Long before Sin City hit screens, before the words “revenge” or “torture” even existed in English, the Greeks were creating stories so diabolical it’s a wonder papyrus scrolls didn’t come with an NC-17 rating. Take, for instance, the story of Tantalus, the son of Zeus who was permitted to eat the fruit of the gods. Turns out that Tantalus enjoyed their buffet a bit too much, and in punishment for his greediness he was immersed up to his neck in water. When he bent to drink, however, the water drained away, and when he reached for the luscious fruit hanging on trees above him, it was always just out of reach.

Brings a whole new meaning to tantalize doesn’t it?

It is this edgier, folly-ridden sense of the word that UNC-Chapel Hill writing professor Alan Shapiro expertly plays with in his ninth volume, Tantalus in Love, a profound meditation on happiness–and the way the lack of it can be a slow form of tantalizing torture.

The book opens with its expertly coy title poem, which begins figuratively and then suddenly becomes quite specific.

“Do you
still find me attractive?”
She doesn’t turn her head,
and as he waits, the camera
entertains him with
some recent clips
of how she lately,
whenever he goes to kiss her,
turns her face away
as if to fend him off
by offering the cheek
only, never the lips,
(that’s how it feels)
to let him kiss her there.
“So, do you?”

This is a book about divorce–the buildup, the act, and then the terrible loss, but most especially that first part, when a person’s presence can be pure heartbreak because all it does is remind you of their absence.

One morning toward the end of twenty years
of marriage he awakens before she does
and watches her beside him, her back to him,
the covers pulled up tight and clutched in both hands,
her eyes tense, everything about her stiffened
even in dream against him, sealed away.

Just as the boughs of those fruit trees must have bounced and approached Tantalus’ outstretched hands, these poems bring happiness so very close to the poet–but never close enough.

We wandered out there all that day,
our last good day together, though
I didn’t know this then. I didn’t
know the pleasure of the day
for you entirely depended
on your imagination of a future
you were certain even then

We’d never have. I didn’t know
till long after it was over
that you needed an assurance
of other days as good as that
day was in order for that day
in all its goodness to mean
there should be more of them.

Like Shapiro’s recent work, including the savagely mournful “Song & Dance,” which dealt with his brother’s death from brain cancer, there is a strong narrative thread to these poems. Their lines are pinched and brief, the language almost casual. It is as if he is too freighted with grief to gussy up and make beautiful.

This terseness, however, is exactly what makes these poems so devastating. It suggests a tunneling toward pain, a melancholic claustrophobia that requires constant attention. Not even sleep can squeeze into the day. “Where are you now/you ancient sleighs of solace,” the poet asks.

Eventually solace does come–in the form of new love, as it always must. But first there is the awful in-between, which is not unlike the passage between life and death. “Yes/you can see/how the soul itself/its loved and tortured/history/is caught between/the one night/and the other,” he writes in “Yes and No.” Charting that journey with a faithfulness that borders on the devotional is this book’s great achievement.