Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461
No poem exists in a vacuum; all poems are part of a long tradition of writing. By placing a poem in the context of literary history, its themes and meanings can become more apparent. Shapiro is writing in a literary tradition that dates back to the era of classical myth. Both Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey (800 b.c.e.; Eng. trans., 1616) and Aeneas in Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e..; Eng. trans., 1553) make trips to the underworld, penetrating the boundary between the living and the dead. There, through blood sacrifices, the dead are able to speak, and the Greek and Roman heroes are able to see the sufferings of those, such as Sisyphus and Tantalus, who offended the gods.
La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), by Dante, is another example of this type of writing. In this fourteenth century epic poem Dante is led by Vergil through hell, purgatory, and heaven. Here he is able to hear directly from the dead which sins they committed that caused them to suffer, or which acts of generosity brought them to heaven. In a more modern version of this story, Seamus Heaney, a poet Shapiro reveres, writes of a deceased cousin who was killed in sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. In “The Strand at Lough Beg” (1979), Heaney does not speak with the dead man, but he meets his dead cousin, washes mud from his body, and lays him out as if to bury him.
In this context Shapiro’s poem stands out in sharp relief. There is no moral to this poem, as there is in Homer’s, Vergil’s, and Dante’s. The reader is not spoken to in a didactic way by Shapiro, or warned of the evils the dead have done or the punishments they have received. There is no blood sacrifice to conjure up the dead; there is also no healing moment as there is in Heaney’s poem. Shapiro’s poem is an American, secular version of the meeting between the dead and the living. It is also a very gentle poem, one that the rules of politeness control rather than the rules of religion. Shapiro’s narrator is unable to ask the central question that all mortals want to know—“What is it like to die?”—because he does not want Saul to know that he recognizes him as a dead man. Saul tries so hard not to seem dead because he senses that this might embarrass the narrator; this leads to the narrator being unable to broach the question. Saul, the dead man, is courteous enough not to trouble the narrator with his death, so the narrator returns the courtesy and acts as if the man is in fact as alive as he seems.