Old War

by Alan Shapiro
Houghton Mifflin 2008
Reviewed by Jason Schneiderman


Clarity Begins at Home

old warIn Old War, Alan Shapiro continues to work with a surprisingly simple diction and a stunningly complex prosody.  His style here is defined by a kind of lilt or loop—a series of repetitions that work to calibrate his poems between the epic and quotidian, playing with science, history, myth, politics, and family to find the emotional core of his subject.  It’s a fundamentally existentialist approach—always finding that one soul to offer a secular salvation though understanding in the midst of the fog that clouds our vision. 

Shapiro is a student of classics, which I suspect is where he developed his ability to navigate the large and the small—the social and the personal. After all, the texts he has translated are ones where there is no line between the state and the people who make it.  The jacket cover tries to pin down the collection as working around Shapiro’s personal tragedy and triumph of physical collapse and re-marriage (in that order)—that we should recognize the threads of joyful mortality that pull the book forward, but that seems to simplify this book in order make the emotions autobiographically understandable.  I found that the book’s poles are less tragedy and triumph than they are microcosm and macrocosm.

Shapiro works with a long line and a short line in this book, and both of them allow him to work through the loop.  The short line allows Shapiro to set up syntactic and rhythmic ladders, as here, in the poem “Bower”:

Our bedroom in a small
house in an old
forest where trees
lean down 

It’s a very subtle effect—the noun/preposition/article/adjective ending the first two lines cut against the expected order of both the sentence and the line, and allow him to disorient the reader just enough to keep him in a sense of fall. Ending the line with an adjective pushes the reader towards the noun it will describe at the beginning of the next line, while putting a gap in the expected flow of information.  He achieves a similar push/pull throughout the poem with other syntactic breaks, as in this passage, where the verbs and prepositions are separated from their objects:

where what comes
to us comes through
what holds it back.

Combine that with the repetition of “comes”—which is pulling back temporally against the forward thrust of the sentence (“comes through” is the same action as “comes to us”)—and you begin to have a sense of Shapiro’s aesthetic.  It’s not that he moves slowly, it’s that he moves through the same action, space, syntax or sound repeatedly.  He shows us the same motion from multiple angles.  If you like the metaphor of the poem “unfolding in time,” think of Shapiro’s poems as origami.  It’s not language poetry—all the poems here are landscapes, narratives or meditations—but he approaches his subjects from multiple angles, creating an almost cubist spin. 

In the longer-lined poems, the rhythms are longer, so they loop on a longer beat, the line containing its own repetitions even as they build up over the longer line.  “How”—a poem that begins in “the bedroom of the afterlife”—ends with the phone from the first line continuing to ring:

…the ringing of the phone that never stops,
and how it rings and rings is how the living call,
and how the dead reply is how it goes on ringing.

The repetitions and loops allow Shapiro to embody the intimacies and alienations that make up his central subject here.  He works to represent the failures of connections, and find the connections within those failures—whether contemplating an unfortunate, overheard couple in a restaurant or the photographs of abuse at Abu Ghraib.  Shapiro has long been a poet able to find the intimate in the epic and the epic in the intimate.  This book continues that exploration while stitching the current shocks of American events into his tapestry.