December 22, 2011

A Seasonal Poem About Vermin

I'm still plugging away at my novel, The Books of Babel. Writing a novel is sort of like swimming out from the shore into the open ocean. When you start, it's shallow and warm and easy to kick your feet. You're eager and full of energy. You experiment with your strokes. You swim in zigzags. Maybe you float for a while and let the current carry you. The romping goes on for a hundred pages or so. 

Suddenly, you realize you're exhausted and the water is deep, and the shore is so receded, it's become invisible.  But you have no choice: you have to swim back to the shore. And so you begin writing the second half of the novel.

I'm still at a loss for a good seasonal poem, but for those of you who don't live in a hermetically sealed suburban mansion, I offer the following poem:

Holiday Inn
The katydids are the first to shut up and go.
Soon, the flies get tired of window-shopping;
the spiders take down their tents. It is winter. 

I unpack our slippers and bleed the radiators.
The wind moves in and riffles through our things. 
We make fog in our empty Coney Island of quilts. 
But in April, when the first fly taps the walls 
of our kitchen, attentive as a fire marshal, 
and a new spider opens a deli in the skylight,
I remember that our drafty window sills 
are an Ocean City to young ladybugs, our pantry 
is the Niagara Falls of honeymooning mice.

November 21, 2011

A New Site and a Poem

I've launched a new site which has more examples of my work, including a chapter from my new novel. The site is, and you can visit it here.

I've never written a poem about turkeys and reindeer, and so I have nothing of the season to offer you. Instead, here's a poem about a lost dog.

Posted, Lost Dog

Friendly. Answers to Ernie.
Black spot on white back.
Whines when cornered.
Hind left leg missing. Short hair.

Disappeared near Spring and
Briarwood. Reward. Eats
out of bowls, hands, cones
of newspaper. Looks up.

Runs in his sleep. Catches
unreal cats and rabbits.
Barks when he wakes.
Wrestles with traffic and wins.

Has mud flap ears. No tags,
no collar. Is the world’s dog.
Has made off with wife.
Friendly. Answers to Sue.

October 24, 2011

A Poem

I wrote "All There" about the Invisible Man, who was one of the original super heroes, cursed and blessed by his powers. In Wells' book, the Invisible Man is driven mad by his invisibility and his desire to be visible again, but I wondered if the reverse couldn't be true, too. If the Invisible Man suddenly became visible, maybe he would turn paranoid and vain.

All There

The invisible man becomes visible
while picking up a paper
he has never paid for before
and the man at the newsstand
grabs the alien bird of his hand
and asks who he thinks he is.

 Suddenly he pollutes reflections
with the focal of his face, a face
shaved by feel and old about the eyes.
It is as if he wandered into a museum
only to find his figure slouched
in the forefront of every work. 

This new world with him all in it
forces him to pay for trains, forbids him
from sneaking into shows, and those
lonely women seeming to eat alone
no longer let him mime a romance,
or pick discreetly at their plates.

The constant Marco-Polo of looks
and glances has turned his slalom
through crowds into the creeping
of a maze. The old visibility, once 
miles long and wide as ocean sky,
his ability to see faces distinctly,

to perceive the personality of mobs,
all now impossible. He is unbelievably
small; man sized, almost, and the world
is as enormous as a city block.
He will walk through the rest of his life
as if a crowd of strangers follows behind.

First Published in the Cimarron Review

April 30, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop, Consultant in Poetry, 1949-'50

(My continuing series on the Consultants in Poetry, or Poet Laureate as the honor would later be known, continues here with the eighth Consultant, Elizabeth Bishop. I have generally focused my comments on her early work: those poems that appeared in North & South (1946) and A Cold Spring (1955) which were published around the time of her Consultantship.)

