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In the Presence of Genius

New and Selected Poems (1965-2006)
By David Shapiro
The Overlook Press, 240 pages, $21.95.

What is there to say? Prodigious, brilliant, David Shapiro has lived in many worlds of art, including music and painting. Shapiro is also the author of four books of criticism: on poet John Ashbery, and on artists Jim Dine, Jasper Johns and Piet Mondrian. In total, there are 20 books to his name, including translations, editions, and collaborations with painters and poets and philosophers and aestheticians. But poetry is at the center of his work — not poetry simply as a formal activity, but as a way of thinking and a way of feeling, and even of being. This new collection is a chance to look back at the published work of the past 40 years, since it includes a selection from his previous nine books, and a sheaf of new poems.

Reading these poems together in one volume is a pleasure and a gift, especially as some of the books are now out of print. One is in the presence of a genius, clearly. That is the first thing to say, however damaging — for “genius” is a word rubbed raw, an overused word that now means nothing. A poet of genius, but we are not in a time of genius for poetry. We are in a different kind of time: We want the facts; we want the news. And to add to Shapiro’s troubles, he is a “Jewish poet” on top of everything else, or beside everything else, or under everything else — not in any pious way, but as a context and atmosphere that makes these poems feel very much at home to those who know the strangely intense intimacy of the intellectual Jewish family, and the strange humor of Jewish joking. But joking is not always appreciated in the poetry world, which is full of stiffs and high-minded twits and foolish courtiers.

Shapiro is also a “New York” poet, even a “New York School poet,” oddly the youngest of that generation of the late 1950s, though also their contemporary. That is, already at the age of — what? — 13, 14, 15, Shapiro was producing poems of an order of like quality with poets 30 years older. He was, simply put, precocious. “Precocious” is the word for a poet whose first major book, “January,” came out in 1965 before he was 20; in fact, two books came out before he left Columbia University as an undergraduate. “Precocious,” too, is the word for a baby with a toy violin in his crib, a young boy forced to practice for hours in the bathroom each day, and so he never exactly grew up and never stopped loving children. (Shapiro, with Kenneth Koch, helped create the poetry in the schools movement in the 1970s — and this volume includes poems that Shapiro wrote in collaboration with his son, Daniel, at various times in his childhood.)

As a child, Shapiro became a professional violinist, so in his poetry, then, along with the Jew and the New York, and the child, is also the music. He is the most musical of our poets, and hence of course he isn’t understood straight on, as music isn’t understood — because who the hell would try to understand music unless that person were bent on politics or explanatoriness or some other sin against real poetry? And Shapiro is a real, pure poet, and this book of “new and selected poems” is right now our best access to that purity, which is music or aspires to it.

Not to say that Shapiro’s works are ethereal; though many of them are decidedly lofty, they are also oddly rooted in the most mundane situations, especially the mess of the family. In one sense, Shapiro is a poet of the Jewish family: his mother, father, sister, wife and son are frequent characters. In “A Family Slide,” stanzas of four lines each guide us through what is ostensibly a family “slideshow” — with a game of charades mixed in. The poem creates a hilarious family interaction tinged with sadness. The clever way his lines bend in more than one direction rhymes with the guessing that goes on in the dark about the ambiguous slides (which may be reversed or upside down or out of order), or the guessing of a word:

Stupendous horrendous tremendous.
And the fourth word is — hazardous!
Hazardous! hazardous! hunh! Everybody had a hint!
Just remember Mother had the same hint!

(“A Family Slide”)

But the anecdote for Shapiro is always just a metonym: It is the first note of a scale that Shapiro plays up and down, lifting us out of the scene and gently back into it, always lightly, lightly. Or the anecdote is an example or instance of a much larger pattern, the way Newton’s apple is also a theory of gravity — and in Shapiro’s case, the poem is always teaching us about poetry, which we begin to understand is also an ambiguous slideshow of vivid images subject to multiple misinterpretations that we sort out and place in a new kind of narrative as we become part of the poem’s world and read into it, bending the lines this way or that, though as the dyspeptic mother — a definite character along with the disapproving father — reminds us:

The bending reed won’t break they say
But mother says, “If you bend it enough in the same place it may.”

Is it surprising that a poet who is musical also dreams of flying? Many of Shapiro’s poems are dreamlike and often based on dreams, including one very strange poem in which the lines of a sestina appeared before his eyes as a gift from his dead mother “in lines of/color like a magic marker on a lake.” In “Father Knows Best” is a dream of flying, and in flying dreams, there’s always a trick to get aloft:

Then Father realizes son must enclose but a few electrons of air in his fist
Then son flies high above the family garage and trees, branch by branch

(“Father Knows Best”)

Dreams of flying are usually feelings of mastery, autonomy, self-sufficiency. But in this case, the trick of flying is not possessed fully by the son but is somehow in the hands of the father, too. The son can fly — but the father doubts it again and again.

