A READING BY ALAN SHAPIRO
I want to thank Mary for inviting me, and Greg, and David Wojahn, and everyone else associated with VCU. I've had a wonderful day. I'm going to do something that I normally don't do. I'm going to start with sort of older work and then end with newer work. So I'll get the really depressing poems out of the way first and then end with the mildly depressing poems at the end. I'm going to read from Song and Dance, which is a book-length elegy for my brother David, who was an actor, song and dance man, last big credit was Sunset Boulevard on Broadway with Glenn Close. He died of brain cancer in 1999, and the book is both an homage to him and his resiliency and courage and also a kind of inquiry into the limits of art in dealing with catastrophic loss.
"Song and Dance," the title, refers both to the fact that my brother was a song and dance man and also draws on the pejorative expression, "Don't give me a song and dance," you know, "Don't try to pull a fast one on me." The book is both situated in the English elegiac tradition, which offers consolation for loss, and also tries to define itself against that tradition since there is no adequate compensation for the loss of a loved one, and no monument or poem can substitute for the person that we love. So in a way, the deep assumption behind the book is that the only good poetry is poetry that could literally raise someone from the dead, and if it can't do that, it has to at least acknowledge its woeful inadequacy, whatever else it may do, or fail to do.
The first poem in the book is called "Everything That Traffic Will Allow." Some of you in the audience who know something about show business will recognize that phrase from an Ethel Merman song, "There's No Business Like Show Business," and it is inspired by one of my fondest memories of my childhood, which is my brother and I before we would go to bed, lip-synching to Ethel Merman's "There's No Business Like Show Business" to our parents before we would go to bed. And so it just is a poem that draws on that memory. It's called "Everything That Traffic Will Allow."
["Everything That Traffic Will Allow" by Alan Shapiro, from Song and Dance, published 2002 by Houghton Mifflin.]
The book conducts a kind of argument with the literary traditions, as I alluded to before. Some of my favorite poets have written in consoling terms about death, consoling terms that now in the light of particular losses that I've experienced seem, if not like total bullshit, pretty close to it. So the next poem is sort of an argument, a respectful argument, with Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Wallace Stevens, three of my favorite poets. Wallace Stevens, of course, who said that death is the mother of beauty. Walt Whitman in "Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry" said that place and time avails not, death avails not, and Emily Dickinson, who has written both despairingly and consolingly about death, but she also has a very famous poem about a hummingbird, and the occasion of this poem is of a hummingbird suddenly appearing to me on the front porch of a house I lived in and making me think of Emily Dickinson and making me think of Whitman and Stevens, while, in another state, in another place, some terrible things are happening to my brother that would qualify, if not contradict, the kind of solace that I was taking from being able to remember these particular poems. The poem is called "The Accident," and again, it begins in a description of a hummingbird.
["The Accident" by Alan Shapiro, from Song and Dance, published 2002 by Houghton Mifflin.]
The next poem is called "Joy," and it draws on, inspired partly by West Side Story. Maria's song, "I Feel Pretty," which my daughter is singing to me on the day that I leave home to keep the final vigil at my brother's bedside. The poem is called "Joy." It's also inspired by some of those National Geographic movies of lions hunting antelopes, aerial views of antelope herds running away from attacking lions. It's called "Joy." And the poem is sort of a series of metaphors for joy.
["Joy" by Alan Shapiro, from Song and Dance, published 2002 by Houghton Mifflin.]
A poem I'll read from this book is called "To the Body." It's an ode to the body, about the way in which, of course, it's impossible to imagine any mode of existence without the body, and the poem is an address to the body as a series of metaphors for a body, and then it moves into a kind of narrative. There are also some quotations, particularly of a poem by John Milton, a famous sonnet of his, "Methinks I Saw My Latest Spouse at Saints," in which he has this dream of seeing his dead wife, and there's a line, "But, Oh, as to embrace me she inclined." And I think that's all you really need to know. Just, just its trying to sort of inhabit a series of metaphors about what it means to have a body, and to be a body, and I'm playing with that notion of having a body and being the body that you have, which, well, anyway, it's called "To the Body."
["To the Body" by Alan Shapiro, from Song and Dance, published 2002 by Houghton Mifflin.]
