Alan Shapiro tries to drop us in some one's thoughts midstream in his poem Wherever My Dead Go When I'm Not Remembering Them , an attempt, I gather, to show us what a mind doing casual housekeeping when the ruling personality isn't focused observing himself being poetic. There is impatience here, the anxiety of the wait: the narrator cannot engage the world as he would wish, to exert a measure of will on to his stage. The imperatives of free will, imagination, self-definition, following of one's bliss are for a time suspended, or at least irrelevant because our figure is here waiting for a train that will take him some other place he needs to be; this is a schedule not his own and this leaves him virtually nothing to engage but his own thoughts, inspired by the scene of the wait, the grind and mechanized stutter of the city the whirrs determinedly past him. The idea is an attractive one, I guess, the conceit of what a personality, normally fitted for turning their life's experience into miniaturized melodramas, would do in the off hours when the mind is "off duty".
Impatience , though, implies something like filmmaker jump cuts, the jagged, abrupt , yammering intrusion of one thought upon another, the overlay of images and opinions, the irrational mixing of personal history and visual detail from the present moment: the effect should be one similar to walking into a room where radio, CD players, televisions, Internet and cell phones are all blaring at once, at full volume, with the same shrill, monotonous insistence. Shapiro's poem sags under the weight of conventional narrative construction weighed down with a string of specifics that kill the sensation:
He is by turns clever, subtle, able to bridge vague quandaries with concrete emotion. At other times he will become parochial, stale, a self- aware mess who too often mistakes an examination of his own powerlessness as a fit subject, of itself, for a poem. This is the case with prolific poets; there’s so much dedication to producing the work that one hasn’t the time, nor the inclination, to give the newer material the disinterested editor’s scan and detect where one’s worst tendencies surface.“Triumph” is one of the lesser poems Shapiro has had published here, an attempt to write a poem about a homeless person the narrator, the poet most likely, he sees daily. There are telling details Shapiro picks out and presents with journalistic precision, especially in the clean way in which he describes the homeless man’s bedding ritual:
saw him as I drove by—
I don't have to tell you what he looked like—
Spreading a plastic sheet out
As for a picnic
Except he wasn't picnicking;
He was lying down to sleep
In the middle of the sidewalk
In the middle of the day
On a busy street,
The spoils of him lying there
For everyone to gawk at
Or step around.
There’s nothing here that would open the
I would suppose that Shapiro intended this little tour of his psyche’s interior decoration to operate as a criticism of how literary types allow their infatuation with metaphors, tropes, generic conventions and relativizing their reactions to real events, but what his results are less effective as commentary on alienation than it is a specimen of narcissistic self-regard.
Yes, even measures of negative self-estimation are narcissistic and are evidence of larger vanity since they remain instances in which the author becomes the subject of what’s been written. The homeless man is made less real and is no more than the misery index's equivalent of a nice sunset inspiring a poet to rhapsodize about their frolic under clear skies on a warm day. The poet here ignores an obligation to frame the world he witnesses and to offer an image that would help us think differently about circumstances separate from our set attitudes. This is a formula confession from Shapiro, a poet who should know better; the easy slide into self-dramatization is galling. It’s offensive.
