Change’s Purchase

How Alan Shapiro is a poet of revision.

In the summer of 1996, I was housesitting for Alan Shapiro. I was snooping, too, though I wouldn’t have admitted it. I was 22, and I wanted to see what it was like to be an adult. Even more, I wanted to see what it was like to be a poet. So when I sat down at his computer to do my own work, I found myself clicking on one of his Word files instead, telling myself as I did that I would close it right away.

Phrases scrambled down the screen like loose rocks on an incline, repeating, re-trying—exuberant: each downward leap a little different but still articulating the energy of the one before. It felt continuous and fast, as though the time of reading were the time of writing it. It felt joyous, too, in a way that the poems of his that I’d read before did not.

Now it’s almost 20 years later; Shapiro’s 12th book of poems, Reel to Reel, has just been published. During those intervening years, he’s been a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. He’s won the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and a Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award. He’s published two more books of nonfiction and a novel, and he’s both continued to teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I was his student, and added a regular gig at Warren Wilson. And yet the poems have continued not only appearing but evolving. And part of the reason for that, I suspect, comes down to the exuberance I saw on his computer screen then.

Shapiro is, I now think, a poet of revision, one whose characteristic long sentences enact, in both sound and sense, an ongoing rethinking and a restless awareness of change’s purchase on all that we hold dear. In his earlier poems, there was an almost defensive quality to the work: the speaker interrupting himself to register awareness, vigilant, hoping to ward off harm by never going too long without acknowledging that harm is close.

But in subsequent books, that anxiety has often given way to pleasure, and the techniques that began in defensiveness have proven surprisingly capacious. Revision remains the poems’ reality—both an engine of thought and the embodiment of motivations that include, depending on the book, anxiety, love, grief, and gratitude. But the nature of revision has been revised from book to book, turning into an energetic accommodation of the gift of consciousness, just as Shapiro has embraced writing itself as a privilege. He’s grown as an artist by reimagining what it means to live, think, and write in a state of change.

I don’t mean to say that he’s become an optimist. His poems still register their share of bad news and ugliness, as in “Gas Station Restroom,” from 2012’s Last Night of the Republic. But, like so much of his poetry now, both of that poem’s two long sentences betray the pleasure of their making. Here’s the shorter one, the first:

The present tense  
is the body’s past tense  
here; hence  
the ghost sludge of hands  
on the now gray strip
of towel hanging limp
from the jammed dispenser;
hence the mirror  
squinting through grime  
at grime, and the worn-
to-a-sliver of soiled soap  
on the soiled sink.

In these lines, the mind consistently races forward by reaching back, a doubling that shows up in everything from repetitions like “The present tense / is the body’spast tense”—with the isolated “here” after the line break adding an additional sense of qualification—to the intermittent and often-partial end rhymes and the alliterative patterns that land on consecutive stressed syllables (“ghost sludge,” “gray strip”), to the way he uses anaphora (“hence” and “hence”) to overlay the interlocking logic of the sentence’s multiple explanations of the brief initial phrase. The quantity of it, the combination of syntactic speed with the nearly countless ways new phrases refer back, adding, echoing, reconsidering, makes each phrase feel generative, even as the new sounds and ideas that unfold from it begin generating more words themselves.



The first of his books that I read was his fourth, 1991’s Covenant. Shapiro arrived on UNC’s campus in 1995, when I was starting my senior year, which made me the expert and him the interloper (I’ve been punished for my sins; I now teach 10th-graders—literal sophomores.) Covenant was still his newest book, published when he was just shy of 40, and one that I read skeptically as he arrived. It’s a book of adult vulnerability—parental vulnerability—and Jewish vulnerability, too, all of which made it seem rather remote and conventional to my insular and arrogant mind. The poems seemed constrained to me then—domestic, yes, but also cautious, protected, which they were, though I didn’t yet see how far his wariness was carrying him.

Consider “In the Kingdom of Pleasure.” The title’s a little ironic: the kingdom, if it is a kingdom, is far from secure, the king powerless, and the only way Shapiro can enter is to buttress it with awareness, a show of awareness—the experience of limitlessness only possible if he knows it’s limited.

In the poem’s first stanza, made up entirely of another long sentence, there’s an apparent restlessness as he retells the story of Hagar, the story he must tell before he can let himself describe his wife and infant son in a scene of unguarded delight:

Unwitting accomplice in the scheme of law  
she thought to violate, man-set as it was,  
and, here, inconsequential as the sun  
at midnight, drought at flood-time—
when she heard a baby in the tall reeds  
at the river’s brink, she was nobody’s  
daughter, subject of no rule
but the one his need for her established  
as she knelt down to quell his crying  
with a little tune just seeing him there  
had taught her how to hum.

