Saturday, March 22, 2003
I almost never think of
David Shapiro as a
The reason I was thinking of
David Shapiro – beyond of course the pure pleasure of same – was the onset of
Bush’s war, the death of a young woman under a bulldozer in the Gaza strip,
& comments, implications more than statements, that were made on this blog
last October & November that suggested that New York School poetry was
generally apolitical. Thus I’d suggested then that there were aspects of
It’s important to keep in
mind just how remarkable a book such as this was. Shapiro was born in 1947
& is thus one year younger than
This context is worth
noting, because it’s the one in which Shapiro’s work was read by poets at some
The suite itself consists of
18 poems, only one of which extends as far as three pages, in a wide range of
styles – so great that any specific section, singled out, would probably
misrepresent the whole. Shapiro can be extraordinarily lyrical at moments &
yet also uses prose here in ways that extend the possibilities of prose, really
for the first time in poetry since the Williams of Kora or Stein’s Tender
Buttons. Thus “The
On the ship there is an international airport.
Here, their passports are taken away from them.
These walls, these acoustical bricks, protect the man holding an acoustic panel against a wave of shock and sound.
Ordinary microphones don’t hear it, only the microphones with “great surface” permit us to – Walls and closets will not stop it – we will take these sounds to our grave.
Hearts working with determined frequency like twenty hearts, hands black as glands.
The heart contracts to the accompaniment of electric phenomena. Here is a microelectrode penetrating into the heart of a dog.
The allusion to Williams in
that last sentence is no coincidence. Nor is the couplet that leads off the
poem – this is, at one level, a tale of coming to
But if there’s a tale, there’s not a plot. Here is the fourth section, “Statue of a Breeze on Horseback,” just for the sake of contrast:
In a corner of air
On a couch built of air
We make a very little angle
Between “diode and triode lie near together
Are you in the corner of meteors?
You’re in the crust of the earth
You have not yet extinguished the light complex in me
On my languorous couch of air
Air, which is alternately
Black and brilliant and crushed like a coin
That lies under the rocks at Deal
You are here
Here is the debut of culture
Here is your light face which Michelson and Morley followed
Here are the spores.” Sir Alexander Fleming.
Note how those quotation marks work. Note also how Michelson and Morley take us right back to the question of waves from the first poem. But how radically differently this poem feels to be set into quatrains – how much of that determines what we feel about “You” and/or vice versa? And how, or why, does it lead to the inventor of penicillin? One could do a whole little riff of the sonic effects as well, following, for example, the ten instances of a hard c in this poem, nine of which start off words.
It seems clear to me that one cannot sketch out the 18 works into an argument, as such – that’s not their relation. Yet the ways in which these poems invoke history, as well as discourses such as science, make it instantly evident that the social realm is what is at stake – that for me is an almost perfect invocation of the political. Yet it is not the one-dimensional landscape one associates with a Levertov or Ferlinghetti. There is, for example, a running theme in these poems of small creatures: crickets, bees, squirrels, mice – as if Shapiro were anticipating the graphic fiction of Art Spiegelman.
The one overtly political
poem in the sequence is “The Funeral of Jan Palach.” Jan Palach was a
twenty-year-old philosophy student who, in 1969, set himself ablaze in
When I entered the first meditation,
I escaped the gravity of the object,
I experienced the emptiness,
And I have been dead a long time.
When I had a voice you could call a voice,
My mother wept to me:
My son, my beloved son,
I never thought this possible,
I’ll follow you on foot,
Halfway in mud and slush the microphones picked up.
It was raining on the houses;
It was snowing on the police-cars.
The astronauts were weeping,
Going neither up nor out.
And my own mother was brave enough she looked
And it was alright I was dead.
Even the lines that grammatically don’t require end stops have some sort of punctuation right up to that next-to-last line, Shapiro controlling the reader’s breathing & sense of halting rhythm. & again, the question of the microphones, which throughout this work is the question of empathy, which means both compassion & the ability to experience pain.
“A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel,” is a dark & brooding work composed within a genre that has never been known for its seriousness. I have no idea how it must have been received by those close to Shapiro, but I know that at the time, my own response was incomprehension – I simply did not have the critical framework in my head at the time to recognize this work for what it was, and is.
In an excellent interview
conducted by Joanna Fuhrman for RainTaxi, David Shapiro
speaks of brooding on a comment Marianne Moore once made about his work
lacking “adequate starkness.” There is hardly anything inadequate about the
starkness here. Shapiro’s poem, as it turned out, inspired architect John
Hejduk’s monument to Palach in
So it’s no accident, I
suppose, that I’ve been thinking about this poem this week, not only in the
context of the tragedy of Iraq, but also the homicide of Rachel Corrie,
the 23-year-old Olympia, Washington, native who was literally bulldozed to
death by the Israeli army last weekend. Unlike Palach and his American &
Vietnamese counterparts in the 1960s, Corrie did not plan her fate. In the wake
of the media overload over
* A volume that includes not just the usual suspects, but others whose connection may seem more tenuous to the aesthetics of founding papas Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch & Schuyler – John Giorno, Ed Sanders, Tom Veitch – and whose introduction mumbles an apology for failing to include Allen Ginsberg & Charles Reznikoff, but remains silent over its inclusion of only a single woman, Bernadette Mayer. No Waldman, no Notley, no Guest, all of whom would have been reasonable inclusions in 1970.
** Ithaca House was a funky little operation, funded by a writing professor, Baxter Hathaway, as a means of instructing students in what the poetry world was really like. Because David McAleavey had then getting his Ph.D. there, writing what I think might have been the first dissertation on George Oppen, Ithaca House in the early 1970s published first books also by David Melnick & Bob Perelman, as well as Ray Di Palma’s second volume.
*** Howard Moss & Frank O’Hara were jointly awarded the prize that year, O’Hara posthumously.
contrast, the self-immolation of Norman Morrison, a
Quaker father of three, in front of Robert McNamara’s office at the Pentagon
had less of an impact in the