Mixed Company

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Alan Shapiro’s art is consistently evocative while often remaining sparse in imagery. His strength comes from an enormous power of intelligent perception—a gracefully unfolding, sinuous syntax and an unusual eloquence underscored by effective poetic shaping. Always, Shapiro is attentive to the centrality of voice in human personality and community.

In the last third of his book, Shapiro moves beyond gender difference to consider the destructive distinctions of class, race, and ethnicity. Several poems have to do with the kinds of knowledge and acceptance the speaker has found in relationships with blacks.

MIXED COMPANY also contains an astonishing “long poem” grouping. This section includes “Friend,” which explores whether men and women can be close friends without romantic complications upsetting things; “In the Land of Inheritance,” which retells a biblical story of guilt, expiation, and unfathomable justice; and “Manufacturing,” a reminiscence of the belt-making industry that reveals the crude commercial motives inherent in the language of business.

The title MIXED COMPANY reminds readers of how certain things said among men are not said in the presence of women. By extension, it suggests that what passes for an acceptable code within a group (race, class, ethnic background) is not readily or pleasantly sharable beyond that group. Shapiro reminds readers that they are always in mixed company, and he helps readers reconsider what degrees of mixing, blending, and homogenization are possible in human relationships and discourse.

Sources for Further Study

Charlotte Observer. March 24, 1996, p. C6.

Library Journal. CXXI, March 15, 1996, p. 75.

Richmond Times-Dispatch. November 3, 1996, p. K4.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXII, Autumn, 1996, p. 136.

The Yale Review. LXXXIV, October, 1996, p. 158.

Mixed Company

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 23)

In this mature and fascinating volume, Alan Shapiro’s main subject is women. A good two-thirds of the collection has to do with the feeling and power of those social and psychological structures that hold men and women in certain patterned relation- ships to one another. Since these poems are written from the male perspective, women are the title figures who are remembered and examined as mothers, aunts, friends to one another, friends to men, wives, former wives, lovers, girlfriends, and daughters. Shapiro’s poems are at once celebrations and interrogations. As his speaker explores what he knows about women, Shapiro is alert to the central, perplexing issue of how the human voice and other means of expression have both grandeur and limitation. He seeks the ultimate, perhaps unrecoverable, meanings of communication between the sexes, and he honors the distinctiveness of individual voices and the selves they evoke. Shapiro’s women are many things, but they are always voices.

In “My Mother and a Few Friends,” the speaker remembers overhearing a representative get-together of his mother’s cronies. He is caught by the importance of their talk, which never ebbs and is accompanied by the weave of smoke from the cigarettes they wave like batons:

I watch until it seems the voices are
themselves that swirling gauze, secretive, communal,
hung there to say, whatever else the words
were saying, we are this, and they are that.

In “Night Terrors,” the persona wonders “Whose voice is it in mine when the child cries . . . saying, shh, now easy, shh.” Soon enough he recognizes that out of his mouth has come not a mere memory of his mother’s voice soothing him, but “the vocal trace,/ sheer bodily sensation on the lips and tongue.” In one after another of these poems, Shapiro directs our attention to man (and woman) as the voicing animal whose gestures are words and their sounds. In “Ex- Wife: Homesickness,” acts of speech are implicitly compared with the sounds of wind, rain, and storm. There are sounds of nature and sounds of human nature. Throughout this collection, but particularly in the earlier poems, Shapiro explores their affinities and differences.

Wrapped around and threaded through these portraits and narratives is a brief history of middle-class attitudes and sensibilities in Shapiro’s time. The milieu is mildly ethnic and perhaps a bit more suburban than urban. It is hard to be sure because Shapiro’s work is sparse in imagery, and the evocation of place in physical terms is not among his interests.

What is remarkable about Shapiro’s art is how consistently evocative and intriguing his poems become while rarely leaving the imprints of sensory experience. Even in his summoning of voices, he names rather than renders concretely the tones and modulations. Shapiro’s poetic achievement is enough to make poets rethink the modernist dicta regarding ideas and things. “No ideas but in things,” wrote William Carlos Williams. Yet Shapiro does not need to shake a lot of things at readers to transform his ideas into felt experiences. “Show, don’t tell” announces the creative writing teacher. Shapiro tells and tells, hardly shows at all, and yet his poems have impact and resonance. Where does his strength come from?

First of all, an enormous power of intelligent perception fuels Shapiro’s poetic engine. His insights into human relationships, longings, self-doubts, subterfuges, and sacrifices are startling in their accuracy and sophistication. He probes the moral character of his subjects’ ruminations and behavior, and he invites readers to measure their own moral rectitude. He makes readers witness the selfishness lurking under generous gestures, the cowardice in bravado, the many ways—healthy and otherwise—in which the interests of ego adjust to the demands others place upon humans. At once shrewd and compassionate, Shapiro’s poems lead readers to discover just what and how much to forgive in themselves and in those they are bonded to by blood or passion or simply their common human nature.

Shapiro’s observations require refined elaboration. The intelligent mind’s nuanced apprehensions demand appropriate expression. To this end, Shapiro’s vehicle is a gracefully unfolding, sinuous syntax. His sentences traverse many lines, winding and sometimes doubling back just as thought itself often doubles back. Clauses and phrases bend, hover, and swoop to reproduce the shapes of mental pursuit, hesitancy, and resolution. The reader must often slow down and test the relationships of sentence limbs. Often, Shapiro’s syntax is momentarily obstinate and asks for a second reading. In the end, however, the technique fulfills its purposes of giving weight and richness to a style rarely dependent on concrete diction and imagery.

The intelligent mind at work and play, released by the curving, seeking syntax, establishes the presiding voice in Shapiro’s poems. In a word, this voice is...

(The entire section is 2063 words.)