Alan Shapiro’s Happy Hour is a slim packet of dissent presented to an era which has believed it possible to practice a science called effective communication. To be seen and heard nightly inside a box in the living room—the dream of any communications major—is a metaphor Shapiro might have used in these poems for the estrangement he sees typifying human intercourse at the end of the twentieth century. In the poems, Shapiro graphs a self which is deeply structured to oppose others, not relate to them. The opposition is ontological, not volitional. Focusing especially on the relationship between a man and woman who set out to love each other, Shapiro’s conclusion is that they are good to each other out of guilt and fear, primary feelings that are masked by a veneer called love. The images of communication breakdowns in these poems apparently derive from the poet’s own experience. The first-person pronoun centers the poems on a forthright self-consciousness. The home lost is the poet’s own; the failure to connect is the narrator’s as much as it is the woman’s. Loneliness is a theme, and, with it, bitterness toward the condition of false promise a relationship always brings. Thus, in a collection of poetry admirably written and sequenced, a humming of platitudinous angst sometimes is heard. Yet the pain presented does exist, and if no resolutions are offered by the poet, he does give the subject of loss and distance a cold solicitude and penetrating reflection which, in the best poems, make love seem as strange a condition as setting up permanent housekeeping on the moon.
One reason love fails, intimates Shapiro, is the deep rut a self grows accustomed to following and from which it is impossible to escape. The woman tries to climb out in the title poem, “Happy Hour,” by drinking enough to “taunt him now/ to prove he doesn’t love her/ and never could.” Normally she is a “wife on ice,” and she drinks to be bad. All the man offers her as she performs her bad girl act is his continuing circumspection, a priggishness which drives her to drink in the first place. How can his goodness be a badness, he wonders, and, as the poem concludes, he admits to himself that circumspection is his weapon, an armor the woman beats against to see if passion waits within. Insulted, the man merely thinks about throwing his glass in her face. Life has trained him to be careful, wary, to the extreme of pardoning all carelessness in others as a way to appear loving while gaining the less careful person’s spurious respect and honor. The man is not fooled by his security operations and feels lousy: “Tomorrow/ will be his happy hour. There won’t be/ anything she wouldn’t do for him.”
A sense of personal confession haunts several of these poems, a sense abetted by the direct description Shapiro employs, as if in pursuit of assimilable declaration rather than poetic artifice. Yet when Shapiro turns momentarily imagiste, as in “Lace Fern,” the problems of love are presented in the acute fluctuations of sensitive perception. The poet is not simply relating a memory but processing the given, and a stronger poem results:
For a moment the fern held you,your hair woven into the finegreen netting, shiningin the same light. And when you leftthe fern shaped what was pastinto a tracery of small innumerable spacesonly the light can fill.
This is imagism strained through Wallace Stevens. Stevens posited a correlation between subjective volition and objective perception. This process of correlation, to which Shapiro gives an image, is the basis for love being lost. The fern is a brain; it “stirs suddenly,” “like a word we need to say/ to remember.” Shapiro attributes a similar Stevensian center to the lady his fern-brain arrests within its ganglion as she brushes her hair and sings:
And I began to think that your long hairbrightening where the brush would passbecame the furthest edge of what you hummed,yourself hardly in the room.
(The entire section is 1,578 words.)