I've sometimes said that poets aren’t quoted for their craft. Craft might make a poet memorable, but if they are quoted, it’s because they had something useful to say. Elizabeth Bishop had a thing to say. She wasn't a didact, as Shapiro could be, or a scold as Tate sometimes seemed; instead, she was philosophical and astute and direct. In a time when the political, mystic and esoteric poem predominated, Bishop wrote apolitical and ontological poetry. While some previous Consultants in Poetry, such as Adams and Lowell, seemed to brick themselves inside obscure, imperious poetics, Bishop’s poetry feels liberated and sane and inclusive. She speaks to the weird business of living, the manner in which humanity thinks of nature and industry, the psychology of the new myths, and the cultural sprawl of America. Still, her ruminations never eclipsed her eloquence or her pristine, startling images. Bishop was as generous a poet as she was discerning. Over the course of her long career she published only four collections of poetry, though her Complete Poems (1979) includes several new pieces. At the time of her Consultantship in 1949, she had published just one collection of poetry, North & South, which included the oft anthologized poems “The Fish” and “Love Lies Sleeping.”

As a reader who generally focuses on a poet’s voice, I often overlook tone. I don’t think I’m alone in this; the twentieth century is littered with voice-poets: personas that exercise themselves in some poetic form. Bishop, in comparison, is often a poet of tones. The tone of her poems swings from guileless to yogic; it vacillates from devastation to elation, from cordial to cold. The tonal shifts of her poem fill them with sincerity as we sense her exploration and discovery, even as we experience our own. The force of her poem “The Imaginary Iceberg” is largely the result of the modulation of her tone. Take, for example, the following three excerpts:

We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship,
although it meant the end of travel.
This is a scene a sailor’d give his eyes for.
Icebergs behoove the soul
(both being self-made from elements least visible)
to see them so: fleshed, fair, erected indivisible.

Beginning on a playfully petulant note, her tone then becomes gruff before resolving, finally, upon a sermonic almost officious affectation. This sort of movement is common in her poems, and is much more impressive to me than the ventriloquist poet who makes all the world speak in his voice.

But it is her use of image that most distinguishes Bishop. Her ability to draw on the familiar, the totem, to create something vivid and new is remarkable. For example, it seems every Modernist had to eventually immortalize some ugly aspect of modern industrialization: a glowering factory or bank of smog. Many poets have drawn easy lines connecting smoke-stacks to Dante's Inferno, or Mars' forge, painting industry as an inevitable, inhuman burden. But Bishop sees a reflection of our own physiology in the industrial scene she describes in her poem "Varick Street."

At night the factories
struggle awake,
wretched uneasy buildings
veined with pipes
attempt their work.
Trying to breathe,
the elongated nostrils
haired with spikes
give off such stenches, too.

The effect of this image is the content of the poem. The connection she draws between humanity and our industry is profound, especially given the proliferation of poems that cast industry as hellish and nightmarish: an otherworldly thing that imposes on our consciences, but which is somehow removed from us. Bishop sees no such distance. Rather than adopting the common moral posture or the conservationist's position, Bishop characterizes industry as part of us, part of the flawed us:

...The presses
print calendars
I suppose; the moons
make medicines
or confectionery. Our bed
shrinks from the soot
and hapless odors
hold us close.

Bishop's eloquence never takes license with clarity. In a genre that allows for, and often excuses, so make fakery and fury, Ms. Bishop never defers to the lyric or the language or the gesture. Her poems are not coy, her sentiments are not vague, her scenes, not ephemeral. This last quality is especially impressive considering the imagination of many of her scenes. Particularly in her early works, Bishop's poems often have a fantastical or metaphysical element to them. Her poem "The Man-Moth" is as inventive as it is tangible in its description of a subterranean urban creature.

Up the facades,
his shadow dragging like a photographer's cloth behind him,
he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage
to push his small head through that round clean opening
and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light.
(Man, standing below him, has no such illusions.)

This poem, and a few others, read like the genesis of a myth. What could, in the hands of a lesser talent, devolve into genre writing, transcends because it is indifferent to formula. The conclusion of the poem, rather than revealing the meaning of the Man-Moth, focuses instead on our interrogation and exploitation of him. We are left to consider the place of the mythic in the new urban landscape and how our appetites betray us.

