‘The Sights Along the Harbor: New and Collected Poems’ by Harvey Shapiro
“Jewish Brooklynites, You Are Not Alone”
The Sights Along the Harbor, subtitled New and Collected Poems, conveniently gathers, with a few omissions, Harvey Shapiro’s published poetry to date. Since his first book The Eye, published in 1953, Harvey Shapiro has built a concise and important body of work slowly and carefully. His work has moved away from the virtues espoused by the New Critics, but has also stayed apart from current trends, which has undoubtedly caused the recognition of his work to suffer. He cites as his forbears and teachers Whitman, Williams, Crane, Zukofsky and Oppen, though his poems sometimes remind me of a Jewish Frank O’Hara, if that makes any sense; they are deceptively simple, open, consistently short and anecdotal, verging on aphoristic, only occasionally marred by crabbiness, and often very funny:
Caught on a side street
In heavy traffic, I said
To the cabbie, I should
Have walked. He replied,
I should have been a doctor.
Citing Shapiro’s skill with anecdote does not do justice to the discipline he looks for in his craft. He knows with Martin Buber that “A story must be told in such a way/ That it constitutes help in itself.” For Shapiro, this help is never far from the last things, in ways that speak both inside and apart from his Orthodox Jewish background. Shapiro is solidly grounded in New York City, where he has lived most of his life. Time and again, Shapiro takes an image of Brooklyn, its bare reality, and lets the miracle of it touch him. Discussing the view of Manhattan skyscrapers from the Brooklyn Heights promenade, he writes:
They stand before us
Like tribal gods meting our success and unsuccess,
All that we have to lift our eyes to.
For Shapiro, desire is grounded in the body, and often expressed in unabashedly physical terms. His poems are sometimes burdened by an offhand anatomical coarseness but, at their best, take care to express desire nakedly enough to keep it from being simply beautiful, or resting content with metaphor. In “Jesus, Mary I Love You Save Souls,” the graffiti mentioned in the title reminds him of an image of his lover “head thrown back, legs parted.” He says “When we get to the dark part of the ride… Keep me in that light/ Subway car light/ Burning forever/ With that image/ In my brain.” While this has the beat of desire, the deliberate highlighting of the harsh subway car light has a way of letting body and soul cohabit in all their beauty and ugliness. Ultimately, reality is the goddess he lusts for.
Shapiro’s work is more anecdotal that that of his Objectivist forbears George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff, though it retains their moral concern. Reznikoiff especially cut through the world’s rhetoric with hard edged images, and straight reporting, reducing the “I,” honing the self as a lever for social change. Shapiro knows that we always carry our home with us, whether we are in Japan or Brooklyn Heights, and that the “I” is often resistant to change. He is not ashamed of his fallible, humanly limited point of view, and counts on candor to cut through the crap, including his own, while never taking himself too seriously:
He was looking for a
Universal message like,
You are not alone.
Shapiro also knows how to approach the profound. “Italy 1944,” first published in 1994, is a legitimate addition to the canon of WWII poems (Shapiro has recently edited an anthology of WWII poetry). He addresses his own aging with candor and insight, but The Sights Along the Harbor is no how-to treatise of geriatrics. What I find most vital and relevant in this collection is his ability to turn a particular image into a paradoxical truth, letting it stand or fall on its own rather than masking it with terminal irony or overly broken syntax. His work affirms the value of poetry as a spiritual practice, making us want to read on, while also facing the fact that poetry by itself, vital as it is, solves nothing in the end.
In New York
at the end of the day
if you are pleased with yourself
and the human condition
and feel no survivor’s guilt,
you have added to the darkness.