Here are many of the same techniques as above, but the forward rush seems to be happening almost against the speaker’s will, and the reaching back seems more like a hunger to slow it all down, adjust, explain, hold everything in place. We’re in the sixth long line before we finally arrive at the sentence’s subject and verb, and even then it’s negation we get—“nobody’s,” “no rule”—an incessant, almost anxious clearing-away before the last four lines are able to bloom a little—just a little—into the “little tune.”

Meanwhile, the kingdom that the title alludes to is just one room, that second stanza walled off by the stanzas on either side. There, Shapiro writes toward the most convincing evidence that the kingdom is secure—the fact that baby and mother can take pleasure at simulations of harm:

                                    … the foot slick
as a fish your hand tries to hold up
till it slips back splashing
with such mild turbulence that she laughs,
and you laugh to see her laugh.

But that image of happiness can’t last. The speaker, notably, doesn’t laugh. He writes the third stanza instead, quickly discarding the brief foray into pleasure in order to resume the watchfulness that controls his voice, allowing him to finally grow full-throated only as he tries to make everything stop, praying for more negation, “Lord, / Jealous Chooser, Devouring Law, keep / away from them, just keep away.”

Throughout Covenant, the poems’ speaker tries to ward off by inviting in, a habit, the book’s title poem suggests, that was part of Shapiro’s familial inheritance—what he knew of being an adult. For the preceding generation, talking about bad news is relief—but such talk is surrounded and even interrupted by the speaker’s knowledge that it will end, his version of their talk:

Nothing bad, right now, can happen here
except as news, bad news the brother and sister
mull and rehearse, puzzle and fret until
it seems the very telling of it is
what keeps them safe.



I didn’t know, but when I met Shapiro the harm those poems imagined—and tried, by imagining, to control—had arrived. Over three years, beginning about the time his next book, Mixed Company, came out in 1996, his sister would die, his marriage would end, and his brother would die, the last two just about one month apart. But as grief replaced worry, fulfilled worry, his poetry flourished—not because, he would insist, suffering is necessary for poetry, but because, I suspect, in diminishing his sense of what a poem could do, it expanded his sense of what he could do in a poem.

Grief, Shapiro has said, is a privilege; it means you’ve had something important enough to grieve. And in the two books of poems that followed his sister’s and then his brother’s death—The Dead Alive and Busy and Song and Dance—instead of looking ahead from life to loss, he seems more often to look back from loss to life, hungrily, almost playfully at times, almost—almost—happily (“the hunger’s sweet,” he writes at the end of “Song and Dance”), no longer as worried to find the falsehood, the flaw, the merely performative. Instead, performance takes over, and as it does, the techniques that had before seemed to resist, restrain, and correct begin to change in nature. Now it’s a question of keeping the vision, the show, alive.

In these poems, the ways we act are us; we are the roles we play as long as we’re allowed to play them. Around the time that Song and Dance came out, in 2002, Alan was interviewed for the Atlantic. Of that time, he says:

I had gone through a period of such radical instability and discontinuity that I needed to find and take comfort in what forms of continuity still remained to me. I had always thought that I was going to be somebody’s brother, and all of a sudden I was nobody’s brother, so a crucial part of my identity was gone…. So much of who I had been was now no longer…. And I was still a writer, so I wrote, and what I had spent most of my life writing was poetry….

The poems still see what worried him before, but the arguments against pleasure—that it ends, for instance—are now arguments in favor of joy. Here he is in a poem from Song and Dance, this one titled and addressed to “Joy,” describing his young daughter dancing and singing as she walked him “to the car / to say goodbye / the day I left / to keep watch at my brother’s / bedside”:

          and magisterial—
                                     the joy of it,
the animal candor of
                                 each arabesque,
each leaping turn and counterturn,
Savagely beautiful,
                              not so much like  
the lion that the camera
                                                 in mid-
pounce, claws
                     outstretched for the stumbling
as like the herd
                                     that the camera
pans to, zig-
                                  swerving as one,  
their leaping strides now
                                       leaping higher,
even after,
                it seems,
                               the fear subsides—
after the fear and
                            the relief
                                             they keep  
on running
                for nothing but
                                          the joy of running[….]

More than 10 years later, the elements from “In the Kingdom of Pleasure” are still here, including the sense that the world of joy is bounded by devastation, but now they feel simultaneous, whereas before destruction seemed more true. Here again are the long, energetic sentences, the mind revising itself, but that feels different, too. In these few lines alone

                                    the joy of it,
the animal candor of
                                 each arabesque,
each leaping turn and counterturn…

there’s “the joy of it” yielding “the animal candor of,” and, after that break, when “it” should repeat, “each arabesque” appears instead, with the “each” then inviting “each leaping turn”—and even “turn” yielding “counterturn.”  But this sounds delighted to me. It sounds as though he’s found a closer analogue to his daughter’s delight, even (especially?) during grief. He’s hungry for these experiences now, and the hunger is, indeed, sweet, even if they do—and they inevitably do—include terrible loss.