Bishop, a cultured and traveled poet, enjoyed society, but never deferred to it. Her poems about New York and fellow poets are jubilant and inclusive. Her description of Marianne Moore is frolicsome and bashful, silly and intimate, and it leaves the reader feeling fond of these humans and their friendship rather than awe-struck or overlooked. Bishop seems to have been aware of the privilege she enjoyed, and studiously avoided the tourist-pornography which is still popular today. Exotic locations and subjects were not, for her, an excuse to leave the reader behind in his or her dingy life. Rather, she took the opportunity to show the common features of nature and the universality of humanity. And while she was, perhaps, limited in her comprehension of poverty and lack, her attempts to capture the poor were not entirely dewey eyed or, conversely, stewed in misery. Her description of a rural bus in her poem "Cape Breton" (from Cold Spring) exemplifies her sharp-eyed empathy:

It passes the closed roadside stand, the closed schoolhouse,
where today no flag is flying
from the rough-adzed pole topped with a white china doorknob.
It stops, and a man carrying a baby gets off,
climbs over a stile, and goes down through a small steep meadow,
which establishes its poverty in a snowfall of daises,
to his invisible house beside the water.

In addition to her ability with image, Bishop was a master of the illustrative and narrative list. In "Roosters" and "Florida" she uses lists that are expansive, that open rather than summarize or narrow her subject. These are lists which cannot be completed but which are not unfinished. Sometimes her lists read like that manifest of a naturalist, but they are not only exercises nor catalogs. Her lists always add up to something, as is the case with "Faustina, or Rock Roses," where she describes an old woman:

It exposes the fine white hair,
the gown with the undershirt
showing at the neck,
the pallid palm-leaf fan
she holds but cannot wield,
her white disordered sheets
like wilted roses.

Clutter of trophies,
chamber of bleached flags!
-- Rags or ragged garments
hung on the chairs and hooks
each contributing its
shade of white, confusing
as undazzling.

I began this discussion of Bishop's work with the point that poets aren't recalled for their craft, and then I proceeded to expound on Ms. Bishop's craft: her tone, images, and manifests-- all of which were essential to the expression of her ideas, her meanings. It seems a contradiction, I realize, but I do not mean to suggest that craft is irrelevant or inferior to meaning; only that craft is insufficient in the same way that a maxim is insufficient. Lowell had much craft, but relatively little to tell the world. Shapiro had much to say, but his craft was sometimes not up to the task. Bishop possessed both craft and purpose, and so embodies the full potential of poetry: to delight and to reveal. Her poems fill me with hope and joy, not cheaply or blithely, but with circumspection and solidarity. All of which is exemplified in her boastful and fearful poem, "Insomnia:"

So wrap up care in a cobweb
and drop it down the well

into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.

March 31, 2011

Leonie Adams, Consultant in Poetry, 1948-'49

Leonie Adams penned three complete collections between 1925 and 1933, capping her career publishing poetry with a selection in 1954. She became the seventh Consultant in Poetry in 1948. Most generally, she was a formalist who produced carefully structured verse. Not the most productive of poets, Adams crafted densely lyrical poems which tended toward the metaphysical and the romantic at a time when social, political and autobiographical subjects were more in vogue. It may be fair to think of her as something of an anachronism: a modest rebirth of John Donne.

Poets commonly struggle to not replace exuberance with craft, and craft with habit. The poem that is well-crafted and habitual often becomes decorative: a production-line painting that hangs in the lobby of a chain hotel. Such poems are, of course, not immoral or without value, but like the hotel lobby painting, they are engineered to be flat and unobtrusive. Such work is lifeless because it has sprung from muscle memory. It is cynical because it privileges the craft and form over imagination, discovery, and communion with the reader.

