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Ethical Suffering: On the Work of Alan Shapiro

ISSUE:  Winter 2007

In 1995 the poet Alan Shapiro impatiently awaited a flight to Houston, where his sister lay dying of breast cancer. At the airport he noticed members of the Bill T. Jones dance troupe waiting for the same flight. Shapiro told a dancer that that weekend he had seen and liked the troupe’s production Still/Here—which incorporates the video testimony of terminally ill patients, mixing documentary evidence and artistic representation, as well as primarily fictional and nonfictional genres such as dance, video art, and medical and autobiographical narrative. The dancer thanked him; other members of the troupe, overhearing the conversation, accepted the compliment with similar graciousness, smiling at their admirer. As Shapiro wondered what to say next, the airline announced that the flight had been canceled. A line formed to rebook the passengers, but Shapiro found himself at the back. As he pushed toward the counter, the dancer objected, “Hey, you’re not gonna cut in line, are you?” “I have a dying sister!” Shapiro exclaimed, truthful but somewhat incoherent. “Yeah,” the dancer retorted. “Doesn’t everybody.” Remembering this moment in his memoir of his sister’s illness, Vigil, Shapiro observed, “The boundary between art and life at that particular moment, to me if not to them, had never seemed so absolute.” But at the moment he could manage only, “Fuck you!”

By the time the Still/Here production reached North Carolina, it generated considerable controversy for precisely the opposite reason: it seemed to violate “[t]he boundary between art and life.” The dancer whom Shapiro exchanged pleasantries and insults with “told the story of his mother’s death from cancer” while he performed a solo. In a widely noticed essay, the New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce vowed never to see the production and urged readers to follow her example. Calling it “victim art,” Croce decried Still/Here for contributing to a widespread problem: the narcissism that marks contemporary culture. She characterized Jones as a member of “the new tribe of artists parading their wounds” and as “the most extreme case among the many now representing themselves to the public not as artists but as victims and as martyrs.”

Croce’s essay generated many passionate responses, including a book that collected it and several responses in order to address (as its title perhaps too grandly proclaimed) The Crisis of Criticism. To rebut Croce’s argument, Joyce Carol Oates pointed to “a long and honorable tradition of art that ‘bears witness’ to human suffering.” Pitting artist against critic, Oates positions Jones as an artist who produces “new and startling” work that “professional criticism” dismisses “in terms of the old and familiar.” In his contribution, Homi Bhabha illuminates Oates’s method. After quoting Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” he wonders if Still/Here represents “the attempt, as in Plath’s poem, to counter the privacy and primacy of the individual self with the collective historical memory?” Bhabha answers his question with remarkable candor:

I do not know; like Croce, I have not seen the work. Had I seen it, and had she, I could have written a different piece, a piece addressing Jones directly, rather than a piece about the uses and abuses of ideology—ideology, roughly speaking, is about what we think we see without really looking.

While Oates simply assumes the performance’s artistry, Bhabba redirects his attention toward what he calls “the uses and abuses of ideology.” But, in discussing a work of art sight unseen, both withdraw from certain responsibilities. Criticism balances two competing demands: the need to marshal a compelling argument, an explanatory “reading,” and the obligation to grapple with the changeable, dynamic experience of art, its essential difference from critical categories and expectations. To consider the “ideology” that an artwork expresses or the artistry it achieves, one must look closely, not “think” “without really looking.” Works of art adjust the strategies they introduce, contesting the positions they establish. Criticism requires a corresponding nimbleness.