In that same Atlantic interview, he continued:

Of course it doesn’t really insulate me from loss at all…. This book of poems isn’t going to do what the beauty and grace and formal symmetries of poetry suggest it might.

And that, I suspect, was liberating. It didn’t alleviate his grief, but it may have alleviated the sense that poetry was accountable to something it could never do. And so to a degree he hadn’t before, he began to perform in his poems, openly playing with the tools and talents that a lifetime of talking, listening, reading, and writing had given him. He even makes room for humor, as he does here in the almost ecstatically, devastatingly human “Old Joke,” from The Dead Alive and Busy:

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.  

In these poems, Shapiro is still using that same process of revision that so often signaled dissatisfaction before, because the person who “had spent most of my life writing … poetry” had spent even more of it being a performer (Shapiro’s a phenomenal talker and a lover of jokes), and that was part of who he’d been with the people, many of them also performers, who were slipping away.

The Dead Alive and Busy came out in 2000, Song and Dance in 2002. The books that followed, including Night of the Republic, another of my favorites, were very different, but each found new registers for that same mode of syntactically intricate but eagerly propulsive thought. Now comes Reel to Reel, a title I also hear as Real to Real—as if the running-out of the tape could be not reversed but recorded. It’s a book about continuity and endings—marked by gratitude for the connections and illusions that keep consciousness aloft, as well as attempts to imagine the end of consciousness and the forces that both allow for and erode all life.

And it’s a book of visible erasure, one where loss stays present. “The Family Bed” begins with Shapiro and his now-dead siblings waking inside a house that each has separately dreamed, so that they’re all together as long as they’re asleep. As they wake, though, the scene closes down and the house swallows itself “the way the picture did / Inside the switched off television screen.” The poem ends by conjuring

              … the tick and crackle of the shriveling
Abyss they were being sucked away into
By having wakened, while I, alone now,
Clung to the screen of sleeping in the not
Yet undreamt bedroom they no longer dreamed.

In many ways, it’s a perfect subject for him; his style has long depended on paradox and reversals like “the not / Yet undreamt bedroom they no longer dreamed.” That’s been especially true, I think, as his vision of reality has grown to include the rich, imperfect images of reality we create, and as his poems have come to enact the intricate, reflexive vitality of such creation—even now, maybe especially now, as they increasingly contemplate the total loss of vitality.

His poems go one step further, too, from paradox to outright contradiction—a saying-against that conjures that which it precludes. The book opens with the word “not”: “Not gone, not here….” It’s an answer (or at least a response) to the poem’s title, “Wherever My Dead Go When I’m Not Remembering Them.” More than ever before, Shapiro seems to be discarding ideas as he goes:

Not gone, not here, a fern trace in the stone
of living tissue it can somehow flourish from;
or the dried–up channel and the absent current;
or maybe it’s like a subway passenger 
on a platform in a dim lit station late
at night between trains, after the trains have stopped….

Along with the “not”s, those two “or”s mark the change, and yet even as they dismiss each idea in favor of another, these gestures let them stand, like the trace in the discarded image of the stone. The poem eventually conjures a presence to address, re-membering:

… as the door slides open 
into your being once again my father,
my sister or brother, as if nothing’s changed,
as if to be known were the destination.

“To be known” is the destination, as is to know, forget, and be forgotten. It’s remarkable that Shapiro has used, over so many years, such similar tools to create such different poems, remarkable how recognizable he is looking at the world in such different ways. Having known him in my first attempts to know myself as a poet, I’ve never been able to entirely stop being his student. But for all the pleasure I take in that, I suspect it’s the writer who began running in fear but now keeps “on running / for nothing but / the joy of running” that I know best, even though the closest I’ve come to encountering him took place 18 years ago when he was hundreds of miles away.

Originally Published: April 15th, 2014

Jonathan Farmer is the editor in chief and poetry editor of At Length and the poetry critic for the Slate Book Review. He teaches English and writing in Saxapahaw, NC, and lives in Durham.

  1. April 29, 2014
     Ayendy Bonifacio

    Wonderful piece. I too always wonder how my favorite poets live their
    everyday lives. And although we may never quiet know for certain how
    that live looks like, a lot I think is revealed in the poems they write. This
    piece for instance is a window into the growing life and work of a poet.