric Stiefel is a poet living in Athens, Ohio with his dog, Violet.  He teaches at Ohio University, where he is also pursuing a PhD.  His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apple Valley Review, Prism Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Tupelo Quarterly, Frontier Poetry, and elsewhere.

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