Adam Scheffler’s second poetry collection Heartworm, winner of the 2021 Moon City Poetry Prize, is a bewildering cacophony of subject matters—small or grand, turned over and studied with such rapt attention from a quizzical mind. Packaged into a tidy assortment, Scheffler’s acute observations pulse with charming delight in this prudent book on life: the emotional ebbs and flows of the creative worker, the decimation of American employee unions, and the obsessive tinkering of a person perfecting the invention of a machine, to the ways in which we interact online. Cockroaches and racehorses, this book covers it all.
Take for instance artificial intelligence which of late has entered more conversations on writing and thinking. Scheffler demonstrates in “Autocomplete” that this software function built into our email and text settings affords us a type of freedom we may not have been aware existed. Now technology can do the work for us if we type one clause or phrase:
Why does death come in threes, happen, scare me, hurt so much, row
exist, make us sad, hurt.
But these predicted texts based on algorithms are not just for fun or to make writing easier; our thoughts are predicated by the insidiousness of technological programming and interpretation. Some, as noted by Scheffler, cut a little deeper, and perhaps might make us pause a moment:
Why do I feel happy after crying, when it rains, at night, all of a
sudden, but empty.
Being online is not simply just clicking around the Internet anymore. Scheffler is keenly aware of how group settings and interactions can erode the sense of the individual in how we project how we want others to see a certain image of ourselves. This curation can easily veer into a hive-mind territory, where what is seen might not be truth. In “Facebook” he writes that the social media giant Meta makes us adopt a different persona, a “casual debasement” where:
everyone being together
so easily, for such a chummy picnic
of the mind, could be so dull.
This “casual debasement” is reimaged in “Checkout” when Scheffler witnesses an elderly cashier working a Christmas Eve shift at Walmart. What does it say about our society when our most vulnerable populations perform manual labor, in costumes no less, so the richest of us continue to get richer? If people were to ask what good can poetry do, consider how Scheffler flips the question back on the reader:
A poem can’t tell you what it’s like
to be 83 and seven hours deep
into a Christmas Eve shift
at Walmart, cajoling
beeps from objects like the secret
name each of us will never
be sweetly called.
These rhetorical questions that Scheffler poses place great emphasis on social consciousness. Who do we belong to if not ourselves? Heartworm is a reckoning on things seen and unseen, acknowledged and unacknowledged. In “Ode to Zamboni Machines,” a meandering expose on obsessions and regrets, he ponders that:
there’s no such thing as one’s
life’s work being finished to oneself, but only to
Just as Frank Zamboni’s work on the ice resurfacer was met with skepticism, Scheffler wonders about the ineffable conundrum of being a creative person with a public identity. In “Googling Myself” he finds several other poets who share his name, or a newscaster whose name is just similar enough that Google confuses the two and throws this man’s image into the lot. With a measure of intrigue and chagrin, Scheffler considers the paradox of being recognized:
and what a relief that is, to look
into the mirror of the internet after a haggard
sleepless night, or after an ordinary afternoon
of having no good ideas about life,
and to see him instead.
The inner turmoil that perniciously haunts the creative mind is revisited in “Ode to Running” in which Scheffler laments how, as a poet:
sometimes I don’t even like
or that his friend, a surgeon with his own demands, cannot possibly understand
like to spend a year on a line.
What works so well in this book is when Scheffler requires the reader to look inward. His mastery of provoking emotive reactions is most rewarding when he crafts good-natured humor out of devastation, such as a poem like “Dear Florida” with its good-natured ribbing of that polarizing American state. You’ll find yourself chuckling and nodding, maybe even murmuring “mmmhmm” for good measure, all set up for more quips until bam! three poems later you encounter “School Shooting” and its parallelism will gut you.
These shifts in tone and content allow Scheffler’s work to shine. He concocts these ripe, extended metaphors that seem like a portentous warning of what we might risk missing if we don’t get ourselves off the assembly conveyor belt and witness. In “Five-Finger Discount” he writes:
We must try to be gentle, like the
white-naped cranes who fly a thousand
miles to winter between the
two Koreas, treading so lightly
they rarely set the landmines off.
Earnest and thought-provoking, Heartworm by Adam Scheffler delivers poems that soar off the page with a tender wit and an unbridled postulation, perfect for readers who desire eye-opening consciousness.
Robyn Earhart’s work has appeared in Barren Magazine, Columbia Journal, and the Under Review where she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota with her husband and pets.