In the opening poem of Alan Shapiro’s newest collection, The Dead Alive and Busy, the speaker’s “half-blind and palsied” father stands over the toilet, ordering his penis: “Piss, you! Piss! Piss!” The image immediately plunges the reader into the book’s most resonant theme, dying–the axis between the poles of life and death, where the mind often resists the body, and vice versa. The Chapel Hill poet has traveled this ground before in verse and non-fiction, but in The Dead Alive and Busy he refines his vision. Timeless images–Achilles’ shield, a couple dancing, a vase of flowers–are twisted in striking and contemporary ways.
One of several poems set in hospital rooms, “Vase of Flowers” reveals Shapiro’s easy dexterity with imagery. In the poem, a mother cannot bear looking at the white bouquet on the table beside her sick daughter’s bed. It’s not the blossoms’ beauty that disturbs her, however, but “the absurd machinery of water into whiteness,” the flowers’ stems soaking the water. The untiring mechanism of their lives pains the woman when placed so close to her daughter’s fading one. “Someone should stop it,” the mother wishes. “Someone should switch it off … ”
Later in the book, a dark poem about the aftermath of one of North Carolina’s ferocious storms echoes the woman’s urge to halt nature’s course. “After the Hurricane” describes a neighborhood unearthing itself from the debris, the screaming of chainsaws, sawdust flying, the people’s “exhilarated hands” pressing the tools’ teeth down deeper into the fallen trees. In the final stanza, Shapiro compares the way they jerk their saws to the way owners manage disobedient dogs, that don’t “heel when we say heel, or when we say stop stop.” His repetition of the word “stop” underscores its ineffectuality, for when one issues a command twice it generally means the first time did not work. Even as the people struggle to resurrect their street from the wreckage, they cannot fully restore it, or themselves.
All throughout The Dead Alive and Busy, the poet explores the grand failure of humanity’s resistance to death, reliving moments as mundane as an old man’s walk to the bathroom, and as otherworldly as a dream of the dead drifting over the bodies of two lovers lying in bed. These dead are the “soul of fire without anything to burn/hunger shorn of mouth, except the mouth,” a paradox both horrifying and beautiful. A careful and often humorous lyricist, Shapiro unites opposites like horror and beauty, life and death, through his attentiveness to the mythic layers of the most ordinary lives. He is at his most satisfying when he finds these layers not in the classic but the contemporary past: In “New Year’s Eve in the Aloha Room,” a husband and wife dance together to the strains of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” too old to be handsome or graceful–and yet they are both. They are “their best ideas about themselves,” a dreamy union of their common past. “Let’s leave them now/before the song ends,” says the voice that evokes the pair, so gentle and tender, it is the voice of memory itself, the poetry of looking back, the Orphic breath held against the void of death.