But whatever I did or didn't doI did it to forget thatEither wayHe was the one asleep on the sidewalk,I was the one borne along in the carThat may as well have been a chariotOf empathy, a chariotThe crowd cheersEven as it weepsFor the captured elephant too wideTo squeeze throughThe triumphal archAnd draw home
earth and the skies of our awareness of the hard facts of this man’s life, but there is a hint given to a witness’s arsenal of associations that try to comfort the leery from too much bad news. Shapiro’s narrator thinks of picnics at first instead of realizing that the destitute man was carving a space out for himself for a night against the elements, both weather, and human. The problem with the poem comes when Shapiro, the poet, tries to figure out what to do with the scene he has just established; it wouldn’t be enough to allow these circumstances speak plainly and loudly for themselves, sans a lecture or the slippery rationalization of why one does nothing. Shapiro reveals his real intention of the poem, which wasn’t to establish empathy with a fellow human’s struggle but rather to examine his own apathy and his desire to remain in his head, piling metaphor upon metaphor as he processes the unruly sights he repeatedly sees and repeatedly drives away from;
Not gone, not here, a fern trace in the stoneof living tissue it can quicken from;or the dried–up channel and the absent current;or maybe it's like a subway passengeron a platform in a dim lit station lateat night between trains, after the trains have stopped—ahead only the faintest rumbling ofthe last one disappearing, and behindthe dark you're looking down for any hintof light—where is it? why won't it come? Youwandering now along the yellow line,restless, not knowing who you are, or where,until you see it; there it is, at lastapproaching, and you hurry to the spotyou don't know how you know is markedfor you, and you alone, as the door slides openinto your being once again my father,my sister or brother, as if nothing's changed,as if to be known were the destination.Where are we going? What are we doing here?You don't ask, you don't notice the blur of stationswe're racing past, the others out there watchingin the dim light, baffled,who for a moment thought the train was theirs.
This is more an impatient explanation by the poet of what he was trying to do with the poem than it is a particular set of impressions of standing alone on a train station platform as thoughts invade awareness and then recede. The not so faint shadow of Hamlet attempting to speak to the ghost of his slain father isn't far off, and the poem suggests that a good many of us have incomplete conversations with our dead parents or spouses that we find ourselves conducting when the real world obligations are, for the moment, done with. But for all the emphasis on what rattles in the brain when it's tired and feeling rushed, the poem doesn't convince me. The writing sounds rushed, though, and in fact, feels more like a convenient and easy to contrive self-dramatization than anything composed with assurance.
Where is the feeling of the world falling in? The nausea of the ground giving way under your feet? The lightheadedness when, in public, a host of repressed emotion and unresolved issues press upon you suddenly, severely, mercilessly? What's missing is the alienation effect, the familiar "made strange", in Bakhtin's phrase; the trains, the buildings, the cars passing by should be bereft of their normal assurances, including the easily conveyed sense of melancholy; this is a world that should seem, at least for the moment, possessed and defined by the dead. Shapiro, however, uses them as props instead to reinforce a conventional poetic sensibility and misses a chance to write something genuinely strange and memorable.
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 it's best that the notion is 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 enoughof what they used to mean to sharpenthis 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 maybe 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, maybe dropped a page, or had them out of order? No matter, I guess, since the poem is overstuffed 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 catwalksand ladders running up and downthe water towers near the shore,and headlights shining into taillightsflashing on and off as faras where the lanes converge and branchoff into ramps that cars swerve outin 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 signaland counter signal, flash of brakelight, finger reaching for the scan,the tuner—all the too-small-even-to-be-recognized-as-small maneuvers of a massiveoperation, effect of ordersbeing passed down through a steelchain 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 the last line that clinches the feeling that all is instinctual movement until the sun shines on the city streets again:
...the headlightssoon will sweep across, sweepingacross like searchlights overthe momentary faces and torsosof manikins arranged like decoysin civilian dress, in allthe 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 phrasemaking, 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 serve the sentiment.
All told, though, "Iris" is quite a good love poem, very fine for Valentines Day. Fussy as his diction a 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 idea 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.
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 given the detail that is precise, arranged and described in ways avoid the impulse to add ornamentation or irrelevant literary references;
The gregarious babblemuffled the sharpwords the couplein the next boothwere trying allthrough dinner notto have;onlyan occasionalNo you, youlisten for a change,or How dare youor I can't believe thiswould riseabove the barelysuppressedstaccato pleasegod not nownot here rhythm ofan argument they wantedboth to swallowand spit out.
Then the pause,the momentarysilence in whichthe whole placeseemedto 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.