Alan Shapiro’s poetry takes as its subject all the nuances of human relationships. It examines the interaction between husbands and wives and lovers and neighbors, and all the modulations of feeling fostered by our earliest relationships with our parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Shapiro watches love matches made and dissolved; he explores the threads of memory leading back to childhood but still binding adult emotions. He is always attentive to the layers of motive that inform human interactions; the people in his poems are simultaneously jealous and generous, loving and vengeful, bitter and compassionate.
The people of Shapiro’s poems are sometimes autobiographical, as he notes in his readings. Never sentimental about his subjects, Shapiro treats them tenderly, even when he is recording the sad truths of their worst moments. Some of the appeal of his poetry rises from the reader’s gratitude for Shapiro’s compassion for these characters. Whatever their artistic origins, they seem to have come from everyone’s family; the events of their lives are part of the fabric of all modern American life. Such intimate poetry is often termed confessional, but Shapiro’s poems go beyond the exorcising of private curses to examine larger issues, an achievement that led one reviewer to call him “a shrewd and sympathetic moralist.”
The Courtesy introduces some qualities that are fundamental to Shapiro’s work. His roots in formalism are apparent here, with poems in rhyming quatrains and blank verse. The vivid family portraits of the first section show the sense of character to be one of Shapiro’s great strengths. In this volume, several poems focus on family tensions—the ancient rivalry between two sisters, a son’s desire to please a demanding father. Several others deal with the stresses attendant on being a Jew in a Gentile world. In “Simon, the Barber,” the speaker recalls his childhood history with the barber who disapproved of his secular ways. His rejection of the sidelock haircut of traditional Judaism foretells his leaving the law that Simon represented. When later he learns that Simon’s son has been arrested in a drug raid (the hallmark crime of secular America), he recognizes Simon’s pain at having been failed by his own seed, a pain that stands as “mere ashes in our prayer for the dead.”
The long poem “Neighbors” in Happy Hour furthers the presentation of Shapiro’s interests. A narrative poem, it describes a woman whose emotional crisis is dipping into madness and how living upstairs from her affects an unnamed man and his unspecified lover, perhaps his young wife. They meet the woman as they move in; she stands at the window in her nightgown, singing along to a pounding stereo. He and his wife set to work cleaning and painting their rooms, all to the relentless accompaniment of the thumping music, evidently a rock love song: “’If you’ll hold/ the ladder, baby, I’ll climb to the top.’” They bang on her door, but she refuses to answer and sends them a note claiming that the music is an effort “to cure a paralyzed kid.”
When the man breaks his wife’s favorite coffee cup, the loss suggests the fissures growing in their relationship, amplified perhaps by the unremitting music that seems to have taken control of all they do. Once, in front of the apartment, the woman shouts out that her man is coming soon, just as the song has implied, and that they should all get together then. With this claim in the back of his mind, the man recalls his lovemaking with his wife and begins to fear that sex may be inadequate to sustain their relationship: “Capricious pleasure/ frail craft, how long, he wonders,/ how far will it carry them?”
When the woman orders a load of firewood in May and builds a roaring fire that goes on for days, smoking up the apartment building’s hallways, someone calls the police, and she is taken away, leaving the man to wonder at their desire to watch her crisis and to speculate on how the woman herself might have viewed the event: “. . . the song/ was playing, and her man, her one/ desire, was climbing up the blazing/ ladder no one else could see.”
Shapiro’s finely tuned sense of emotional weather is present in many of these poems. In “Bedtime Story,” a child longs for security in a world peopled by witches and wolves in the form of “that new man” who calls his mother away from reading to him. “Mortmain” depicts a mother’s passive-aggressive anger at the son for whom she insists on suffering even while she refuses his offers of help. The son, the speaker in this poem, is angry and baffled in return. The bits of dialogue are a great strength here. The mother’s aggrieved “Look/ at the trouble I’ve gone to/ to buy you this. Here take it” captures real speech rhythms in the poem’s short lines.
Covenant demonstrates Shapiro’s growing sureness in considering painful and intimate events thoughtfully but without self-indulgence. The long poem “The Lesson” is a particularly good example of this growth. The adult narrator records his experience as a ten-year-old child dealing with a sexual predator, Rich, who picks up boys at the ballfield and entices them into his golden Sting Ray with his friendly charm and tantalizingly sexy talk. The poem’s short lines draw out the speaker’s infatuation with this dashing fellow who, unlike their fathers, seems to have plenty of time for these boys, and they suggest the tense energy of the speaker’s envy of the boys Rich seems to favor:
How’s it hanging, boys?he’d ask, and tapthe wheel, jiggle the stick,the engine revvinggently, not so gently,to remind us of allthe other thingshe could be doing.
Each day, Rich selects a boy to ride in the golden car. “Each day it wasn’t me.” On their return, the privileged boys are curiously silent about the experience. When at last the speaker is summoned, the ride includes what the reader now expects. Unzipping the boy’s trousers, Rich fondles him: “My boyhood ended/ there, that day.” Eventually Rich is driven away from the ballfield by a furious mother, but the event has marked the boy in an indefinable way. If he is not any longer a boy, neither is he a man, nor is he sure what being a man might mean in the light of what Rich has done to him.
In the book’s last section, Shapiro turns to themes that will grow in importance in his subsequent work “the way memory of the past affects...
(The entire section is 2811 words.)