Shapiro writes about Still/Here with less assurance than do Bhabha, Croce, and Oates, partly because he saw it. Attentive to the multifold purposes that art serves, Shapiro describes a series of shifting reactions. According to his account, Shapiro approached the performance with a familiar notion of what it might accomplish: “maybe the show would provide me,” he thought, “with a way to understand the formless intensity of what I was feeling then.” Hesitant and overwhelmed, Shapiro states a hope more than an expectation. Nevertheless, he describes how art crafts raw emotion, intense and confused, into a comprehensible knowledge. Because experience lacks shape, it remains unintelligible until some organizing principle, a set of useful terms or comparisons, allows a pattern to be discerned. Experience offers a “formless intensity”; art introduces a more impersonal mode of reflection, illuminating our situations because it keeps a certain remove. Shapiro, though, does not strike a disinterested pose:

In my response to the production, I illustrated everything that Croce feared the show would be. I have no idea if Still/Here was any good artistically … . In the swirling mix of dance, story, music, and video sounds and sights, I didn’t find insight or understanding, only a raw version of my raw emotions. For two hours the stage was one big, busy Rorschach test. From beginning to end, it was all I could do to keep from wailing.

Reversing Croce’s judgment, Shapiro appreciates Still/Here most when it confirms her criticisms and admires it least when it undermines them. Instead of clarifying his situation, the performance fuels his inarticulateness. Shapiro experiences the performance in affective and psychological terms, with Still/Here exerting an almost debilitating effect. The “wailing” he stifles brings no catharsis or understanding, only embarrassment. According to his description, he regresses to a childlike state, with the performance inspiring what Croce would call a pathological response.

Shapiro’s run-in with the dancers at the airport inspires a final reconsideration—ending with the stinging conclusion I quoted before:

Still, I had to laugh at the vast discrepancy between the well-intentioned work of art designed to raise our sensitivity to the terminally ill and to the loved ones who survive them, and the sneering, skeptical reaction of the dancers to someone who was living the reality of the very dance they did. They’ve probably performed Still/Here a thousand times. I’m certain that all believe profoundly in it as a moral as well as artistic statement. The style of the piece itself, the blending of different media, seems to bespeak a desire to break through the boundary not just between one form of art and another, but also between art and life, the aesthetic and the moral. Yet for the dancers, it seemed that the concern, the sensitivity, the understanding that they danced the night before did not extend beyond the stage itself. The boundary between art and life at that particular moment, to me if not to them, had never seemed so absolute.

This passage distinguishes “art” and “life.” If art offers a model of empathy, of “the concern, the sensitivity, the understanding” that the dancers display when performing, life is governed by cynical self-interest. Shapiro’s prose, though, complicates this point. The memoir form allows him the opportunity to craft a more memorable and biting response than the “Fuck you!” he shouted, harassed and inarticulate. It provides the writer what life rarely gives: the occasion for a verbal payback. Shapiro’s last line, phrased impersonally, twists the knife with its qualification, “to me if not to them.” Art—in the form of the memoir—gives the poet the last word, a put-down delivered in a polite, even-tempered tone. Art settles one of life’s scores.

Shapiro’s meditation on Still/Here highlights the issues he grapples with in his poetry and prose. He writes autobiographical poetry in an age generally suspicious of it. Complicating matters, Shapiro shares many of these reservations, asserting the essential difference between “art” and “life.” An earlier essay introduces this point, when Shapiro criticizes what he calls “[t]he direct autobiographical style of The Dream Songs.” “[W]e should not confuse, as [John Berryman] did,” Shapiro counsels, “his suffering with his poetic gifts.” First published in 1983, this essay anticipates a tendency of recent poetry and criticism. To speak in broad terms, contemporary poets avoid a “direct autobiographical style.” Instead, they favor ironic postures, wordplay, and elaborate formal games, strategies that indicate certain aesthetic commitments. Introducing a recent poetry anthology, Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin), Mark Doty notes that contributors “presume the biographical stuff of childhood is pretty uninteresting.” This indifference diverges from the midcentury generation’s attraction to this subject matter. Unless political concerns putatively validate their efforts, sophisticated contemporary American poets shy away from representing autobiographical experience. In this respect, contemporary poetry—“post-confessional,” as it is often called—differs from other genres, most obviously the memoir. As the James Frey controversy attests, readers of memoirs prize notions of “authenticity” validated by personal suffering. The fact that Frey did not experience some horrors that his book describes discredited it to many readers.