If craft is then further compacted with the metaphysical, which bring additional limits to the poet’s scope, the poles of the poet may reverse entirely. As opposed to expressing, the poet begins to repress their sentiment, bob their tone, and box the subject. The sentiment becomes a grave and essential lesson on existence, which the reader has almost certainly misunderstood until now. The tone is weary yet stoic, pathetic yet entitled. The subject is a metaphorical conceit which generally dwells on eyes, celestial bodies, water in all its states, bells and horns, birds and snakes. Adams epitomizes just such a constrained and blinkered poet.

Adams seems unburdened by the desire to innovate. Her symbols, so essential to metaphysical poetry, have been filched wholesale from the tradition. She uses a cultivated and sterile vision of nature to animate her modest epiphanies. The result is austere and uninflected, and it this great indifference towards the art of writing that is often mislabeled “lyricism.”
Adams confuses poetic words for lyricism in the same manner that a children’s choir might confuse volume for pitch. In her poem “Words for the Raker of Leaves,” all of the following poetic saws appear: wending, wizening, gamboling, skein, rime-bedabbled, bloom-dappling, weft, autumnal, roseate, mouldered, climes, musing, pathos, beseechings, eyebeam, vistaed, and foredone. Of course, there is nothing verboten about any of these words (far be it for me to pluck a single word from the poet’s garden); rather it is their congestion that results in a general lyrical nausea.

While this profusion of purple language may be held as a talent by some readers, Adams further dapples her poems with tortuous syntax and Yoda-speak. From “Elegy Composed in Late March:”
More than the lovely who prevail?
But very love must know
By no perduring thing
Can this be known.
Though with attributes of marble,
It is mortal beauty
Never hewn in stone.
Readers are required to unravel the poem to access its sentiment. This act of unraveling undermines interpretation by emphasizing comprehension. Once the lines are puzzled out, the sentiment is prim enough, i.e.: the qualities of beauty endure, but all expressions of beauty are fleeting. But there is little else to be mined here. Adams often further tangles her work by a liberal interpretation of the rules of punctuation. The Elegy quoted above concludes:
To what they loved and destroyed,
Never had their fill of cherishing and would not save,
Even the gods fixed no star;
But more in sign
The rainbow’s meltings and the reed
And the slight narcissus gave.
It seems that Adams prized the melody of phrases over their clarity. In their prime, her poems have the quality of reels and ballads, but often the melody comes across as an incessant, tuneless humming rather than a captured phrase of music.
When subverting the meter of her form and stretching rhymes to their limit, Adams sounds hopelessly arcane, as evidenced by her poem “Thoughts on a Violet:”
For here the violet was
Still in the offering hand
That quarrelled after; then,
Early, a fragrance strayed
Withering from dead’s muff; and led
In traverse of mind’s subterfuge perfecter
And far, borne memoried beyond
The seasons told,
Shone, vegetative star,
Risen and passing, after the summers told,
The winter’s patience, lent,
Exchange of darkness, where the tread
Of yearning, still visitant,
Arched not to bruise an emblematic head.
The lines are devoid of ease and flow, scanning instead like a logic proof. Poetic belaboring of this kind is common in Adams’ work. Ultimately, many poems read like leaden light-verse.
In retrospect, it’s obvious that Allen Tate prematurely congratulated Robert Lowell for revitalizing the public’s interest in formal verse. And perhaps Adams was handed the laurel in an attempt to further elevate interest in the mode. But the resurgence of formal verse never really materialized, and the reasons for its popular falling off are complex. An increasingly pragmatic culture, the ubiquity of newspapers, and the proliferation of cheap paperback novels and comics likely all contributed to a change in the public’s taste. I sometimes pretend that ours is the first impatient generation, but perhaps verse’s requirement for lengthy reflection seemed to our grandparent’s unnecessarily tedious.

February 22, 2011

Robert Lowell, Consultant in Poetry, 1947-'48

(In this post I examine the early works of the poet, especially Lord Weary’s Castle, which was published just before he became the Consultant in Poetry.)

