David Shapiro: The Poemby Maxwell Heller
David Shapiro, New and Selected Poems (The Overlook Press,1965–2006)
David Shapiro’s New and Selected Poems (1965-2006) forgoes the formality of frontmatter and commences without introduction; but perhaps no introduction is necessary. From the first halting syllables of “January” to the sonorous phrases of “Burning Interior,” each piece explains itself fully, citing sources of inspiration, announcing intentions, and guiding us through the chaos of its postmodern aesthetic. The poems perform self-consciously, acknowledging the reader’s presence by addressing us with plainspoken musings about their own complexity. In this sense, Shapiro indulges our voyeuristic appetites—he invites us to watch as his work reveals and explores itself, a display presented both for our benefit and its own.
Shapiro’s candid relationship with the reader suggests Brechtian influence. Speaking to us directly through passages concerning poetic tactics, he prevents our slipping into a passive state by inviting conscious, critical analysis. Like Brecht, he utilizes an “alienation effect,” heightening audience awareness of his work’s artificial nature by highlighting, rather than concealing, his presence as artist / creator. “Nobody is the boss of God / Not me not you… / God orders himself / To do what he wants,” he writes, “I am the boss of this poem / I wrote it.” Shapiro does not aim to mirror God’s world in his work, but to become the god of a new, overtly artificial world that we examine for its own value. As in Brechtian theatre, we the audience do not feel invited to “have the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place,” and so we approach each poem not as a window through which to view the world, but as a work of art, that is to say, as a product of our culture’s aesthetic discourse and Shapiro’s individual creative process. Our interest is directed towards Shapiro’s singular method of portraying life, not towards life itself.
But despite his alienation tactics, Shapiro’s collection stops short of fully rejecting empathy. As Brecht suggests, the alienated audience remains detached from the viewed art piece, but still empathizes and identifies with the author himself, since both author and audience share the experience of “being an observer.” We do not empathize with Shapiro’s fictionalized characters, but we do share in Shapiro’s feelings—his fetishistic reverence for books, his appreciation for the physical luxuries of print—and when he revels in his experience of the written word, we follow suit. “The page is not a deep wood / nor is it a wooded ravine / nor is it a log though it is a slight cavity / lined with moss and sometimes the leaves of your hair,” he writes, “The little page swallowed me up / whole and crushed me afterwards.” Shapiro’s delight in the consuming pleasure of poetry inspires profound empathy. He does not withhold too much, as the voice of Walter Benjamin warns in Shapiro’s “A Lost Poem,” but instead heeds Aeschylus (quoted in “The Devil’s Trill Sonata”) when he asks that we “say whatever comes to our lips, whatever it may be; or perhaps…what’s on the tip of our tongue.” Shapiro makes his presence known to us that we might observe his human progress while observing the progress of his work. As Brecht writes, “the narrator is no longer missing,” and through him we enjoy an intimacy with his art that would otherwise be impossible.
Wallace Stevens wrote that “poetry is the subject of the poem,” and this certainly holds true in New and Selected Poems. Shapiro writes poetry about poetry. As a result, his collection maintains a consistent tone throughout its forty-year span, and though it occasionally grapples with emotional subject matter, it always keeps a sharp, analytical eye on its own nature. “The violin back in its case / of itself, was playing the piece / correctly” Shapiro writes, “It played along and is playing / by and of and for itself.” Shapiro’s collection, too, plays by, of, and for itself. To return momentarily to the subject of voyeurism: the poems seem so absorbed in themselves, that the reader seeks to observe rather than engage.
And yet Shapiro offers more than a detached examination of poetic techniques. In passing, he mentions “a poet of grammar / and a love poet” who “showed the re- / lationship between grammar / and love. When he perturbed / syntax he seemed to in- / vert? reinvent? universe? / the possibilities of love / by making so many multiple / relations possible.” Shapiro is this poet, using his precise linguistic skill to re-imagine language or culture, but he is also a poet of images. As God of his poems, he creates a uniquely topsy-turvy world populated by oddly distorted icons of Western culture and amorphous, unattainable muses. Past and present bleed into one another—Orestes and Antigone appear as neighborhood children throwing bits of dirt across the street, Socrates casually speaks of a “fabulous affair”—ancient voices speak to modern angst. Shapiro’s poems alternately collapse and expand space, allowing us to observe a dying hornet, “weighed on a Baker’s Doughnut Scale” in one moment, before providing a view of Earth as an apple seed and Neptune as “a pea about a mile away.” When academic concerns fall away, Shapiro allows his poems to explore what they will. “Oh page I walk about the ground / searching for food and the like,” he writes, “But you have no special interests / scattered rather than concentrated / with a secret like that of the sparrow.” Despite Shapiro’s sense of godly agency within the creative realm, he acknowledges poetry’s power to take its own direction, to lead and toy with poets, to remain untamed and mysterious. These moments of surrender allow him to abandon the self-conscious voice and create passages that simultaneously capture external landscape and internal experience all at once. “High above the invigorated gulf the air walks down its own road. / And sister jumps up in a dual column of wind,” he writes, “Inside, Mother serves breakfast; the bluejay gulps at the feeding station. / The family now knows he can fly, but still father knows best.” These vast images, more than Shapiro’s analysis of poetry as a protean art form, make up the greatest achievements of the collection.