While different notions of the relation of art and life inspire contemporary memoirs and poetry, Shapiro’s poetry uneasily investigates this division. After his first book, After the Digging (1981), which consists of two historical verse narratives, Shapiro’s poetry explores family dramas that conform to the basic facts of his life. Song and Dance (2002) portrays his brother’s death from brain cancer; Tantalus in Love (2005) responds to Shapiro’s divorce. Using a technique more familiar to prose nonfiction, Shapiro’s poems about his brother and sister use their given names. In a more conspicuous gesture, Vigil, Shapiro’s memoir of his sister’s death, ends with the six poems devoted to the same subject, suggesting that the poetic afterword also functions as a memoir.

Most notably in his poetry, Shapiro confronts the dilemma of how to cast individual experience into communal form. If, in some fashion, all artists transform the material that “life” provides into “art,” Shapiro addresses this task with unusual intelligence and care. At his most optimistic, Shapiro retains the hope that art might inspire a temporary self-forgetting, a relief from life’s suffering as well as a means of sustenance. The strategies he develops emphasize the shared aspects of the most isolating experiences, including sickness, death, and cultural fragmentation. Yet his poetry also tries not to deny the intensity of the suffering it observes, nor overstate poetry’s own effectiveness. He struggles to balance these competing imperatives, to offer an ethical response to the suffering.

Throughout his career as a poet, literary critic, and memoirist, Shapiro does not offer a consistent responses to this challenge. Instead, he wrestles with it, occasionally turning against his own hopes. Describing his reasons for writing Song and Dance, he observed, “I wanted the book to remind me as well as the reader that the division between art and suffering is absolute, even as we necessarily and helplessly try to bridge it.” If so, the poet writes against his impulses; he needs a poem to “remind” him of art’s limit, of the “absolute” division his work tests, if not violates. To consider Shapiro’s accomplishment, then, it is less fruitful to trace a chronological development than to consider a few particularly evocative works, poems that suggest the reach and limitations of his approach, the contours of his interests and self-questionings.

Consider, for instance, the first poem in The Dead Alive and Busy, “Old Joke.” An opening invocation, “Radiant child of Leto, farworking Lord Apollo,” describes the patron of poetry and music singing to the gods about mortals. In a series of superlatives, “the freshest, / most wonderful stops of breath, the flawless intervals / and scales,” the poem describes Apollo’s song as incomparable; it accomplishes the impossible, making the gods’ “perfect happiness” “more perfect still.” Midway through the poem, the opening invocation turns into a question, as the setting moves from Mount Olympus to a hospital, from a gathering of immortals to a scene of mortality:

Farworking, radiant child, what do you know about us?

Here is my father, half blind, and palsied, at the toilet,
he’s shouting at his penis, Piss, you! Piss! Piss!
but the penis (like the heavenly host to mortal prayers)

is deaf and dumb; here, too, my mother with her bad knee,
on the eve of surgery, hobbling by the bathroom,
pausing, saying, who are you talking to in there?

and he replies, no one you would know, sweetheart.
Supernal one, in your untested mastery,
your easy excellence, with nothing to overcome,

and needing nothing but the most calamitous
and abject stories to prove how powerful you are,
how truly free, watch them as they laugh so briefly,

godlike, better than gods, if only for a moment
in which what goes wrong is converted to a rightness,
if only because now she’s hobbling back to bed

where she won’t sleep, if only because he pees at last,
missing the bowl, and has to get down on his knees
to wipe it up. You don’t know anything about us.

The crucial word is among the least conspicuous: “sweetheart,” the stock endearment that casts the husband and wife as actors in a vaudeville or borscht-belt routine. To address his wife by her first name would accomplish the opposite effect; it would personalize her and their marriage. Unlike a pet name, “sweetheart” belongs to the realm of social language, not an intimate private history. The couple performs as types: the aggrieved husband denied sex and his comic foil, the nagging wife. It would be a mistake, though, to read the depersonalizing nature of the joke as demeaning, to see his retort as insulting her. The opposite is true. The joke’s conventionality removes the parents from their immediate circumstances. Performing for each other, they share the joke. They turn from patients into actors.