I admit to being rebuffed by Lowell. The lag between entries in my series on the Consultants in Poetry/Poet Laureates is the result of my repeatedly ricocheting off the surface of Lowell’s early catalog, especially the nut of Lord Weary’s Castle. To compensate for my critical inability, I broke with precedent and read several works of criticism. Most helpful were the critical essays compiled in Readings in Literary Criticism: 17, edited by Jonathan Price, which included critical essays by Lowell’s contemporaries Jarrell and Williams, among other notables. The revelations those essays provided were enlightening but ultimately not alleviating. To quote Price in his introduction:
This activity, this hard thinking about his verse, is what Lowell most wants; in his early works, he admits he almost consciously made his poems as difficult as possible, for just this reason.
In part, Lowell’s preference for the oblique seems to come from his community of New Critics, who hold that poetry resides in obscurity, clarity being a tenet of advertisement, the anti-poem. Compounding this expectation of “close reading” is Lowell’s preference for self-study. Perplexingly, Lowell seems to desire our scrutiny but not our understanding.

Robert Lowell became the Consultant in Poetry in 1947 a year after the publication of his second book, Lord Weary's Castle. Five of the poems in Lord Weary’s were revisions of poems from his first book, Land of Unlikeness, which opened with a bugle-call to critics penned by Allen Tate:
There is no other poetry today quite like this. T. S. Eliot’s recent prediction that we should soon see a return to formal and even intricate metres and stanzas was coming true, before he made it, in the verse of Robert Lowell.
Tate goes on to clear a critical and historic space for Lowell, the Catholic formalist, challenging readers to read his poems closely, patiently. Tate identifies Lowell as a frustrating talent, perhaps, but a rebellious alternative to the jingoist and the patriot poet who greeted, to quote Tate, “the advent of the slave-society.”

Tate seems to mistake Lowell’s rebelliousness for radicalism. While early in his career Lowell writes often about morality, war, corruption, and social inequality, very few of his meditations produce any insight or negotiation. Rather, his poems attempt to shame the reader into an undirected confrontation. From the concluding lines of “Christmas in Black Rock”:
O Christ, the spiraling years
Slither with child and manger to a ball
Of ice; and what is man? We tear our rags
To hang the Furies by their itching ears,
And the green needles nail us to the wall.
Often his poems conclude with similar little shocks; these are, as often as not, repelling gestures, the tough talk of a rebel.

Lowell’s flair for the acerbic turn in Lord Weary’s Castle may be attributable to his relative youth. Lowell came to the laurels early; before him, the average age of Consultants had been forty. Lowell was thirty when he came to the Consultantship. If there was a hub to the world of poetry in the 1940s, Lowell seems to have fixed himself upon it. Emerging from Kenyon College, and the tutelage of the New Critics, Lowell enjoyed the friendship of Elizabeth Bishop and the attention and hospitality of the Fugitives (a loose affiliation of southern poets that included the likes of Tate and Warren), and he quickly garnered the respect of critical notables such as Bogan, Berryman, and Jarrell. In 1947, Lord Weary’s was awarded the Pulitzer.

At the time of his Consultantship, Lowell’s poetry generally focused upon the subjects of the moral bankruptcy of Boston society (his hometown), his Catholic faith, and the immorality of modern warfare. Decoding Lowell’s poems may lead to minor epiphanies on the nature of the above subjects, but the sum of his early work doesn’t require deciphering. His accomplishment was a poetic effect of managed discord: a combination of the ironic and the devout, the gruesome image and the austere form.

Randall Jarrell offers an explanation of these elemental oppositions when he writes, “The poems understand the world as a sort of conflict of opposites.” But its not entirely apparent that Lowell thinks of them as existing in opposition. Indeed, sometimes the fatalism that peppers his work seems to suggest that he sees no conflict, but rather only an expression of a primal nature or eternal truth. Lowell begins his poem “The Soldier” with “In Time of war you could not save your skin,” and concludes with “Two angels fought with bill-hooks for his soul.” Human wars are reflected by the eternal battle between heaven and hell; our political violence is merely the animation of a spiritual violence. Lowell understands that gore, for example, is often simultaneously humanizing and dehumanizing; both romantic and obscene. These elements do not conflict; they reflect.

