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Hapax Legomena

I covered you and cover you I covet you and uncover you My dream intent to discover you seems clear as a snowflake dresses you and undresses you an orange hand on your breast unless it’s you a purple simple hand on your hand is less than you you covered and recovered you Drinking water —

Sampling station — A Polaroid at night of trees on fire: words written only once — words used only once — your naked face the origin of the world You spit into the ocean and make it sweet for me



To begin with, the title of David Shapiro’s poem is a scholar’s term for a word used but once in the Bible and whose meaning, therefore, always has remained somewhat mysterious. For the poet, the association is more familiar because of his grandfather, the well-known Jewish composer and cantor Berele Chagy.

“I became obsessed over the years with the song my Grandpa sang from Psalms called ‘Michtam Le David,’ where no one knows Michtam or Tohu Bohu,” he said in an interview with the Forward.

The love of what’s rare and strange is this poet’s natural gift; this lovely “Andalusian love lyric,” as the poet describes it, is at once an homage to physical love, to visual art, to the music of poetry and to the poet’s love for words. This marriage of the arts is the story of Shapiro’s life. Born in 1947 in Newark, N.J., to a medical and musical family, he was a child prodigy as a violinist and as a poet. By the age of 15, he had met most of the painters and poets of the New York School, and before graduating from Columbia University, he published two books of poetry, “January” (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1965) and “Poems From Deal” (EP Dutton & Co., Inc. 1969). After receiving a First Honors as Kellett Fellow at Cambridge University (Clare College) he received his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1973.

Shapiro’s last five books from Overlook Press are “Lateness,” “To an Idea,” “House (Blown Apart),” “After a Lost Original” and “A Burning Interior.” He is currently a tenured art historian at William Paterson University and also teaches at Cooper Union. He wrote the first book on Jim Dine’s work, the first book on Jasper Johns’s drawings and the first study of Piet Mondrian’s flower paintings (all published by Abrams.)

On the surface, “Hapax Legomena” can be read as a love lyric, though underneath there are references to a painting owned by the French psychiatrist and philosopher Jacques Lacan, which had a Gustave Courbet work painted underneath it; the last line refers to a phrase in the Koran. But the joy in the poem is at many levels: Shapiro has not abandoned the music of poetry, and this one needs to be read out loud and possibly sung:

as a snowflake dresses you and undresses you

an orange hand on your breast unless it’s you

a purple simple hand on your hand is less than you

Which is more lovely — the playful musical variation on undress/unless/is less, or the painterly movement in colors from white to orange to purple? Shapiro’s poems, at their best, touch the sweet spot of creativity where music, painting and poetry emerge as one. They are themselves rare and unique, like “words written only once —/words used only once—.” But at their core there is always a sweetness that gets uncovered, discovered, as when, in the last two lines of this poem, he acknowledges what is vast and various and, with a magical gesture, makes it sweet for us.

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