Another of Shapiro’s works clarifies the strategy. “Last Impressions” remembers the poet’s brother, a Broadway performer, as he endures the humiliations that a hospital stay adds to illness. The brother responds by relentlessly joking, offering “impressions, comebacks, quips, the little shuffle-of-to Buffaloes.” He adapts a series of familiar comic personas not of his invention. Each section except one consists of a single-sentence prose paragraph, as in the opening section:

When the doctor asked you, “If we deem it necessary to perform the surgery, will you be able to afford the operation?” you held up one talmudic finger a la Jackie Mason as you answered, “And if I can’t afford the operation, will you deem it necessary to perform the surgery?”

This joke recalls one of Freud’s favorites, which he forgetfully tells twice in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. The joke employs a stock figure of Jewish humor, a schnorrer or beggar, a character type Freud identified with during times of financial difficulty:

The Schnorrer begged the Baron for some money for a journey to Ostend; his doctor had recommended sea-bathing for his troubles. The Baron thought Ostend was a particularly expensive resort; a cheaper one would do equally well. The Schnorrer, however, rejected the proposal with the words: “Herr Baron, I consider nothing too expensive to my health.”

When the brother raises “one talmudic finger a la Jackie Mason,” he slyly substitutes a flamboyant gesture for the usual form of address, the doctor’s professional title. Responding as if continuing the doctor’s thought, the brother replies, “And if I can’t afford,” not, as expected, “And Doctor, if I can’t afford …” (my italics). Instead of deferring to medical authority, he impersonates another comic’s revision of an imposing dialectical posture, borrowing the doctor’s elaborate syntax and diction to highlight the situation’s basic absurdity. A kind of screwball physical quotation, a single finger’s movement shifts the scene from the patient’s responsibility to the doctor’s. The quip’s elaborate presentation, though, barely disguises the bitterness it expresses. “The truth that lies behind” Schnorrer jokes, Freud observes, “is that the Schnorrer, who in his thoughts treats the rich man’s money as his own, has actually, according to the sacred ordinances of the Jews, almost a right to make this confusion.” If the healthcare system treats the brother as a potential schnorrer, “a chiseler, a moocher … below cheap” (in Jackie Mason’s definition), he responds with comic dignity, recasting patient and doctor to wit and rube. What the poem calls the brother’s “manic shtick, the refusal not to be funny” signals his refusal to act his assigned role. A sadness, though, infuses the scene. The brother may be “joking as if your life depended on it,” yet all involved know that his illness transcends the language games he masters. Their happiness exists “as if.”

In “Old Joke,” two forms exist in suggestive relation: the joke and hexameter, an English approximation of the classical line. Each suggests an attitude toward experience, a kind of knowledge. Artistic technique introduces models for life. For fifteen lines, hexameters represent a heavenly chorus, while “Lord Apollo” and the “muses” entertain the “gods.” Shapiro borrows the form of divinity, who cannot understand humanity because they do not experience its basic terrors. Such suffering remains separate from their reality. When Apollo sings of “devastation, and bereavement, old age and death,” the “miseries” remain outside the artistic form, the “harmonies” “mimicking in sound / the beauty of the gods themselves.” The heavenly form represents the gods’ reality and its limits. Such art demonstrates an “absolute” “division between art and suffering” as the knowledge of human affairs must be “joined / to that,” added as an afterthought.

The rest of the poem contests this separation. When, midway, the characters abruptly shift, the meter remains. The father’s earthy monosyllables, “Piss, you! Piss! Piss!” disrupt the Olympian harmonies, ironically juxtaposing worldly and heavenly sounds. If the verse line ennobles the parents, it also highlights their frailty and helplessness, their weakness relative to the gods. Increasingly, though, the poem asserts the superiority of human art and experience. In this respect the verse line proposes an aesthetic counter to the gods’: it borrows their form in order to rebuke them. When the speaker commands Apollo to “watch” his parents, “godlike, better than gods,” he directs him to an artistic representation, a retelling that shows more rigorous art than “your easy excellence, with nothing to overcome.” Following the “father, half blind, and palsied, at the toilet” and the “mother with her bad knee, / on the eve of surgery, hobbling by the bathroom,” the lines strive to establish what hexameters can accomplish, to show that a form whose “harmonies were mimicking in sound / the beauty of the gods themselves” might more powerfully express a greater knowledge. In the final line, the poet mounts his sharpest reproach, “You don’t know anything about us.” Adopting a vernacular akin to the parents’, the poet drops the elevated epithets that dominate the earlier verse, as well as its serpentine syntax. As a rebuke, the final line borders on the petulant. Poems win such arguments by outlasting their rivals. In twenty minutes you will remember the joke that the poem tells, but not the final line, the hexameter’s culmination. This trick of memory proves the poem’s assertion: that the joke, a fleeting model of justice, represents a form of knowledge and conduct superior to the hexameter, a model of harmony and perfection.

