By Alan Shapiro
Houghton Mifflin, 96 pp.
In Alan Shapiro’s latest book, Old War, we find many poems where he masterfully describes what seems to be absolutely nothing.
The poem “Before” begins “you entered the room, there was just the room,/ and all the soundless damage of the air,/ its rain of invisibilities,” which goes on to describe the action of sunlight. The poem “Mist” begins “like ink in water, white ink in white water/ rising as it drifts from the white page/ of the spectral city in eddying palimpsests,” describing the steam from manholes and buses in a place where “you couldn’t tell a soul from the exhaust.” He describes the cold residing in a stack of coins and the heat particles in the tar in summerintangibles move through these poems like ghosts, and Shapiro catches them in a way that is at once accessible and profound, plainspoken and poetic.
Shapiro’s poems find the nexus of the ethereal and the mundane, and they are often haunted by gods or the afterlife. The tricky predicament of finding a bird’s nest in the mailbox, a subject of one of his poems, begins as a prayer to the “God of the left-open mailbox.” Another poem points out the incongruity of a Buddhist monk who orders a hot dog with everything on it. In the book’s final poem, “Open-Mike Night in Heaven,” Shapiro manages to reference both Dr. Seuss and Dante in the voice of a Jewish stand-up comedian who isn’t really pleasing his crowd of heaven. But the speaker can stumble through bad jokes to arrive at the last lines of the book, at “the edge of heaven,” where he hears voices rising from Dante’s hell, “howls that/ from this distance sound/ almost like laughter.”
In the backdrop of these lines, we might hear a whispered word, torture, and as the collection’s title may indicate, we are led to the subject of war, even beautifully in the lines “the bomb/ exploded and/ the window shattered/ in a silver shower,” which arrives unexpectedly in what seems at first to be a love poem. Shapiro captures the sense that our cultural despair has been neatly tucked into the back of our minds amid everyday hustle and bustle, but inevitably it must come out. We can see this figuratively play out in the poem “Suspension Bridge,” where Shapiro describes maneuvering through traffic: “Sensation of war. Of being mobilized./ Each urgent vehicle, each signal/ and counter signal, flash of brake/ light.” The poem proceeds to military language in the lines, “effect of orders/ being passed down through a steel/ chain of command, from car to car.” Though everyday life is a haven from the war described on TV, war is psychologically with us, our national unconscious.
While Shapiro navigates from the big subjects, like war, to the smallest, like a heat particle, we can see how one inevitably affects the other. These poems, in a variety of forms and voices, show us a shaken world that is looked at with new eyes, looking carefully at what you thought you knew, what light or heat or cold is.