Old Joke

By Alan R. Shapiro b. 1952
Radiant child of Leto, farworking Lord Apollo,
with lyre in hand and golden plectrum, you sang to the gods   
on Mount Olympus almost as soon as you were born.

You sang, and the Muses sang in answer, and together   
your voices so delighted all your deathless elders
that their perfect happiness was made more perfect still.

What was it, though, that overwhelmed them, that suffused,   
astonished, even the endless ether? Was it the freshest,   
most wonderful stops of breath, the flawless intervals

and scales whose harmonies were mimicking in sound   
the beauty of the gods themselves, or what you joined   
to that, what you were singing of, our balked desires,

the miseries we suffer at your indifferent hands,   
devastation and bereavement, old age and death?   
Farworking, radiant child, what do you know about us?

Here is my father, half blind, and palsied, at the toilet,   
he’s shouting at his penis, Piss, you! Piss! Piss!
but the penis (like the heavenly host to mortal prayers)

is deaf and dumb; here, too, my mother with her bad knee,   
on the eve of surgery, hobbling by the bathroom,   
pausing, saying, who are you talking to in there?

and he replies, no one you would know, sweetheart.   
Supernal one, in your untested mastery,   
your easy excellence, with nothing to overcome,

and needing nothing but the most calamitous   
and abject stories to prove how powerful you are,   
how truly free, watch them as they laugh so briefly,

godlike, better than gods, if only for a moment
in which what goes wrong is converted to a rightness,   
if only because now she’s hobbling back to bed

where she won’t sleep, if only because he pees at last,   
missing the bowl, and has to get down on his knees   
to wipe it up. You don’t know anything about us.

Alan Shapiro, “Old Joke” from The Dead Alive and Busy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000). Copyright © 2000 by Alan Shapiro. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: The Dead Alive and Busy (The University of Chicago Press, 2000)

 Alan R. Shapiro


Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Alan Shapiro was educated at Brandeis University. As the author of numerous collections of poetry, Shapiro has explored family, loss, domesticity, and the daily aspects of people’s lives in free verse and traditional poetic forms. He has published over ten books of poetry, most recently Reel to Reel (2014), a finalist for the Pulizer Prize; Night of the Republic (2012), a finalist for the National . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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