“We no more invent the forms we live by,” Shapiro elsewhere observes, “than we do the forms we write by.” Instead of self-invention, Shapiro prizes inheritance and transformation, art and life as creative synthesis. In a characteristic demonstration of this principle, he combines two easily recognizable forms in “Old Joke,” one from the streets and the other familiar to literary culture, as if seeking to weigh and reconcile their claims. The final two poems in Mixed Company (1996) rework this formula. Paired in the collection, both describe pickup basketball games whose dynamics reflect Boston’s deteriorating racial climate in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In “Pick Up Game,” a note fixes the place and time: a marker of racial tension and demographic change, “Roxbury 1970” simultaneously looks forward and back. It names the formerly Jewish neighborhood that African Americans resettled, a community about to endure some of the busing crisis’ ugliest confrontations. The poem peers between the future and the past that the two words evoke. With similar brevity the opening lines establish two characters: the speaker and “Dale / my black friend” who invited him to play. Referring to the speaker’s “fear” as “the only white kid there” he describes:

my shame of feeling it subsiding now
in the reliable and customary
feints and maneuvers, pump fake, pick and roll
that made that game like any other game … .

Basketball joins each player in a communal activity. Accordingly, the description overlooks the game’s individualistic aspects such a player’s unique style or his improvisations. The comfort that basketball offers relies on its predictability. Different athletic styles do not distinguish the players; they share moves as conventional as the language used to describe them. Assiduously the poem avoids more idiosyncratic slang, the nonce language of playgrounds. At such moments the poem and the game it describes work in concert. Both erase difference, whether linguistic or physical. In the case of the speaker, this anonymity rids him of his racial embarrassment, his sense of foreignness.

Of course this transcendence cannot last. A drunk woman “in high heels, hot pants, flimsy halter top,” heckles the speaker, calling out, “white boy, white boy, what you doin’ here?” With the dropped “g” in “doin’,” the poem gestures toward dialect, as the woman’s language, dress, and apparent drunkenness confront the speaker’s white-liberal pieties, confirming the “fears” that he felt ashamed to admit. The poem devotes nearly thirty lines to analyzing this encounter, or, more specifically, the speaker’s sense of it. Ultimately, he turns from the woman to Dale, rhetorically asking himself, “[W]hat did I know about him?”

For this question to work as a means of discovery, not a restatement, “Pick Up Game” must establish the individual identity pressing back against the claims made on it. In “Old Joke” and “Last Impressions,” jokes allow the parents and the brother to maintain an identity against those that illness and treatment impose on them. Such jokes destabilize time and place, transforming a hospital room into a vaudeville stage. An alternative decorum, a different sense of morality and action, inspire their seeming impropriety; wittily playing a type, the brother and parents assert a selfhood. As in many of Shapiro’s poems, “Pick Up Game” pivots around social language. The poem introduces Dale as “my black friend,” a projection rather than a person. Pursuing a similar logic with only the terms inverted, the woman mocks the speaker, “white boy, white boy.” Her insults confirm his description of Dale. Only a “white boy” would speak so earnestly of “his black friend.” “Pick Up Game” dutifully follows the associations that its attribution, “Roxbury 1970,” establishes. Instead of disrupting the scene, the social language confirms what the reader knows.

