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Book Review

'Old War' makes connections amid crises

Poet Alan Shapiro writes about love and family. Poet Alan Shapiro writes about love and family. (John Rosenthal)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter Campion
July 10, 2008

Old War
By Alan Shapiro
Houghton Mifflin, 89 pp., $22

There's a moment in Elizabeth Bishop's great poem "The Moose" when the poet, drifting off during a bus ride, hears the chatter from the seats behind her merging with the voices of grandparents "talking, in Eternity." That haunted borderline could be where Alan Shapiro writes from. In his poems, the quotidian realm of family gossip and jokes shades over into the otherworldly. Like those ghosts in the Bishop poem who return to discuss "what he said, what she said . . . deaths, deaths and sicknesses," Shapiro believes in the necessity of stories themselves, in their power to offer crucial connection, however tenuous.

What makes Shapiro so important to American poetry right now is the success with which he's taken over the territory of fiction writers. While his poems maintain the compression and intensity of lyric, they also open to the twists and bursts of colloquial American speech, that mongrel medium with which we craft our lives together.

His new collection, "Old War," displays these strengths in poem after poem. At the center of the book lies the poet's desire to maintain love and family in the midst of crisis. This tumult includes the early deaths of both the poet's siblings, his recent divorce, and the national conflict that his title suggests. He works not necessarily to overcome such predicaments but to understand them, to experience them more fully so that they become occasions for vital response.

In the poem "News Conference," for example, which he structures as a fugal series of questions and answers, he breaks through those often-numbing forms of media transmission. His poem offers a more disturbing, but also truer, link between the war in the Middle East and us who live on the other side of it. In "Night," a poem in which his deceased brother returns in a dream, the darkness itself becomes a third presence shadowing the brothers, an embodiment of all that was left unsaid between them. At such moments, the poems gain force for being unresolved. Instead of providing an escape from suffering, they offer renewal through engagement with suffering.

Much of the thrill of "Old War" comes from the sheer variety of this new work. In the second section, Shapiro sets himself up for spontaneity by naming almost all the poems with one word, and using that word as the beginning of the first sentence. He titles his third section "From The Book of Last Thoughts," and in each of these poems a new character speaks from the border between life and death. The characters include a country-western singer, a Jewish comic, and language itself.

Some of the strongest poems in the book are love poems, written from the early days of a new marriage. In "Bower" the shadows of husband and wife mingle with those of the branches outside their country retreat: "stirred and lifted / on the lifting / scrim between what's / near and far, / inside and out, / all held now / and slowly moving / toward the sudden rush / of downpour and / love cry becoming / bird call sifting / in the plush dripping / of the downpour's / aftermath."

The sinuous, elongated sentence contrasts here with the beautifully plain register of speech. This is characteristic of Shapiro: His poems are both artful and unpretentious.

In the early 1990s, Shapiro published an essay titled "In Praise of the Impure." It was a momentous publication for American poetry, since it celebrated the ways that poetic forms could accommodate the kind of narratives we know from prose fiction and essays. Shapiro wrote specifically of the power of stories to identify "our provisional position as individuals and cultures in relation to unknown origins and unknown, unknowable ends." These are the very terms of Shapiro's own poetry. "Old War" shows his success in this endeavor, his sheer accomplishment in making lyric art from the stories we tell one another as we confront the unknown.

Peter Campion is the author of a collection of poems, "Other People," and teaches at Auburn University.

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