The Poem

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515

“The Courtesy,” the title poem in Alan Shapiro’s second book, is composed of thirty-eight lines of loose iambic pentameter and divided into three irregular-length stanzas. In the poem, dedicated to a deceased friend of the narrator, Shapiro creates a complex narrative about meeting this friend and sharing some dreamlike moments with him.

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The first line of the poem makes the reader expect a traditional narrative: “I walked from my house down Coolidge Street last night” could lead to a variety of poetic stances, from simple narrative about what happened that night to a meditation on love, the heavens, or family life. However, the comfortable opening soon shifts when something ominous seems to happen: The air shakes “down a hushing from the branches.” The reader is prepared by this preamble for some action or thought that could be out of the ordinary. When the homes on Coolidge Street become “solid shadow, blocks of silence,” the eerie feeling is continued, and readers are prepared to meet the narrator’s old friend, Saul; from the dedication, the reader knows that Saul Chessler has died years before.

The second stanza begins, just as the first did, with a matter-of-fact statement: “I wanted to ask you what it was like to die.” This realistic tone, this down-to-earth conversational voice makes it appear as if nothing remarkable is happening, and a reader might not catch on immediately to the fact that this poem, while being a narrative with a story line, is also a very dreamlike, visionary experience. The narrator has met a dead man and wants to have a conversation with him, but the character of Saul speaks first and says the only words that the two exchange during this surreal moment: “ ‘The doctors made me better. We can run again.’” The poem that began with one man walking now becomes a poem with two men running, one dead and one living, both breathing that air that created the hushing sound at the start of the poem. Suddenly the poem, which began on Coolidge Street with no hint of snow, now shifts to a field with the runners’ “footsteps patter(ing) the smooth crust.”

Just as the reader has begun to feel comfortable with the idea of a dead man running on snow with his old friend from childhood, the third stanza opens with a strange but flat, matter-of-fact statement: “And we returned by train.” The dreamlike effect of the poem is heightened in the next few lines, when the narrator sees his friend Saul outside the train lying “like a dark slash in the snow,” but Saul is also, at the same moment, sitting beside the narrator in the train. The narrator still wants to ask the question he felt like asking the moment he saw his friend—“What is it like to die?”—but again the question is deferred. The answer is never given because Saul seems so intent on convincing the narrator that he is alive, not for some selfish reason, but simply because Saul feels the reality of his own death might embarrass the speaker.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

One of Shapiro’s main accomplishments in this poem is to blend the surreal with the real in a way that seems both plausible and dreamlike. In a poem that moves from walking to running to riding a train without any clear transitions, the “strange familiarity” that Shapiro mentions at the close of the poem is the guiding principle or technique Shapiro uses to construct his piece. If the poem were simply wildly surreal, with bizarre images joined with eerie metaphors, the emotion of the poem would not be as strong. Shapiro makes the poem both familiar and strange and allows the reader to believe that such a meeting could take place.

One way this notion of “strange familiarity” functions is evident in the first stanza. After the peculiar images of homes as “blocks of silence” and the violet light that is “dim without dimming,” Shapiro writes a clear, direct sentence: “I saw you, Saul, my old friend, waiting/ For me at the corner where our two streets met.” On one hand this image is entirely familiar: Two friends meet on the corner where their two streets meet. Yet on a metaphorical level, the image is strange: These two streets that join at a corner are, in one sense, the avenue of life and the avenue of death; it is a liminal world, a world of boundaries between not only life and death but also sleep and waking. The poem inhabits both worlds.

Other images in the poem work in the same way to convey this idea of occupying two worlds at the same time. The most obvious is the train image, in which Saul is both in the train, sitting next to the narrator, and lying in the snow, “arms flung up” and “legs crossed.” This kind of doubling is also present in other less obvious images. A normal, scientific image of breath becoming a brief cloud takes on a resonance in this poem: Their breath “scrawled” in the chilling air and then vanished, just as Saul, and eventually the narrator, have their moments on earth and then vanish into the realms of the dead.

In addition, the moment of running on snow allows Shapiro to have an image that replicates what is taking place in the poem: As they run on the field of snow, Shapiro feels as if they might break through; again, it is an image of boundaries being crossed, of a surface being penetrated. Just as life turns into death, and the dead come back to life, therefore erasing the boundaries between the two worlds, so too these images echo this idea of being in one place only temporarily.

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