If presented with “Pick Up Game,” a writing workshop likely would advise Shapiro to endow “Dale” and the speaker with animating characteristics, to develop them into more complex, realized presences. The poem that “Pick Up Game” resembles, “Between Assassinations,” successfully pursues the opposite strategy. Avoiding the anecdotal structure of “Pick Up Game,” the poem remains nearly impersonal. In the only sentence that employs the first-personal singular, the opening stanza refers to the black players who ignore the speaker “when I ask / if I can run too” “not letting me forget I don’t belong here.” The poem mentions no names, only “handshake, exchange of names,” bodies described as nearly bodiless, no knees, elbows, or backs, only engines of synchronized motion:

Old court, old dream dreamed by the weave, the trap,
the backdoor pass. Old fluid legacy, among the others,
that conjures even now within our bodies and between them
such a useless, such an intimate forgetting, as in the moment
when you get a step on the defender and can tell
exactly by how another man comes at you
where your own man is and, without looking, lob the ball
up in the air so perfectly as he arrives that
in a single motion he can catch and finger roll it in.

Three times in two lines, the passage’s opening uses “old,” moving from the physical (“Old court”) to the metaphysical (“old dream” and “Old fluid legacy”). Controlled by three commas in thirteen words, packed with repetitions and open vowels, the first sentence, a fragment lacking a verb, conjures a dreamlike history of place. The following lines add verbs and enjambments; its syntax expands to dramatize the many movements that happen within a single moment. The verse form adjusts this dynamic. Instead of the conversational iambic pentameter that “Pick Up Game” employs, “Between Assassinations” uses hexameters: long, weighty lines. The poem evokes bodily pleasure; the hexameters turn sensation into ritual.

Both “Pick Up Game” and “Between Assassinations” show how basketball’s customs—what Shapiro punningly calls it “courtly gestures”—hold racial divisions in abeyance: in essence, they separate “life” and “art.” The poem also reveals how these categories merge, despite the speaker’s desires. At such moments he recognizes how “our quant welcoming of them” signals condescension, “the haughty overflow of wealth / so thoroughly our own we didn’t need to see it.” The freedoms that basketball promises, its model of team play and cooperation, approaches a white fantasy, a dream of invisible privilege.

The challenge Shapiro faces, then, is to express how the same activity raises a certain meaning and its opposite. Shapiro prefers a discursive style, a language that evokes self-reflection more than staged intensities. In “Pick Up Game,” this approach strains to dramatize transcendence, not just report it, to embody it as an emotional fact. “Between Assassinations” more successfully achieves the tricky balance. Each stanza starts with a string of epithets modified with “old.” In each instance the first epithet remains “Old court,” while the subsequent items in the sequence change, “Old court, old dream dreamed by the weave, the trap, / the backdoor pass.” As in Robert Pinsky’s epithets, Shapiro’s celebrate the ordinary with slangy, technical language, parallel phrases, and a clipped rhythm. The technique signals an objection as well as an affinity; it reacts against the Deep Image poetry whose popularity Shapiro witnessed as a student and a poet coming to maturity. Observing how poetics marks commitments “in life as well as art,” Shapiro asserted:

The Deep Image poet’s aversion to complex syntactical arrangements in favor of simple sentences in which images and feelings float in loose association represents more than a literary preference. It is also, and more profoundly, the stylistic effect of an allegiance to the unconscious as the ultimate source of value, in life as well as art.

Shapiro employs the very techniques that such poets reject: “complex syntactical arrangements,” not “simple sentences” and “images and feelings float[ing] in loose association.” To follow Shapiro’s generalization, the Deep Image poets prized what they saw as life’s and art’s primal energies. Poetry, they believed, exerts a physical, animalistic force, summoning what modern society represses.

In contrast, syntax forms Shapiro’s favorite organizational structure; a number of his poems turn on its shifts. In the passage quoted above, when an expanding sentence introduces the stanza’s final syntactical pair, “such a useless, such an intimate forgetting,” the sentence pauses on the second “such,” as if the speaker were searching for a more precise adjective. Instead, he introduces another adjective to describe the experience as “useless” and “intimate.” The pause over “such,” then, enacts a reappraisal and addition, a synthesis. The five-line simile that follows doubles as an instance, with “as in the moment” meaning both “like” and “for example.” Again syntax introduces a moment of recollection and creation. If the poem “conjures” a “forgetting,” it does so consciously.