Or, put another way, what Jarrell sees as conflict Lowell may see as play. The poetic vamping that occurs between the two lines quoted above is essentially an exercise, or as Lowell might term it, a “conjuring.” From his poem “Colloquy in Black Rock”:
Black Mud, a name to conjure with: O mud
For watermelons gutted to the crust,
Mud for the mole-tide harbor, mud for the mouse,
Mud for the armored Diesel fishing tubs that thud
A year and a day to wind and tide; the dust
Is on this skipping heart that shakes my house, 
House of our Savior who was hanged till death.
This conjuring increases the ample atmosphere of the poem (and the collection), but adds little definition to our sense of the thing. Here too is a prime example of how Lowell often concludes the poetic meditations of Lord Weary’s Castle: with religious gesture. These professions lack the weight of theology or the nuance of devotion, most often evoking a chastisement or penance. It is difficult to imagine many readers being converted by this characterization of Catholicism; at best it lends a little gravitas to Lowell’s poetic conjuring.

Any description of Lowell’s early poetry is incomplete without reference to his technical ability. His handling of rhyme lacked the rigidity of Allen Tate’s work and the frequent sing-song contrivance of Karl Shapiro's work. Lowell's rhymes seem both natural and reckless with enjambment and cesura. Beyond Lowell’s riddling, lurk exotic, stumbling meters and ingenious rhymes. From “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”:
This is the end of running on the waves;
We are poured out like water. Who will dance
The mast-lashed master of Leviathans
Up from the field of Quakers in their unstoned graves? 
Over the course of his thirty year career, Lowell’s style underwent several radical developments, which might roughly be lumped into formal, imagistic, and confessional modes. His private life, which I’ve generally overlooked in this essay, was often the brightest thread in the tapestry of his work. However,  he was also a social critic, a war activist, a historian, and a reader of literature. His early work can be characterized by its complex use of form, and his later work, by its authorial voice and image.

Undoubtedly, Lowell casts a shadow, long and deep, over the poets who followed him, but his shadow is also narrow. A pillar to poets, Lowell is generally irrelevant to contemporary readers. The ultimate reason for this is, of course, debatable. A poet might reason that the fault lies with the public, who lack attentiveness and curiosity; the public might reason that Lowell is a puzzle indifferent to solution. In his review of Lowell's follow up to Lord Weary's Castle, entitled The Mills of the Kavanaughs, William Carlos Williams seems to be advising Lowell directly when he says, "It is to assert love, not to win it that the poem exists." I find it hard to disagree. In recent weeks it has seemed to me that a critic is needed to appreciate the first half of Lowell’s oeuvre, and a biographer is required to enjoy the second.

January 11, 2011

Karl Shapiro, Consultant in Poetry, 1946-'47

The fifth Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress arrived on the scene with a clear sense of purpose. Karl Shapiro's poems had profound subjects: classism, war, anti-semitism, and third-world exploitation. In general, he explored these topics from a vantage very different from the previous Consultants, who alternated between professor and confessor. Shapiro wrote from the mob rather than the lectern.

Shapiro was by turns an imagist, a war poet, an activist, a formalist, and a curmudgeon, but he was first a student of modern American culture. Tate was an American historian and Warren something of an American folklorist, but their America seems almost colonial in comparison to Shaprio’s with its neuroses and "perversions," its muddle of guilt and entitlement.

Even early in his career, Shapiro showed a keen understanding of how modernity had split the American identity like a prism. The modern American was not only self-aware, but aware that the “self” was much larger and more diffuse than it had previously seemed. The out-of-body experience, the dissociative moment, and the alienated insider were the exotic fruits of a culture of commodities, entertainment, and global politics. He examined the psychological effect of row homes and magazines, the eroticism of cars, Catholic confirmations, and haircuts. But his poems of Buicks and starlets comment on more than modern fetishism; Shapiro’s poems explore how modernity and its values changed our consciousness, inducting the voyeur, the schizophrenic and the narcissist into the archetypal menagerie.

