Book Review: A Quantitative Review of Gregory Sherl's Heavy Petting
by Gregory Sherl
Yes Yes Books, September 2011
Paper 128 pp.; $16
Reviewed by Yu-Han Chao
The appreciation of poetry often seems subjective and difficult to qualify; perhaps a quantitative review might yield unique insight into Gregory Sherl’s debut poetry collection, Heavy Petting.
Inserting the entire manuscript into Wordle.com to create a word cloud, the reader receives the below results. As one can see, the words appearing most frequently in the manuscript show up in the largest font, revealing themselves as motifs or themes (here: heart, love, bed, look) or a favored trope (in this case, similes).
The word “love” appropriately appears 69 times, as many poems are as much about love as about sex. Love, in these pages, is more than once associated with waterfalls, such as in, “I love you like waterfalls love shampoo commercials” in “Fall Down the Stairs, I Will Catch Your Lonely Head.” There is “love pollution” between someone’s thighs, the poet professes his love for his girlfriend more frequently than he does his love of pizza, and in “Yeti Love,” he dreams of a blurry yeti romancing his girlfriend.
Love requires heart, and Sherl uses “heart” 50 different times, including a “dead heart,” “giant heart,” “pumpkin heart,” “new heart,”, “firefly heart,” hearts sold out of trunks, “replica heart,” “naked heart,” “bruised heart,” and finally, an unfortunately “lost heart.” The theme here is expressed through all the conditions and sizes a heart may appear in, showing a range of emotions in imagistic and startling ways, such as the poet selling disembodied hearts out of his car trunk.
The poet spends a considerable number of these pages in bed. “Bed” appears 50 times, and almost always it is his bed, though occasionally it is a lover’s bed or ex-lover’s bed. These lines seem alternatively claustrophobic and expansive in space, and Sherl asks readers, “Try not to judge my bed. If I had a bigger bed I would need a bigger bedroom I would need a bigger house.” Later on he fits the Galapagos island, a produce section, and two-car garage in his bed, expanding the scene of the bedroom to include the outside world through unexpected metaphors.
The word “look” appears in 70 instances: “looking up,” “looking down,” “look left,” “look away,” “look harder,” “look like.” The numbers here seem skewed by the frequent use of “look like,” as seen in the trope in “Chapter Four,” “When I wake up, she looks like a miscarriage.” While one may find it difficult to picture what this woman looks like, the line invites readers to interpret and make sense of a startling and evocative simile.
The most oversized word in the word cloud (surpassing even the author’s name and title on the header of every page) is “like,” indicating an abundance of similes as well as the emotion of “liking” someone or something. “Like” appears in 136 instances, mostly in similes such as “like warm apple butter,” “like soggy clothes,” “like seaweed,” “like a long sigh,” “like grass,” and “like cherry blossoms.” While many writers consciously avoid overuse of “like,” the images here appear sufficiently unusual and concrete that for the most part they elude the realm of tired tropes or cliché.
More meaning could be made out of secondary words such as “think” (43 instances), “want” (42 instances), “touch” (36 instances), “never” (34 instances), and “build” (23 instances), but if numbers don’t lie, one might conclude that Gregory Sherl’s Heavy Petting proves primarily concerned with the heart and what it does—love—especially when that love comes in uncommon similes.
Yu-Han Chao is Poetry Editor at Rose & Thorn Journal. Her poetry book, We Grow Old, was published by the Backwaters Press. Visit her writing and artwork at her website.