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by Jason Shinder
Graywolf Press, $15 (paper)
In April 2008 Jason Shinder—poet, editor, and founder of the YMCA National Writer’s Voice— succumbed to lymphoma and leukemia at the age of 52. “Cancer is a tremendous opportunity,” he said, “to have your face pressed right up against the glass of your mortality.” This insight may help explain why his posthumous third collection, Stupid Hope—assembled by four close friends from manuscript drafts—has been hailed as his strongest. The shadow of death lends these poems urgency and poignancy and even poses invigorating challenges to the poet’s craftsmanship and invention. Shinder’s great theme was the pleasures and tribulations of the body, and many of the poems in Stupid Hope explore a tension between youthful sexual exuberance and the body’s inevitable decline. “Living,” one of the book’s most memorable poems (and the one from which the collection draws its title) describes a moment when the speaker’s sister rubs their dying mother’s feet, and the mother thanks her with “the one or two words the living have for gratefulness; / which is a kind of forgetting.” The speaker himself feels only what he acknowledges as the “stupid hope” that love can protect us from sickness and the finality of death. Isolation becomes a motif, as the speaker alternately embraces and fears the forces that would cut him off from the world: “I’ve been avoiding my illness / because I’m afraid // I will die and when I do, / I’ll end up alone again.” Shinder faces death with pathos, but without sentimentality or self-pity; in his self-apostrophe “At Sunset,” he assures himself, “You have nothing to be sad about.” Stupid Hope’s strange, often dazzling similes (“I keep looking at the waves swaying in the wind // like a metronome, wired for the sound of a sleeping heart”) suggest a new, confident direction in Shinder’s poetics that leaves us wondering where he would have taken us next.
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