Shapiro studies the modern obsession with documenting and being documented, and he explores how the two result in a kind of vertigo, where one’s experience of the public record (the tabloid, the newspaper, the movie screen, the candid and the radio), causes one’s perspective and awareness to expand dramatically, while simultaneously their ability to affect the record collapses. The modern American sees the enormity of the landscape, but in seeing so much, they lose track of their place in the landscape and their proportion relative to it. This groundless feeling of falling into the distances of history, this vertigo of losing one’s unique sense of place and self to the panoramic culture is clearly articulated in Shapiro’s “Epitaph for John and Richard:”

They will not cast your honored head
Or say from lecterns what you said,
But only keep you with them all
Committed in the City Hall;
Once born, once married, and once dead.

The modern era seems to not only require the document, but to prefer it. Indeed, in much of Shapiro's poetry, he embosses the alienation that comes to typify the post war years. In “Fireworks,” Shapiro articulates American nostalgia as a citizenry's alienation from historical consequence. He characterizes a 4th of July spectacle as a parody of war, a melodrama for the entertainment of a desensitized population. He bottles this sense of alienation with giddy, associative images which: tarantulas, Gomorrah, Lincoln, ice-cream, and sperm. He describes the physical scene by characterizing the psychological scene of the suburban landscape. The poem is dizzy with leaps, and the tone often threatens hysteria.

Shaprio concludes the poem, as is his wont, with a sentiment which seems to trivialize what he has shown us, and this is the curmudgeon in him:

In Niagaras of fire we leak in the luminous aura
And gasp at the portrait of Lincoln alive on the lattice.
Our history hisses and spits in the burning Gomorrah,
The volcanoes subside; we are given our liberty gratis.

After five stanzas of textured insights, Shaprio lands on a too simple summation: the picnics and pyrotechnics make us forget that liberty is not really free. Which, while arguably true, undercuts the complexity of our experience of history, tradition, patriotism, and the new suburban surreal which the poem has led us through. Shaprio's urge to offer us a lesson is understandable, but his poems would be stronger if they weren't stood on such clay feet.

Shapiro makes similarly unnecessary didactic turns at the conclusions of “Drugstore” and “Hollywood,” though the latter has more philosophical merit. The cumulative effect of these instructive endings paints Shapiro as something of a grump; a grandfather who lectures past the point of our comprehension. And though the cantankerous conclusions seem to become more common in the twilight of his career, Shapiro’s best work on the American subject concludes with image rather than lesson. "Movie,""Haircut," and "The Tongue" are more evocative pieces because they finally eschew analysis for image.

Similarly, "Buick" concludes with a crystalline image, but in this case it is not the conclusion that makes (or unmakes) the poem. “Buick” is fascinating because it is a giddy and lyrically love song to a car. Here, Shapiro identifies the fulcrum of modernity, the object which redefined "freedom" as "mobility," the object which became central to American identity and central to our psychology. Shapiro reverses the dynamic of Cummings’ well-known “She being Brand,” written nearly twenty years prior to “Buick.” In “She being Brand,” Cummings relates a sexual encounter through extended metaphor in which the man is the driver, the woman is the car, and the driving is their lovemaking. Shapiro, here, is not describing a woman in terms of a car, but a car in terms of a woman. A woman is not being objectified; an object is being humanized.