I have a new book coming out in April called Tantalus in Love. This is what it looks like. Cheerier than my other covers. I'm going to read three poems from this book. The first poem is called "Space Dog." In the late 1950s, the Soviets sent up a rocket ship into space with a dog in it, a dog called Laika. And they just wanted to see how long a dog would survive in space before it died. So they raised this dog, fed it, treated it with loving kindness, and then put it in a rocket ship and sent it out, without any intention of bringing it back. I remember seeing pictures of Laika when I was a kid, both photographs of Laika, who was a border collie, and then also seeing cartoons of Laika. Always seemed to me a perfect metaphor for child rearing. This is a poem that's inspired by seeing a thirteen-year-old boy in front of a mirror, a boy whose body is changing, becoming an adolescent and being a little bit fascinated, as well as confused, by the changes taking place in his body. It's called "Space Dog."
["Space Dog" by Alan Shapiro, from Tantalus in Love, published 2005 by Houghton Mifflin.]
This is a little bit longer of a poem, a little narrative poem called "Super Bowl Party," and it's just about a lot of different, overlapping histories that happen, of course, when you fall in love in your middle ages. It's called "Super Bowl Party."
["Super Bowl Party" by Alan Shapiro, from Tantalus in Love, published 2005 by Houghton Mifflin.]
One more poem from this book, and then a couple of new poems, and then I'll finish up. No poetry reading should be complete without a poem about phone sex. So here it goes.
["Premonition" by Alan Shapiro, from Tantalus in Love, published 2005 by Houghton Mifflin.]
Just a few more poems. I overheard a remark in a Chinese restaurant many years ago. We were talking today in the class, the graduate students that I met with, about how do you keep poems from being too personal, or merely confessional, or merely anecdotal, and I had this line. I had overheard somebody say this line that you will hear in this next poem thirty years ago, and I always wanted to get it into a poem and couldn't figure out to do it for years and years, and in fact, it had been in different poems that weren't very good. Then I finally found a place for it. I think that's all you need to know. It's called "Eggrolls," and it's about a couple overhearing another couple having a little marital spat.
["Eggrolls" by Alan Shapiro, from Tantalus in Love, published 2005 by Houghton Mifflin.]
This is called "Fifties Dance," and it's about being at a dance, most of the dancers being fifty-something, not necessarily listening to fifties music.
["Fifties Dance" by Alan Shapiro, from Tantalus in Love, published 2005 by Houghton Mifflin.]
I'm going to read two more poems. The first one is sort of a prose poem. I actually got asked by Alan King, the late comedian, who died just a few months ago, put together a book called Matzo Balls for Breakfast, on growing up Jewish, and he asked a bunch of writers and celebrities to offer their reminiscences of growing up Jewish, and so this is what I came up with, and it's like a, sort of like a, it's more like a little short story than a prose poem, but I call it a prose poem. It's called "Listen."
["Listen" by Alan Shapiro]
In the early seventies, I went to Dublin when I graduated college, and my trip there (talk about having the troubled gene) my trip there coincided with the last terrorist bomb to go off in Dublin, and it's unclear even today whether it was the IRA, or the British who were setting up the IRA, who set off the bomb, but it went off near the Trinity library. And I at the time was there, you know I was on my own. I had a scholarship from school. I graduated from Brandeis University, and I was there just reading poetry, and I was in the library reading sixteenth century poetry, Sir Thomas Wyatt. And I don't whether I was reading this particular poem when the bomb went off and the windows shattered, but it was, you know "They flee from me that sometime did me seek, / With naked foot stalking in my chamber. / I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek / [Who] are now wild and do not remember / That [once] they put themselves in danger / To take bread at my hand; but now they range / Busily seeking with a continual change." There's a wonderful moment in that poem, this wonderful seduction moment, when the loose gown from the shoulders falls, "And she me caught in her arms long and small, / Therewithall [all] sweetly did me [ask] . . . / 'Dear heart, how like you this?'" So that line, "Dear heart, how like you this?" sort of appears in the poem, and the poem is inspired by that memory which was occasioned by our justifiable preoccupation with terrorism today, and, again, in a way, it's a poem about what is the place of poetry, a kind of safety and beauty and projection of a kind of civilized mental posture that poetry both, that is the soul of poetry. What place does it have in a world of dirty bombs and dirty politicians? So the poem's called "Old War," and this is the last poem I'm going to read.
["Old War" by Alan Shapiro]