In Shapiro’s poetry, syntax often asserts a mature control, a strategy to represent and grasp the depicted event. In this respect, it differs from the nonliterary forms that Shapiro favors, such as jokes and playground basketball, rooted in childhood notions of play. The motive for jokes, Freud maintained, is the desire for a particular “euphoria”: “the mood of our childhood, when we were ignorant of the comic, when we were incapable of jokes and when we had no need of humour to make us feel happy in our life.” In his poetry and prose, Shapiro recognizes that children need jokes no less than their parents. Like playground basketball, the humor Shapiro favors arises from a specific kind of childhood: middle-class, third-generational, urban and Jewish. In some of his early apprentice work, Shapiro mined the culture’s most conspicuous symbols and historical events. Included between the title and the first line, explanatory notes for “On the Eve of the Warsaw Uprising” and “Mezuzah” gloss basic information, defining Elijah’s role in the Passover service and the mezuzah’s contents. Shapiro’s poetry developed after he learned to trust the value of his own experience, to see jokes and basketball as closer to his life and art than more obvious symbols of identity.

To call Shapiro a “Jewish American poet” is to trace a genealogy, to isolate a few characteristics and neglect others. Especially in his elegies, laughter summons a prelapsarian world without illness. His most tender evocation of this state, though, draws from Milton. In “Amarant,” three times Shapiro quotes Paradise Lost, once from Book V’s lush description of the garden’s “flouring Odours” and twice from a passage in Book III, where Milton imagines the amarant, a heavenly plant taken from the garden after the fall, an eternal, flowering symbol of loss. To highlight the quotations, I italicize them:

Thir Crowns inwove with Amarant and Gold,
Immortal Amarant, a Flour which once
In Paradise, fast by the Tree of Life
Began to bloom, but soon for man’s offense
To Heav’n remov’d … .

Though he borrows Milton’s imagery and language, Shapiro does not share his theological concerns. “Amarant” presents an almost purely lyric moment, a rare occasion for a poet inclined to narrative. The first half of Tantalus in Love depicts a marriage ending in divorce; in the second half, a new love affair develops. Considering the relationship’s first amorous expression, “Amarant” quotes John T. Shawcross’s edition of Paradise Lost, instead of an edition that uses modernized spelling. The editors of Milton’s The Major Works, Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg note that the modernized spelling they employ “has meant a loss of quaintness,” adding, “Milton in his time was not quaint.” Oxford University Press’s promotion materials assert this point in the marketing terms; modernized spelling helps to “make the text immediately accessible to the modern reader.” If so, Shawcross’s edition reproduces an affected poeticism, an unnecessary inconvenience that discourages sales.

In “Amarant,” the archaic spelling advances a contemporary poetics. Early in the poem Shapiro quotes Milton’s description of the “amarant”:

“fast by the Tree
of Life”
among the “Flowring

The second quotation consists of two words that differ from the contemporary American vernacular that the poem employs: an archaic and a British spelling. The first quotation employs contemporary spelling, yet achieves a complementary effect, introducing a meditative slowness, an attention to buried metaphor (as in the case of “fast”). Split across the page, the line enables multiple enjambments, opportunities for surprising adjustments (such as the synesthesia, “Flowring / Odours”) and knotty syntax (three prepositions in six words, signaling lineage across lines and phrase). Quoting Milton’s words, Shapiro adds Milton’s favorite technique, enjambment, revising “fast by the Tree of Life” into “fast by the Tree / of Life.” In this respect, Shapiro out-Miltons Milton.

As this example suggests, arrangement on the page constitutes the poem’s primary technique. “Amarant” lacks verbs; it consists of two sentence fragments, phrases suspended across the page. Just over one hundred and fifty words reach the third page, as if the poem were testing how slowly it might move:

Flower less
of pleasure
than of the pleasure
dreams of
in its late
returning as it has
to me
its longed-for
dream of dwelling
so far
inside this moment
of our moving
together that
the motion feels
like rest … .

