Sunday, April 19, 2009

Poems by Alan Shapiro

There are many things that need urgent opining upon that the only thing a hapless re-marker can do is scroll through the poetry archive at Slate and check out poetry editor's past selections. It's disconcerting when your self image as a cynical, brutal and hard-to-please curmudgeon takes a humbling when you come across a poet whose works you've consistently interesting, or enjoyed outright. Alan Shapiro is the poet I'm speaking of, and in his case I think he deserves the four hundred dollar stipend Slate poetry editor Robert Pinsky selections receive. So much bad writing gets obscene amounts of cash that it's refreshing when a good writer toiling in the least profitable of genres gets a little walking around money for his dedication to the art. There are quibbles and complaints, to be sure; vanity won't let get away without making like a junior league authoritarian once or twice. Shapiro, though, is a wonderful writer, worth seeking out.

First, can Microsoft improve on how these poems are recorded, or might the engineer insist on more than one take? Shapiro sounds as if he's just swallowed his own nose. His lack of emphasis, of any sort of dramatic flair does him no favors either.

"This and That" is an intriguing puzzle. This could be a first rate piece of writing, yet it stalls on its own conceit, the repetition of "this and that", which is distracting. Shapiro sounds bored with his details, or impatient to get the poem done, but whatever his state of mind, the continued application, stanza to stanza, with all the attending variation, stalls the work. Some other conceit should be worked out if there's to be some connecting colloquialism uniting the strand, but perhaps its best that the notion be abandoned altogether. There is marvelous, powerful writing here, and it will survive the troublesome T's.

And please, someone ask Mr. Shapiro to rewrite the last three stanzas where his concentration falls on the lone traffic light hovering over an empty town on a winter night. All builds to a power resolution until the last few lines

to recollect only enough
of what they used to mean to sharpen
this feeling of now forgetting it--



This obscures what should have been powerful, visual, final, with a knowing lack of finessed language. Instead, we get this, a cloud bank of frightened introspection, something from a grammarian's notebook. Lost in this gush of uncertain articles and un-anchored verbs is any sense of the physical world, an appealing element that until these last lines was so skillfully outlined with the description of the half-awake children and the splendid use of the objective correlative in having the white, barren town illustrate the narrator's quality of mind and action.

In these instances, the spoiling use of "this and that" aside, there is a skillful linking of an exterior world with an interior existence. The subjective is subtly, gracefully conveyed; Cheever short stories couldn't achieve a finer concision of telling detail.Shapiro needs to rewrite the last image, and pare it down a bit, as the build up borders on being overworked. The traffic light, waving in the snowy wind casting off signifying colors into a black night sky should remain as is, with as spare a remark as the author can manage. The image needs to speak for itself. The situation should be felt, not explained

"Suspension Bridge"is Whitman-like in all the good and bad senses of the term, good in so far that Shapiro gives us a breathless sweep of details, mostly unremarked upon or decorated qualifiers, that themselves form that Biblical rhythm of long lines hypnotic in their names and distinguishing marks, and bad in that at times the lines don't end soon enough as Shapiro finds yet more things to notice, to bring into his creation of this bridge as a center of a kind of combat.

The problem in that sense may be the reading--Shapiro sounds as if he lost his place a couple of times, the pacing tripped over itself. He sounded distracted , he paused too long, may be dropped a page , or had them out of order? No matter, I guess, since the poem is over stuffed to a degree suggesting a too-broad leg trying to cram is itself into a too-small pant leg. But I do like the poem, and there is much to admire here. Shapiro is remarkable with the way he brings elements that create a personality of place from a terrain otherwise seen as inert and coldly utilitarian:

Little lights along the catwalks
and ladders running up and down
the water towers near the shore,
and headlights shining into taillights
flashing on and off as far
as where the lanes converge and branch
off into ramps that cars swerve out
in front of other cars to take,
while other cars swerve out from on-ramps,
speeding or slowing as they merge.
Sensation of war. Of being mobilized.
Each urgent vehicle, each signal
and counter signal, flash of brake
light, finger reaching for the scan,
the tuner—all the too-small-
even-to-be-recognized-
as-small maneuvers of a massive
operation, effect of orders
being passed down through a steel
chain of command, from car to car


Movements come across as herky-jerky, grinding and stuttering, traffic formatted as divisions of military components merging in some slowly coherent momentum toward a marked set of targets. There is the effect of a panning camera here, from the start describing the suspension bridge over the Mystic River, down to the tail lights of the cars, the lines , the broadening and narrowing traffic lanes and tributaries, all this brings into the heart of a downtown Boston on what feels like a winter day, with a last line that clinches the feeling that all is instinctual movement until the sun shines on the city streets again:

...the headlights
soon will sweep across, sweeping
across like searchlights over
the momentary faces and torsos
of manikins arranged like decoys
in civilian dress, in all
the postures of suspended living.


