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Speaking Volumes: At the Altar of Poetry

July 21, 2005 By:
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About a decade ago, upon the publication of poet Alan Shapiro's book The Last Happy Occasion, I wrote that he had, until then, lived one of the representative Jewish lives of the 20th century. Any middle-aged American Jewish male who'd ever harbored literary aspirations, even fleetingly, would recognize large swatches of his life in the pages of this collection of autobiographical essays.

As a young man, Shapiro, like so many others of his generation, ditched Judaism and replaced it with the religion of literature, worshipping fervently at the altar of poetry, much more so than he had ever prayed in a synagogue.

He described his determined flight from the middle class and family life in the collection's title essay.

"I thought of how, throughout my adolescence I couldn't wait to get away from Boston, to get away from [my relatives], of how oppressed I was by what I took to be their prejudices and hypocrisies, their unquestioned faith in the status quo, their deep-seated belief that the only measure of a man's worth is the size of his bank book, that business is truth, and truth business …

"It was to purify myself of all I thought they represented that I went to Ireland when I graduated from college, to live as an expatriate poet in the land of Yeats and Joyce … eventually even marrying an Irish woman. I wanted to live what I imagined was the literary life, which I defined in those days negatively as everything my family wasn't. The irony was, of course, that the very poetry in whose name I rejected my own family was reminding me that in rejecting them I was rejecting life itself. It took me the better part of two decades to realize the truth of G.K. Chesterton's remarks that the 'men and women who, for good reasons and bad, revolt against the family, are, for good reasons and bad, simply revolting against mankind. Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind … .' "

Ultimately, after Shapiro and his Irish wife divorced, the poet married a Jewish woman. The title of his essay collection refers to his son's bris, where all his once-reviled, now beloved, Jewish relatives had gathered.

"I thought of how remarkable it was that I was here again," Shapiro recalled, "back home after nearly 20 years of wandering, a middle-class American Odysseus disguised not as a beggar, but as the next best thing, a university professor."

'Love, Fill Our Eyes'

The arc of that voyage had ended in one of the most moving moments in all of recent literature.

Shapiro's new and quite beautiful book of poems, Tantalus in Love, published by Houghton Mifflin, comes bearing unhappy news. It begins with the desolution of a marriage, and though I know full well that readers, especially critics, aren't supposed to confuse the created work with the creator's biography, these skillfully autobiographical poems made me mourn for the death of what I imagine was the marriage to his Jewish wife so movingly portrayed in The Last Happy Occasion.

Tantalus in Love even reinforces the representative nature of Shapiro's life. The modern world is filled with failed marriages - in fact, it seems like a failed marriage is de rigueur if people wish to call themselves contemporary and truly modern. But this new tightly knit group of poems speaks of the poet's representativeness in yet another way as well. From the ashes of this failed relationship, Shapiro charts the blossoming yet again of love. And nothing is more true to the life we know today than the flowering of love in middle age. Shapiro, to his credit, avoids all the possible clichés that might have cropped up along the way.

My only regret - and it is extra-literary - is that because these are poems, there are none of the autobiographical details that filled The Last Happy Occasion. And so I'm not certain if Shapiro - or his poetic alter-ego - has fallen for another Jewish woman. Being a Jewish journalist is sometimes akin to being a Jewish mother. I would have rested more easily knowing the truth.

But this lack of specifics won't mar your enjoyment of these effortlessly executed poems. And though the book begins in despair, with anger and misunderstanding, we are never unaware of the fact that this book will end in exultation. And that's because it begins with an "Invocation."

"Days pass and years vanish,
and we sleep - walk blind
among miracles. Love, fill our eyes
all up with seeing!

Let there be never again
a moment in which
your sudden shining isn't
sudden as it rends

the dark we walk in. Make us
see no matter where
we gaze that the bush burns
unconsumed.

And we, the spun clay, will
rise to a receding
holiness and sing, as it
recedes, How filled with awe

this place is, and we did not
know it."

This ecstasy - definitely sensual, but also spiritual - doesn't arrive, until the poet withstands the torture of a love that's withered, of the uncommunicative despair of a marriage on the skids. After 20 years, it seems to the doubting husband that his wife no longer desires him (which is the subject of the title poem, as well as "Anger" and "Takeoff," to mention only three) and his uncertainty grows into despair, then into deep sorrow.

In part two of the volume, the poet meets another woman and they tentatively make their way toward one another. The ebb and flow of this relationship is charted in poems like "Cape Ann," "Lookout," and especially in "Ghost Watch," where these lines appear:

"[I]t was the blood surge and the rising
heat, the flurry and grasp and
cry of entering deeper into one
another that drove the ghosts off,
that harried them from us - dead
husband and ex-wife, and the lovers
before them, and before the lovers
even the gorgon shadow of parental
hovering - gone in the little
clearing that our passion made … ."

The tentative movement toward understanding is charted in all its complexity in part two, until we read in part three, these exultant words in the poem "Iris," where the loved one is likened to a flower that obviously bears her name. In this delicate poem, as in so many others in the book, you experience - literally feel - joy as it has been expressed by few other contemporary writers.

"Love flower of the middle-aged,
the interanimating pain
and beauty in the way the stalk
bends under the unexpected weight
of the still uncrumpling gaudy tissue
of the newest blossom …
how did I ever live without you?
How could I ever let you go?"

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