Shapiro’s spacing guides intonation so subtly a reader might overlook its ornate verbal patterns. Consider the same lines arranged into blank verse, with the repetitions marked with letters:

Flower less [of] [pleasure] than [of] the [pleasure]
[pleasure] [dreams] [of] in its late [returning],
[returning] as it has to me its longed-for
[dream] [of] dwelling here so far inside
this moment [of] our moving first together
that the motion feels like rest … .

Set in consistent lengths, the lines sound almost absurdly repetitive, closer to an elocution exercise than a love poem. Confirming this impression, the diagram represents the frequency of the poem’s echoes. As it shows, the brief passage contains two instances of “dream” (singular or plural), and “returning,” three instances of “pleasure,” and five instances of “of.” The opening contains the greatest concentration, with each of the first two lines including four repetitions in eight and seven words, respectively. A relative scarcity of such instances marks the passage’s final lines, which instead turn to alliteration, as if the point had been made.

Spacing organizes this verbal abundance; it intensifies the speaking voice, instead of destabilizing it. Because of its appearance, the poem resembles a certain kind of contemporary verse, which exploits the materiality of the page. Praising a homophonic translation, a translation of a poem’s sound, Charles Bernstein noted that it may be “be read for the sheer pleasure of its sonic plenitude.” Shapiro’s agile, delicate lines emphasize the process of their articulation, their physicality, a sensuous experience made of words. By doing so, it pursues a more specific aim. Shrewdly employing punctuation and lineation, the poem describes the amarant as “unfading one, / un- / withering.” The terminal dash in “un- / withering” stages two movements. It sends the reader forward, anticipating the base that the prefix “un” modifies, then backward, reassessing the previous phrase. The second adjective re-inflects the first, making the reader hear it as if punctuated “un-fading” (my hyphen). This movement teaches the reader to pay attention, to examine closely the parts of speech that the poem employs and their relation. “Amarant” establishes this lesson so firmly that it need not employ line breaks to demonstrate it again. Midway through the poem, the sentence quoted above starts, “Flower less.” Trained by the poem, an attentive reader pauses between the words, careful not to violate their semantic meaning, not to revise the phrase into its opposite, “Flowerless.” Sound, though, reorients the reader to the more common neighboring word, a confusion that evokes a simultaneous truth. Eternity, the phrase hints, suffers a certain lack, a dream of pleasure more than its experience.

At such moments, one meaning does not discredit the other. Instead, they exist in erotic tension or, to use the poem’s central metaphor, an amorous embrace. Introducing this idea, the opening notes that “amarant” derives from the Greek for unfading: the “name holds / what contradicts / its name.” Framed in linguistic terms, an imaginary plant’s etymology introduces the reading method, a way of understanding the experience that a line presents:

to me
its longed-for
dream of dwelling

Two forms exist in one. The spacing divides a line of iambic pentameter into four parts: an iamb, an amphibrach, two trochees, and a single, accented syllable. In this case, the procedures notably differ. The pentameter line contains no substitutions; in contrast, the four-part structure lacks metrical consistency, as none of its sections formally resemble another. Employing a meter composed of varying units, Shapiro enjoys the freedom to emphasis certain elements, setting “here” alone, surrounded by white space. A quiet pun, “here” refers to the lovers’ embrace and the word’s placement on the line, as if such moments made love’s bodily and linguistic expressions indistinguishable. The most erotic poems in Tantalus in Love avoid physical description; the poems richest in such detail express sexual frustration, not its pleasures, as in an extended blazon that vividly recalls the ex-wife’s body once the couple no longer shares a bed. The more passionate the poem, the more its descriptions stay discreet and nearly chaste. “Amarant” quotes Milton, not the lovers’ intimate conversations; Keats and Stevens, though unnamed, haunt its arguments. Stuffed with abstractions, the line achieves an achingly sexual physicality, as prosody, the art’s impersonal structure, conveys the force of personal disclosure.


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