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Candor and Craft

UNC-Chapel Hill poet and N.C. literary force Alan Shapiro adds a new volume to a body of work about death and dying



To find Alan Shapiro's Vigil at the library, you have to search not under literature but breast cancer. The slim book chronicling his sister Beth's death is housed next to titles like Every Woman's Guide to Breast Cancer and Talking About Treatment, leading a first-time reader to wonder if it's a literary memoir about dying or a bereavement memoir that also happens to be literary--or if such distinctions matter at all. Shapiro's latest volume of poetry, Song and Dance, may answer that question, and others raised by Vigil. Although it follows rather quickly after his 2000 collection, The Dead Alive and Busy, this new book truly echoes the memoir in its tight focus on a loved one's departure.

The author of six books of poetry and two memoirs, the UNC-Chapel Hill poet has won innumerable awards for his work, and as the former editor of the University of Chicago's Phoenix Poets series, he's one of North Carolina's literary forces. Despite the recognition he gets elsewhere, Shapiro doesn't quite fit the Southern-writer mold and is sometimes overlooked here. You won't find much in the way of redneck uncles, urbanization, or Appalachian idiom in his books, but rather the painful elegies of a man outliving the rest of his family.

Three years after his sister Beth died, Shapiro's actor brother, David, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Song and Dance recounts David's passing with poems that take place on hospital beds and in waiting rooms, but also in the realm of memory, as Shapiro evaluates his own role as younger versus older brother, as writer versus actor, as the living versus the dying.

The opening poem, "Everything the Traffic Will Allow," serves as an overture for the volume. "The two boys don't suspect/they don't exist," Shapiro begins, in a verse form that ranges over the page as if it were the imaginary stage the boys cross while they perform show tunes for their parents, who are lying in bed. In this poem, the boys are indistinguishable from each other, and yet, as Shapiro emphasizes, they don't exist except in memory, in the room of the poem, which closes not with them but the Broadway song they sing: "I like no/people/I know ..."

That the song can outlast the singer is one of the book's main messages, which is picked up beautifully in "Joy." Using the same splintered tercets and couplets, the poem moves from association to association, starting with the poet's young daughter singing "I feel pretty, oh so pretty," from West Side Story, and ending with an image of a herd of antelope running from their fallen relations "under a bright sun/into fresher grass." There's an alchemy of candor and craft here that marks the best of Shapiro's work. "What, soon as here,/becomes/the body's native ground and,/soon as not,/its banishment," he says of joy, and goes on to illustrate the sadness at its heart: Not only is joy ephemeral, but it can belong to one at the same time it is torn from another.

"Fly" is another masterpiece, a short and narrow lyric, confined--like its subject--by form. Between the movement of Shapiro's words and the lines that contain them, there's an incredible tension that echoes his brother's struggle to let his body die:

Eyes half closed

but flicking

urgently from

side to side

that last long day

as if in search

of some way

out of the dying

body that just

would not die,

as if the body

teased itself

with glimpses of

being rid

of body ...

The poem has a powerful twist at the end that will send you immediately back through the lines again, and they are even better a second and third time.

As one of the last poems in Song and Dance to see David going through the actual business of dying, "Fly" also marks a turning point in the book. Afterward, Shapiro soon shifts perspective, focusing less on what it means to let go of a dying brother, and more on what you do after you have. A pair of poems about his parents, "If Only I Knew Then" and "The Old Man," are part of this transition. Like the David poems, they skim over the individual characters of his mother and father, to highlight their roles: mother as caretaker outliving her children, and father lying in silence for a whole day after his son dies. Passing through them, one gets prepared for "To the Body," a majestic work that would have been a wonderful ending for the book.

Launched with a tautological address like "Joy," this poem is one to read aloud, if only to relish the gorgeous switchbacks of line and image--"ventriloquist of genes,/vector of history,/the agonizing/stage/on which the anorexic girl performs/clay dreaming spirit dreaming clay." If "Joy" was the bud, then "To the Body" is the full flower, a poem that encompasses both the beauty and the hardship of the book, its final lines transcendent.

What could possibly follow? First, the title poem, and then a prose poem that sounds more like the author of Vigil than Song and Dance. Taken together with "To the Body," they almost serve as three separate endings to the volume, a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure with themes instead of plot: Is it a book about mortality? About grief? About family?

"Song and Dance" uses a question-and-answer format that hearkens back to two earlier works, "Sleet," and "Three Questions." Queries like "What was it like before the doctor got there?" "What did you feel?" and "Was he ready to die?" propel these poems through their stanzas. Although the questions are twisted in more original ways in the later "Song and Dance," this device is amateurish for a writer of Shapiro's stature. They ground the poems in the literal, the landscape of hospital rooms and cancer instead of mortality and the human condition. Because he has taken on death in so many books now, it seems especially important for Shapiro to resist entering the rooms of bereavement psychology, to stay a poet first.

Although it's unfortunate that the title work points back to these lesser poems, "Song and Dance" has a strong figurative music, calling up images of Shapiro's lost brother singing, and the song itself, again, outlasting the singer.

You should have

heard him,

his voice was

unforgettable, irresistible, his voice

was an imaginary garden

woven through with fragrance.

And then you do hear David again, in "Last Impressions," a series of prose stanzas that recount the many roles the actor played in his last days in the hospital room. The poem concludes the book with a vision of the brother's unique character, implying that Shapiro's ongoing fascination isn't with death at all, but enduring life and family.

David was the family's comedian, and in saying goodbye to him, the poem searches for the pain in the heart of comedy the way "Joy" looked for its own sadness. In one of the book's final images, it somehow succeeds. David doing a Bette Davis impression is a true Shapiro moment, both funny and heart-wrenching, both individual and universal, a writer's sad tribute to his actor brother: Lifting his paralyzed left hand, pronouncing breathily "Dead. Dead. Dead." David lets go, "and it falls like someone else's hand back to the bed." EndBlock

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