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Song and Dance: Poems
Houghton Mifflin, $22 (cloth)
From his history-centered debut, After the Digging, through the five conventionally confessional books that followed (1984’s The Courtesyto 2000’s The Dead Alive and Busy), Alan Shapiro has taken Robert Lowell as his primary model. Although accomplished, Shapiro’s previous books have lacked, or missed, the mark of greatness that graced much of Lowell’s work—the seemingly ineluctable meshing of style and subject—but this situation has changed with Shapiro’s seventh collection, Song and Dance. A book in which each poem is memorable, the style necessary and particular to each poem, the language consistently doing the work required by the subject matter, Song and Dance would be a rare achievement in any era. And the subject matter here—the deterioration and death of the poet’s brother, Broadway actor David Shapiro, due to brain cancer—poses extraordinary difficulties for an autobiographical poet. There are so many predictable emotions, reactions, and scenes to navigate, relay, and (attempt to) transform. Yet Shapiro is unpredictable (his emotional responses include rage, resentment, and shame as well as affection, sadness, and pity), and he succeeds in honoring both his brother and his artistic medium—language—in this book.
Song and Dance shows how poetic style can do far more than adorn subject matter: it informs and augments the poems’ subjects. In the introduction to his book of essays In Praise of the Impure: Poetry and the Ethical Imagination, Shapiro argues that a poet’s “formal and stylistic choices . . . are fraught with extraliterary judgments, biases, commitments that have moral as well as aesthetic implications.” To him, “style in the broadest sense . . . is consciousness in action.” Hayden Carruth has written along similar lines, that poetic style is a manifestation of personality. Shapiro’s style in Song and Dance is a vehicle for both consciousness and personality. Some poems in the book evince a surface complexity reminiscent of Hart Crane, or more recently Mark Doty and Carl Phillips—a luxuriance that at first seems difficult to follow yet is actually lucid, well-controlled, and necessary, as in “The Accident”:
While it was happening,
not me of it, the all
of a sudden see-
through whir of wings beside me
that the late sun
just as I looked up
turned to a hovering
flash, a watery gray—
as the beak dipped into
a funnel of blossom,
dipped and was gone, and not even
the blossom’s white
tip bent in its going . . .
“The Accident” juxtaposes the intense physicality of a hummingbird and the consolations of song with the accident of the poem’s title—a nurse dropping the poet’s brother in the bathroom, inadvertently stripping him of his hospital gown in the process:
so that he lay there naked,
beloved singers, tricksters
of solace, if
you had known this, seen
this, as I did not,
you would have offered him
destitution, no fire-
or blab about death as being
luckier than one
supposes. You would have bowed
your heads, you would
have silently slipped back
into the shadows
out of which you surged forth,
singing to me.
The sadness and humiliation here trump song, demanding silence instead. Of course it is ironic that the poet, who has produced a resolutely musical book, should call for silence, but the gesture seems neither forced nor insincere with Shapiro.
A book in which joy is “what never comes when called” yet is what makes the “savagely beautiful” possible (“Joy”), Song and Dancepresents an edgy ambivalence. Poetry occurs in this book only through extreme suffering, yet Shapiro never becomes melodramatic, sentimental, or otherwise self-serving in these poems. Conscious of the stage on which his confessionalism places him, he acknowledges that he has a part to play and a script to memorize and recite. But because he is a poet he interprets lines differently than his brother does. In “Broadway Revival,” his brother’s adeptness at acting only highlights the poet’s inadequacy:
Wasn’t this your
stage, your part,
home, you liked to say, where speech
and movement dance and
you were most
at ease, a natural,
most truly who
when you were someone else?
I whispered through clenched
tell me my lines.
The poem becomes “another script in which / my lines were these, and yours your silence.” Unlike many traditional lyrical poems, the poems in Song and Dance do not focus primarily on the poet, on his perceptions and thoughts; rather, they occur within family and other social groups, recognizing the importance not only of the familial bond but also of the “inexorable autonomous / machinery of obligations // that displace us even as / they make us who we are” (“Scan”). Shapiro does not offer monologues or narratives but poetic dramas in which multiple voices are allowed on the stage.
Despite the self-absorption encouraged by the autobiographical mode, Shapiro demonstrates astonishing empathy throughout the book. In “The Big Screen” he attempts to fully understand his dying brother’s suffering, acknowledging the possibility that the process of dying empties what is human from the human body:
What did it mean, the moaning? Or could you even
call it a moan, what bore no trace of a voice
we could recognize as his?
Was there even a his by then? Or was it only
a sound, mere sound of the body becoming a thing,
a spasm, a mere electrical event?
What might seem like skepticism ends up as affirmation because of the poet’s commitment to honesty. Similarly, the poem “Three Questions” (which asks “What was it like to see him die?” “Was he ready to die?” and “Was he at peace?”) provides answers that initially seem bleak if not devastating in their agnosticism, but they emerge as starkly beautiful in their refusal to be buoyed by faith or false optimism. There is nothing dignified about dying, Shapiro implies, and when the body becomes “at one / and the same time pleasure dome and torture chamber, / prisoner and cell and cell wall” (“To the Body”), there is nothing dignified about pretending otherwise.
“Last Impressions,” a series of short paragraphs that portray the brother’s irreverent wit, closes the book. Because the brother is fond of doing impressions, the title of the piece simultaneously describes his constant acting and gives the poet’s own final impressions of his brother and the disease that killed him. In this way Shapiro offers a combination of the secular and the eschatological, the cancer always in view yet constantly pelted with humor. Indeed, these vignettes manage to capture the vivacity that marked his brother’s life. But Shapiro is too angry and too tormented by questions to let humor set the final tone, so in the piece’s last two paragraphs he keeps pushing for answers:
So if your cancer was the gravity that pulled you every moment down into the isolating black hole of your dying, could the impressions, comebacks, quips, the little shuffle-off-to-Buffaloes you’d do for the nurses after each examination, even after the last one—two days later you’d be paralyzed—could all that comedy have been the grace that kept you here among us where you could go on being the comedian, the singer in the revels, joking as if your life depended on it?
But where’s the rage in that? The rage that ran through all the voices, all the manic shtick, the refusal not to be funny—“Death, where is thy sting-a-ling?”—as if the cancer wanted all the jokes to end, as if the cancer weren’t a random spin of the genetic wheel, . . . but a character from Central Casting, . . . a puckerbutted Pooh-Bah in a white tuxedo on a busy corner hailing a cab, and your Jerry Lewis’s “LAAAADY” or your Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Dis is not a tuma!” is the cab that doesn’t stop but roars by through a puddle that sprays the immaculate white suit black with muck?
The propulsive, overly long sentences contribute to the urgency girding the poet’s voice, a voice that embraces humor but is too ravaged by grief to embody humor itself. Shapiro’s seriousness is not solemnity—the poems in this book do not allow for high-mindedness or convenient emotion—and his grief is not melodrama. With its masterful handling of emotions, style, and subject matter, Song and Dance creates an enduring document of one man’s death and his brother’s response to it, jolting the confessional mode out of its complacency and setting a new standard in the process.
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