‘Easy Math’ by Lauren Shapiro

  • PUBLISHED BY: Sarabande Books, 2013
  • REVIEW BY: Nick DePascal


“The audience explodes”

Don’t be fooled by the title of Lauren Shapiro’s debut, Easy Math.  This collection is anything but easy.  Despite its accessible and open tone, despite the poet’s clear word choice and rather informal diction, and despite the concrete imagery placed firmly in modern times, Easy Math is a dizzying and surreal journey that doesn’t offer simplistic answers to any of the questions it may or may not pose.  Instead, Shapiro takes familiar experience and expression and bends them just so—“When I lick my shadow,/ it tastes like the ground and vice versa”—barely eluding obvious sense and suggesting that fixed and final understandings always leave us wanting. Though the images, characters, and settings of Easy Math seem easy to apprehend on the surface, something operating beneath the surface of these poems offers the most excitement.

It’s nice when the first poem of a collection sets the rules for the world that the remaining poems will inhabit. Shapiro begins with these lines in “The Conversation”: “There is always a woman eating a sandwich./ Today she is large as everything/ that wasn’t said. It is ham and cheese.”  After we watch the large woman eat the sandwich for a while, things seem to shift, and perspectives change: “The woman has finished eating her sandwich/ and is one to another one. Now she is tiny/ as a shrimp. She is eating the smallest/ egg salad sandwich in the world.”  The poem ends with the speaker and the sandwich-eating woman finally conversing:

I’ve wanted to talk to you for ages, she says,
but instead I keep eating all these sandwiches.
I know, I say. And I keep going to the bowling alley
with Dale Hickey. It’s been hell.

The poem is slow and quiet.  Not much happens apart from this short conversation.  Yet in its focus on the mundane, the poem posits a deeper question about the nature of relationships and communication, and the harsh truths that lie behind the simplest things we say.  The simplicity of the situation, one that could take place in a break room at your job, or the food court of the local mall, is twisted by the almost existential moment at the end, when the speaker and subject of the poem both admit, through the niceties of normal conversation, that the repetitiveness of their lives make them living hells. These statements, about the sandwiches and the bowling alley and Dale Hickey are repeated from earlier in the poem, and like Sartre’s No Exit, hell for most people is the terror of involving themselves with other people.  The difference between what we say and what we feel, bound as we are by the strictures of polite society, are often as far apart as the woman in large and in miniature.

“The Conversation” is a perfect poem to begin with, because the idea of conversations, of what we say versus what we mean (even if we don’t know what we mean), is a powerful and overarching theme throughout the collection.  In the next poem, “Botanical Garden,” we see this same sort of communication at work when we learn that “Of course there’s a rose named Martha Stewart,” and that “Next door in the café old men eat scones/ and talk about Iraq. The women at the next table// also talk about Iraq. The children, too, playing in the corner–/ they don’t know it, but they’re talking about Iraq.”  This last sentence, about the children, casts doubt on whether anyone is actually talking about Iraq, or whether our speaker is forcing that meaning onto others’ conversations.  The poem perhaps posits each conversation is really an argument, no matter how subtle, with each side trying to persuade the other.  How many of our daily conversations are really just us talking over one another, seeking supremacy of voice and story? At the very least, the poem suggests there are so many conversations happening at any given time it is perhaps impossible for them to matter all that much. Perhaps something about our modern world permeates the deepest level of our minds, and each individual conversation is actually a manifestation of the same brand of fear and guilt.

But the poem, in its beautiful, weird, and hilarious final image, proposes a solution wherein, “Martha Stewart opens up her petals/ like a cup of tea in the jungle. The delicate dog takes// a delicate piss. The quadriplegic smells Martha Stewart./ I smell her. A line starts. Even the infant wants a go.”  If our language and our methods of communicating are hopelessly muddled and ineffective, than this poem seems to propose that it is the experience which requires no talking that ultimately lets us communicate as equals.  When we give up argument, and give ourselves over to the image, to those beautiful, mundane things that populate our world and which we ever seem to be talking around, then we might achieve something like harmony in our relationships.  It’s a poignant moment made more poignant by the grace with which Shapiro allows the reader to reach it.

So it is the image, strangely juxtaposed with the mundane features of everyday life, that Shapiro seems to traffic throughout the collection.  Whether we see that “The last baby/ born in 2009 beats up the first baby born in 2010,” or “Life is mirrors pointed at other mirrors and then one day/ your mom comes in and breaks them all,” there are many instances where it is the shocking image, or accrual of such images, that drives the poem towards its always unexpected, yet vaguely logical conclusion.  In an era when some worry that the image may be supplanting the written word as the preferred method of communication, Shapiro seems ready to embrace this change as a way to reconnect with one another at a level deeper than our constant, vocal discussions about our needs and wants. We should all become images, or at the very least, situations—performances that communicate our willingness to engage and see and listen.

And so, in the final poem of the collection, “So Much Beauty from Despair,” the speaker stands on a train platform in a tutu, imagining and performing her despair through a series of strange and vivid moments: “I extricate the chopsticks from my purse…A three-legged cat with no fur paws by./ I toss my ballet shoes from center stage/ and crumple dramatically. The audience explodes.”  We all live confused, and at times, sad lives, and for the most part we live our pains and failures alone, despite whatever family and friend network we might have around us.  And thus it is the performance of our pain, the sensory-based image of it that allows for the best communication of it, if only each of us will listen, or see one another.  As the poem ends, we’re again given that subtly beautiful, epiphanic moment that lifts us toward meaning:

Then it’s over and a sad monkey with a cap
starts picking up the pistachio shells.
I decide to give the monkey a good home.
He sits on my shoulder and is very pleased.
We will stop for bananas on the way back,
I tell him. He claps his hands and begins
to clean the wax out of my ear.

Shapiro ends with this absurd and humorous image of the monkey that is carrying a lot of weight in the poem.  Here, the image precedes the speech.  The monkey is the method by which the speaker’s ears will be cleaned, and the speaker will be once again ready to listen.  What Shapiro does here then, and throughout the collection as a whole, is not to propose disposing of verbal communication between people, but rather suggest that being attuned to one’s natural surroundings, with all five senses, should precede the impetus to speak, and that true understanding can perhaps only be attained by careful attention.  That what we all need are monkeys on our shoulders.