Beautifully expressed, with a language that's as crisp as the weather the poem evokes.This is about a city in search of a place to stand in it's wait for the center of the day, when the sun is at it's highest , over the bare trees and hard surfaces of the buildings and shines its brightest and warmest for those fleeting moments when one may pause, unfold their arms, move their fingers, take a deep breath, lift their faces as they squint their eyes, a brief moment that life is it's worth and value and that the air carries a whiff of spring scurrying on breezes scurrying around city blocks, the city comes for a time unfrozen that day and for a time it's citizens go back to work, thinking of their lives and homes, perhaps, and not the suspension bridge many of them will soon enough have to drive over again to the homes that wait for them.

-----

This poem reads like John Updike's prose, not a bad thing at all, though it the condition comes with the same objections; the writing is too rich in parts for the subject matter and the idea under it all. The flower, the iris, we address, is being weighed down not just by another blossom coming to life, but by Shapiro's bright, violent eloquence.

"Inter animating pain" is telling and didactic, fine for a prose sequence that are philosophical investigations of a kind, but for what is at heart an imagist-inspired verse, finding significance in the smallest of seemingly small things, the sound this makes is too loud. It's the sound of traffic roaring by the park we imagine this setting to be in, not the park itself.

A softer, less compounded word set is needed, as this confuses and stuns you with its remarkable achievement in phrase making, but makes you forget the poem you were reading. It derails the process. Likewise, a ghostly time lapse in reverse is simply the poet working too hard at being memorable. It's too much verbiage for the length of the line and the images it attempts to give character too. Simpler language would have worked better, I think, and given the lines a faster, surer, rhythmic flow. A lyric poem, which this is essentially is, needs to consider its tempo, its musical meter, and eliminate anything that does not service the sentiment.

All told, though, "Iris" is quite a good love poem, very fine for Valentines Day. Fussy as his diction an be at distinct moments, he organizes his images credibly, beautifully, and draws his comparison between the blossoming iris, with the opening and closing of petals, the way the plant gives grows and changes and modifies its existence with the lovers ever so subtly, gracefully.

It's the second part of the poem I think works most well, where the metaphors are wed, the quick cutting between the flower and the couple, the last statement crystallizing the ideal of being inseparable. On re-write, I'd suggest Shapiro cut the beginning, spending less time setting up the final metaphor, the last very fine set of images.

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Shapiro has a feel for the vaguely sad and sullen poem, and he does it well ; "Egg rolls" has the kind of Carveresque undercurrent of percolating anxiety that makes the everyday things we pass through rife with small wars being fought between people whose relations are both the source of their strength and security and the relentless doubt that hovers just over them.

The nice Hitchcockian effect of this wander being started with what ought to have been only a slight disagreement about whether egg rolls should be eaten or passed on by indicts the reader into a curious conspiracy to guess the larger dynamic, the bigger controversy under the passing remarks and criticism. A perfect device for a poem, eavesdropping, wherein only portions of conversation and chatter are heard, mixed and blended and obscured and otherwise enhanced by the incidental noise of a busy restaurant. What Shapiro does well, as he has before in this section, is give detail that is precise, arranged and described in ways avoid the impulse to add ornamentation or irrelevant literary references;

The gregarious babble
muffled the sharp
words the couple
in the next booth
were trying all
through dinner not
to have;
only
an occasional
No you, you
listen for a change,
or How dare you
or I can't believe this
would rise
above the barely
suppressed
staccato please
god not now
not here rhythm of
an argument they wanted
both to swallow
and spit out.

Then the pause,
the momentary
silence in which
the whole place
seemed
to be listening


What works here is the breathless pacing, the rhythm that reminds you of someone rushing across the street, leaning forward. Noise, motion, psychology are woven together in a mind that is frantic to sort out and make sense of the small disturbances at other tables that make him dread the consequences of those parts of his life he hasn't lived yet. Shapiro is perhaps the best poet I've read so far of the new Urban Nervousness. It's a poetry whose nerves are bad, an over alert and agitated sensibility that is easily set off into a worrying verse.Shapiro makes it a point to have the reader aware that his narrator isn't merely considering the abyss in a gloomy, formlessly downcast mood, but that the unease is triggered from external incidents; noises, things said, the reaction of others.Shapiro makes mention of the reaction of others in the restaurant ; all the changes and intensification of spirit are matters that churn in the author's unrelenting self-analysis, but the linear aspect here is not a separate bit of language considering only it's inability resolve the problematic.

It's an interior life presented as simultaneous with the presentation of self in relative degrees of public performance; first the overheard conversation in the restaurant, and then the more private realm of intimacy where there still remains another person for whose benefit a mask must be maintained, and then the unknown qualities of a wakeful mind constantly processing the effect and intent of its own motions and analyzing each interaction for evidence of something not seen. So linear, yes, but not without recourse to the phenomena outside the mind.And I do think that Shapiro's execution here is masterful, a wonderful blurring of an overly alert consciousness interacting in the otherwise meaningless interactions that make up daily life.

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