Saturday, March 22, 2003

 

I almost never think of David Shapiro as a New York School poet. Like, say, Peter Schjeldahl, Shapiro has never been associated with any other literary tendency in his career, but seems so thoroughly independent that to characterize him as part of a larger collective impulse seems somehow inaccurate. Yet, as Shapiro would be the first to remind me, that’s something of a faulty logic – I could probably theorize out every second-generation NYS poet save for Ron Padgett & Joe Brainard (who themselves are no less independent, but rather sit at or near that rubric’s bull’s eye). Indeed, Shapiro co-edited with Padgett the quasi-definitive 1970 Random House collection, An Anthology of New York Poets.*

 

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 Louis Cabri’s The Mood Embosser that could be read as Ted Berrigan + politics. That of course is too easy & flippant an approach to the question. So I went back & reread the title poem of A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel, a book published by E.P. Dutton in 1971. Now I have to take it all back.

 

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 I. 1971 was the year I published my first book, Crow, with Ithaca House, a cooperative run by grad students in the writing program at Cornell.** It was also the year in which Alice Notley, born in 1945, published her first chapbook, 165 Meeting House Lane. A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel, published that same year, was David Shapiro’s third volume of poetry from a major New York trade publisher. His first book, January, came out with Holt when Shapiro was just 18, his second, Poems from Deal, from Dutton in 1969. Panel was short-listed for the 1972 National Book Award***. Shapiro had received Merrill Foundation and Book-of-the-Month Club grants, the Robert Frost Fellowship from Breadloaf, something called the New York Poets Award, and the Kellett Fellowship to Clare College, Cambridge. If this wasn’t enough absolute star power, Shapiro had been sufficiently active in the 1968 student revolt at Columbia to have, in one action, occupied the president’s office & gotten his photograph – feet on the desk &, if I remember correctly, with cigar – published as a full page spread in Life magazine. In his spare time, David Shapiro was a professional violinist. Not bad for a guy who started 1971 at the ripe old age of 23.+

 

This context is worth noting, because it’s the one in which Shapiro’s work was read by poets at some distance from New York. It was a context in which it was easier to remember the photo in Life, harder to recall that it had been taken in the midst of what was an illegal activity that entailed personal risk as well as a political conscience. Similarly, I think it was possible, even plausible, in 1971, to read “A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel,” a suite contained of 18 shorter poems, without recognizing it for the political poem it is. Let me turn that around just for emphasis – half of David Shapiro’s third book is given over to a single long poem that is decidedly political, but readers may not have noticed. Certainly in far away Berkeley, where Free Speech Movement veterans tended to look at an organization like SDS, the pivotal group behind the Columbia strike, as a bunch of Johnnies-come-lately, the politics of “Acoustic Panel” proved not to be self evident.

 

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 Danube Loophole”:

 

    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 America. The presence of the work’s overall title, indeed the book’s title, points us directly to what this is all about: a wave of shock and sound. I’m not clear on which loophole Shapiro might have in mind here – the Danube stretches from the Ukraine to the Black Sea, running through what are now 11 countries – the number fluctuates over time – and a search on Google turns up literally hundreds of possibilities.

 

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

Normal as a neighbor and more clear

 

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 Prague to protest the Stalinoid depredations of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. In dying, Palach became a profound symbol for the Czech people & has become a permanent part of the folklore of his nation.++ All that makes this poem not just political, but overt, lies entirely in its title. The poem itself directly addresses grief:

 

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 Prague.

 

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 Iraq, I worry that her sacrifice will disappear from our memories if we ever even take note of it in the first place. But I’m glad to note that it’s possible to write political poetry from within the framework of the New York School. It is possible even to write great political poetry there – David Shapiro has shown us how.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* 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.

 

+ New York trade publishers were quite open to New York poets up to a certain moment in time – thus Lewis Mac Adams, Dick Gallup, Tom Clark & Clark Coolidge all had early trade press books. I don’t understand the landscape in that part of the publishing world well enough to know how, why or even quite at what exact moment that all came to a crashing halt, but it certainly did. By 1975, the poets of St Marks might as well have been back in Tulsa as far as the trades were concerned. Ashbery, Schuyler & Koch would be the only ones to retain access to that level of distribution.

 

++ By 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 United States than it did in Vietnam, where he became a household name. The other Americans who committed such acts to protest the Vietnam War, Alice Herz, Roger LaPorte, and George Winne, at best became answers to trivia questions. 





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