Shaprio’s poem is not so much sexy as it is geeky; he delights in animating the grace and ease of the car, the pleasure of driving, the transcendence of speed. But the reader is never duped into thinking that he is referring to a woman. There is no double entendre; for all its alliterative exuberance, it’s kind of an imagistic, rote poem. But then the poet describes the car’s origins, and the poem gets yanked out from under us:

But how alien you are from the booming belts of your birth and smoke
Where you turned on the stinging lathes of Detroit and Lansing at night
And shrieked at the torch in your secret parts and the amorous tests,
But now with you eyes that enter the future of roads you forget;

It’s a remarkable turn in a poem that had begun to lull. Suddenly, we are confronted with allusions to abuse, to rape, to a monstrous industry. It’s a sly move, because in the next stanza the poem returns to the exuberant present: the enraptured driver pulling into his garage, leaving his car “sleeping” like a lover exhausted from passion. But the earlier nightmarish aside is what lingers in the reader’s mind. Shapiro seems to have recognized what had changed in the years since Cummings wrote “She being Brand.” The car was no longer a metaphor for a man or a woman, but an anthropomorphic entity in itself. Shapiro runs the logic to its end: if the car is a person, where did this person come from, and have they been treated humanely? The revulsion that readers may feel upon reading “shrieked at the torch in your secret parts” is, of course, illogical (a car can not be tortured), but suggests an important element of the burgeoning consumer culture: people can be made to care disproportionately about things if they can be made to think of those things as having human characteristics.

Shapiro's ability to shock us with observable and relatable images is perhaps his greatest strength as a writer. He saw the subject as being obscured by the residual document, the real as being eclipsed by the artificial, the human overrun by the prude. “Auto Wreck” engages our sense of shock with pristine images and deliberate elements of artifice by way of theater. The scene has lighting, staging, directed action. The poem offers us not so much a narration as it does a scene. And the wreck is not the subject of the scene, but rather it is the erasure of the wreck, the sanitation of the street that becomes the scene.

We are deranged, walking among the cops
Who sweep glass and are large and composed.
One is still making notes under the light.
One with a bucket douches ponds of blood
Into the street and gutter.
One hangs lanterns on the wrecks that cling,
Empty husks of locusts, to iron poles.

What is ultimately shocking is not the mortal absurdity of the wreck, but how quickly the tragedy is being whisked away. This is the new real: deathless, sexless, and wanting for nothing.

Shapiro evokes a different kind of shock using a similar combination of image and theatrics in “Honkytonk,” but in this case he avoids a coherent scene in favor of a associative pastiche:
Then at the outskirts of our Conscious, No
From old high-over offices beats down
On standard faces Business-mad, and girls,
Grass under sullen stone, grown pale with work;
Yet shields with shadow this
Disgraced like genitals
Ghetto of local sin, laughable Hell,
Night’s very alley, loathed but let alone.
The effect of these lines is both frightening and infuriating: we are unnerved, but the cause of this terror is indistinct. It is ultimately Shapiro’s agitation that is most palpable. The truth is, his passion for image and his love of lyric sometimes overwhelms his subject and our sense of it; on some occasions his verse seems to rave rather than engage. But following the relatively strangled verse of Bogan, Shapiro’s frothing is something of a respite.

Shapiro was rarely subtle. He was brash and crude and disquieting, an agitator who was ill-prepared for the new age of political correctness. But he demystified many subjects and called out the taboo whether readers liked it or not. “Sunday: New Guinea” and “Troop-Train” humanize the absurdity of war with modest bewilderment and apolitical detail. “University” offers a scathing critique of the institutionalized racism of colleges, and "Nigger" is troubling because of the force with which Shapiro concludes that religion subverts rather than advances the struggle for equality. “The Confirmation” challenges the deceptive prudery of romanticism by describing a boys sexual awakening in terms which subvert the ideal and the mystic. “Jew,” “Shylock,” and “The Synagogue” illuminate both the suffering of jews and the flaws which he perceives in the jewish tradition. Shapiro spared no subject his critical (and occasionally jaundiced) eye.

Still, Shapiro was not constantly a bruiser. He was capable of quiet and reflection, and in these comparatively rare moments, readers get a glimpse of Shapiro’s vulnerability. Such moments suggest that while Shaprio was blessed with a critical mind, his analysis never inoculated him from feeling pangs of dread and alienation. From “A Cut Flower:”
My beauty leaks into the glass like rain.
When first I opened to the sun I thought
My colors would be parched. Where are my bees?
Must I die now? Is this a part of life?