Certainty is the cage that keeps us safe from curiosity. I've been released from the cage. I am the songbird and I am flying for the window. I know it's closed but I plan on breaking through. – Charlie Coté, Jr. (1987-2005)

Monday, January 31, 2011

Song & Dance

Song & Dance, Houghton Mifflin, 2002
Alan Shapiro

A Review of Alan Shapiro's Song & Dance (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)
by Charles Coté

As in Plato's allegory of the cave, we all face a blank wall when confronted with death, most so when that death involves someone close to us. Poetry may be our attempt to ascribe form to shadow, the closest we come to reality when passing by that fire.

Perhaps chained to their own cave, "The two boys don't suspect / they don't exist." This, the opening lines of Alan Shapiro's Song & Dance, transform to " a record / spinning beneath / a needle," a poignant elegy, the first of many about his brother's death from a brain tumor; the poems in this collection keen in every sense of the word.

The first poem, "Everything the Traffic Will Allow," based on Klea Blackhurt's Ethel Merman tribute, recollects a time when Alan and his brother David performed "There's No Business Like Show Business" to an audience of two, their delighted parents propped on pillows in their bedroom, the boys casting their own shadows in that moment, "just the shade / of a shade."

"Did you ever really have a brother?," one of the many questions posed throughout the book, questions Shapiro answers aslant, questions he seems to ignore, questions with no direct answers, like death, unknowable, and yet experienced in all its brutal honesty. This question, an echo in my own encephalitic cave, "did I ever really have a son?"

In the title poem, "Song & Dance," Shapiro addresses that question of existence and his connection to family, grounded in hunger and the anticipation of food cooking in the kitchen, "the hunger's sweet." He remembers his brother's voice and this helps him answer the question, how I answer the question: I listen again to his singing, sing, and am fed.

These poems are stunning, sensual, empathic and brutal. C. K. Williams calls them "luminous," Mark Doty, "harrowing," and Tom Sleigh, "sensitive and tough-minded." I read them in one sitting and felt the sweet, sad hunger inviscerate me.

In "Transistor Radio," we get "the bloated, stroke-crippled / indigent body" of his grandmother set against the "curvy bright / white trellis carved from cloud" of the roller coaster and "a vast lair / of languid animals, or young gods stretching," young sun bathers listening to music on the beach.

All the while, we embody our own cave of shadows in these poems, and like the body, inhabit a container for the poet's grief, his "pleasure dome / and torture chamber." In "To the Body," Shapiro describes our existential vessel, how pleasure and pain travel the same path. The nerve of it all! We're all trapped and alone, and by this we take comfort in this together, or as existential psychotherapist Irving Yalom says, "it's good to see the other lights bobbing up an down in the harbor at night." These poems, like "wine jars, jewels, and / honey cakes, / baubles and trinkets / in the Sun / King's tomb" all carry our hopes and anguish, like Part One of Gregory Orr's Concerning the Book That is the Body of the Beloved describes:
And so I come to the Book,
Which is also the body
Of the beloved. And so
I come to the poem.
The poem is the world
Scattered by passion, then
Gathered together again
So that we may have hope.

I will return to Song & Dance again and again, like I will listen again and again for the ones I've lost, while I burn and burn in this caloric body, "at once the fire / eating the wood / and the wood that, / burning, eats the fire." I will revel in Shapiro's song, as I do in Orr's, as I do in my own son's, and by that reveling, life will be revealed as it passes by the fire in shadow.

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