This is the drama of the gifted child in hyperspace, the drama of the child of a very intense Jewish family with a peculiar set of demands: a) the child must be a doctor, b) the child must be a concert violinist and c) (this is the surprising part) the child must be a leftist fighting for social justice for all. With all these parental demands, no wonder the child takes flight — but is there any escape?

There are no umbrellas, there are only frosty parachutes,
Little angels who instruct him how to fly.
He must not struggle too much with his hands,
Which having practised the violin now dog-paddle in air.
The poet can fly — he can lift us up with his imagery. Or can he? There always seems to be some doubt in the poems:
The family now knows he can fly, but still father knows best.

Shapiro’s poems are levitations, magical and incantatory, or they are physics experiments that are also dreams, and so when they seem most airy or insubstantial (falling leaves, floating above the garage), they sneak up behind you and surprise you with meaning as if you had suddenly been illuminated from behind, or walked “at the bottom of a waterfall, awake in anechoic chambers.”

How lovely to learn that all the time we were reading him:

We have been sailing in a certain small fountain,
like physicists in toy boats
Each craft bears a candle on its deck. We light the
candles and the boats puff by
As if you were real, delightful…

(“About This Course”)

His poems are delicately, gracefully personal, but always he touches with a light touch. And it is so easy for him to take flight, to float off, just a newspaper headline will do it:

Part of the universe is missing
Sings or says the newspaper, and I believe it.

(“The Lost Golf Ball”)

And this simple lyrical trick of “sings or says” — shows how Shapiro even in plainness is always hearing that the whole world is singing. That is, he hears the music behind the words, or within the words. It is a condition he is partly resigned to, along with the sense that a few notes are always unheard of:

Part of the universe is missing
Sings or says the newspaper, and I believe it.
Even most of it. As tape runs out of a typewriter. Big surprise:
And it won’t do to go looking for holes
Or changes in the constitution of matter
Like a rare jewel in a crossword puzzle

(“The Lost Golf Ball”)

For Shapiro, a cosmological theory becomes intensely personal and personally realized, because as in music, every note is connected to every other one, from the highest to the lowest:

Part of the universe is missing. Missing!
Is this our bedroom or a planetarium?

(“The Lost Golf Ball”)

The tone is comic and serious — his poems are rigorous and playful, like the best music — but his poems are also, as I said, both dream and physics experiment. The physics in his poems are definitely quantum mechanics centered on an emotional uncertainty principle: “Is this our bedroom or a planetarium?” is a sensible question. In Shapiro’s work anything can happen — and yet everything is also determined within some probability curve that is entirely satisfying once you tune in to his wavelength. Shapiro surprises and delights us because in his work, the unexpected could have been expected if only we had been brilliant enough — but he is.

So in a simple poem he dreams of his grandfather Cantor Berel Chagy who “emerges/in a synagogue/with familiar accents/unlike his noble voice….”

He marches down the aisle
with a blue white crown
Women ask questions and they are charmed
and he is beloved>like….

I would wager that no reader could guess the word that comes next.

The grandfather is “beloved like…” I had to stop at the next word and feel a long time to get what this would mean. Just as in our time we take so much delight in going back to the roots of words to understand them, so this grandfather who is at the ancestral root of so much of Shapiro’s saying and singing, appearing oddly in a dream, is beloved, yes, “like etymology.”

In quantum physics a particle doubles back and loops through two slits at once, or appears to communicate impossibly with another particle, and so in the field of Shapiro’s imagination, words do all sorts of impossible tricks with their wave-particle duality, while remaining in the enchantment of music, an enchantment made only more beautiful by Shapiro’s constant rest note of doubt. Shapiro is very Jewish in his self-doubt, and very self-assured and comfortable and funny in it, too; he doesn’t fall into the black hole of nihilism, but instead energy (singing and saying) flows out of it:

I wanted to start Ex Nihilo
I mean as a review of sorts.

(“To an Idea”)

The second line makes a nice joke in case we were taking the first line too seriously, but ex nihilo (“out of nothing”) is also where his project begins. Starting from nothing — entertaining the possibility of nothing, of damage, of meaninglessness — may be “too much of a burst for some,/too unanalyzably simple for others” but for Shapiro it is almost a glory, “to know nothing,/to taste something, dazzled by absence….”

Rodger Kamenetz edited Psalm 151 for the Forward from 2000 to 2005. His latest book of poems is “The Lowercase Jew” (Northwestern, 2003). His new book, “The History of Last Night’s Dream” will be published by Harper One in October.


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