August 23, 2006KR Blog

Some Thoughts Occasioned by Shapiro’s Song and Dance

“What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?” (Hamlet 5.1.41-42). The answer, as the Gravedigger in Hamlet well knows, is “A gravemaker. The houses he makes last till doomsday” (5.1.58-59). The two rustic characters at the beginning of the play’s fifth act carry out their shtick, their multiple routines, surrounded by death. In some ways the situation is similar in Alan Shapiro’s Song and Dance (2002), a volume of poems occasioned by the death from brain cancer of Shapiro’s older brother, David Eric, a Broadway song-and-dance man. In their waning days together, they carry out their multiple routines, developed in the course of their long and improvisational relationship, so that “my one desire now,” as the younger Shapiro puts it, “a little shtick, / a final moment / of material” (“The Last Scene”). These meditations delve into, among other things, the dynamics of the multiple roles that people play in relationship to each other, of becoming who we are by playing at roles, of developing roles by playing at who we are. Thus, “The Last Scene” delivers up “the dying brother / playing the dying brother” while the other is “pulling / the scene off / by refusing to play it.” Further, the poem “Broadway Revival” takes up the paradox of the actor “most truly who / you were / when you were someone else.”

The latter poem also gets at something of the odd way that moments of extremis can have of making one more oneself, perhaps even more fully a self, by forcing one to become someone else. Nor is the quoted passage’s past tense without significance in that, by the time I can articulate something of the self that I am, this self is already in many ways shifting, leaving the self as articulated in the past. At least this is the case as long as I’m alive. Such is the shifting of identity that goes on in “Broadway Revival” “as if / the theater were itself a stage / inside / a theater in which / I play / the brother / who doesn’t know his lines….” So this actor who does not know his lines must improvise, as the poet improvises through a variety of verse forms and voices in this virtuoso performance.

In relation to this use of many forms in a single book, one might think of of George Herbert’s formal improvisations in The Temple. In fact, Shapiro’s poem “To the Body” shows a deep kinship with the metaphysical poets, as he speaks of the body as

clay dreaming spirit dreaming clay;

at one

and the same

time pleasure dome

and torture chamber,

prisoner and

cell and cell

wall through which

the prisoner taps out

a message…

The poem thus illustrates some of the ways that one can experience one’s body eerily as both self and non-self, friend and betrayer, the locus of self and the barrier between self and other; one can experience one’s body as the other departing from the self that once it was. The material stuff that we are has its own kind of improvisation.

Shapiro has said that he prefers an art that both addresses such big issues as death, and reveals that it is giving us a song and dance. He opts for an art that finally admits there is nothing it can do to alleviate what finally is irremediable–the sickness, our sickness, for which there is no cure. Faithful to his ars poetica, Shapiro delivers up his confrontations with pain and loss while he plays out his routines on a stage of no return. These poems also join in a long tradition–see The Psalms, Lamentations, Job–that give voice to the range of emotions that loss brings on, from the sorrow at the dust we are to rage at God to fleeting moments of exulation. Shapiro also demonstrates a fundamental faith in human awareness, a consciousness that is not just intellectual in a limiting sense, but one whose intellection is deeply tactile, oral, and aural. This is an awareness that arises from and penetrates deeply into both the body and the mind. There is something deeply human and healing about such awareness. It provides a consummation “devoutly to be wished.”