By Gabi Stephens
A “strange joy” burrows through Chautauqua contributor Adam Scheffler’s latest collection, Heartworm, winner of the 2021 Moon City Poetry Award. One of the collected poems, “Tamiami Trail Signs: A Collage Poem,” a cleverly gathered, and musically arranged series of signs found on US-41 in Florida, was included in our fall 2022 “Chance Encounters” issue.
It occurs to me that throughout Heartworm, Scheffler is continually experiencing chance encounters by uncovering poetry in the mundane—the people and things one might find hiding out in small towns or buzzing under streetlights. The galvanizing theme of the collection is the inherent good in things perhaps old and forgotten, the something sacred that glows, humble, at the heart of the weathered, the grotesque.
He takes his readers from the seemingly grim streets of “Florence, Kentucky,” to an IHOP dining room on Christmas Eve, through the insect house of the Miami botanical gardens, and all the way down the drain of the kitchen sink, where he finds, “beneath disgust and terror,” the poetry in a cockroach and her many bristling legs. And always, he is in and out of Florida, a setting which serves as a sort of hotbed for its own brand of complex but undeniable beauty. In the poem “Dear Florida,” he imagines “Anna and Elsa after a long day driving home / separately, chain-smoking, staring out the window.” And I can see them too—top down with their heavily made-up faces turned to a blazing Orlando sun.
Florida also serves as the setting for Scheffler’s invocations of our country's most pressing political issues. His preoccupations throughout the collection with both politics and pop-culture are what, to me, make the collection both urgent and uniquely American. He navigates issues like climate change, gun control, and an internet that both bonds and isolates us, with unassuming tenderness and humor. Often, he starts on the surface of the thing itself, or approaches the subject with a nontraditional form before finding his way to the heavy heart of the matter.
In two different poems, “Autocomplete” and “Autocomplete questions,” Scheffler uses the generated phrases from Google’s autocomplete function to finish the beginnings of prompts like “When will I finally” and “Why pray.” The resulting lines range from funny (“Why does everything give me gas”), to heartbreaking (“When will I finally die”), and even touch on the poignant (“Why do I cry when I sing”). As I read, what struck me about the concept was that I was reading phrases that people around the world had been continuously typing into the search engine. Who do we go to in our darkest hours, I wondered. While the form may seem simple, and sometimes produce lines that feel silly, the beauty is in Scheffler’s ability to use technology as a record of the human condition.
Still in other poems, Scheffler reserves silliness, and lays bare some of modern America's starkest griefs. Among poems about Jeff Goldblum, Walmart, and Disney World, there is the short but moving, “School Shooting.” Even in this poem, though, where violence is alluded to, the focal point is the act of play that happened before the tragedy. Scheffler describes the “slim figure” of a hand outlined by the police as it mingles with a child’s drawing of the solar system in sidewalk chalk, “floating, reaching / out toward, / as if it had just / slipped from it, one / of Jupiter’s 79 / known moons.”
The collection highlights how necessary it is to look at our world with a certain lightness, and maybe even a degree of silliness, especially in times of considerable duress. I hesitate to say that Scheffler believes there is some beauty still within us all. What I think he wants us to see, instead, is that there’s beauty outside of us that we haven’t yet destroyed. Heartworm is a call to all of us to see it and protect it, “their teeming / world without us,” with whatever strength we have left.