- Tantalus in Love
If I could recommend one book of poetry from 2005, it would be Alan Shapiro's Tantalus in Love. The book is a masterpiece. For a long time now, Shapiro has been slipping under the radar of more mainstream poetry recognition, but perhaps this book, published in an attractive cover by Houghton Mifflin (note the derrière-shaped apple), will land him on the Billy Collins map. Book clubs everywhere will be better because of it.
Shapiro's previous collection, Song & Dance, a book-length elegy on the death of his brother from cancer, was a fine achievement, but Tantalus in Love soars above even its heights. Shapiro has long been admired for his formal range and patience, his commitment to psychologically acute narrative, his craftsmanship and care, but even to admirers there seemed to be a dry, prosaic quality dogging the poems, a hesitation to break out and sing. There was no question as to Shapiro's intelligence and moral integrity, but for ardor and music, one would look elsewhere.
With Tantalus in Love, one no longer has to look elsewhere. The music is all here. Lush, sinuous, rhapsodic, the poems in Shapiro's new collection retain all the psychological acuity of his earlier work while ratcheting up the song. "The trees let down/their branches to his out-/stretched hands," the title poem begins, "lower/and still lower,/the branches/bending like a taut/bow from the weight of fruit/that flashes/everywhere/among the leaves." Indeed, every line in this book is taut, strung to an exquisite, quivering tension. If before this book Shapiro wrote predominantly under the sign of Prospero, he has now given in most deliciously to the delights of Ariel—without losing any of the former's wisdom and discipline. "The nearness of it, the right/there too bright mocking/plenitude that leaps away/so teasingly each time/he grabs for it that every/time he can't help think/this time he nearly got it,/he came so close, and so/he's even hungrier,/more eager than before/to try again . . . ."
Shapiro derives much of the tension in his book from one great formal innovation: the combination of protracted sentences and extremely short lines. Usually a poet interested in capturing the feel of consciousness will extend the lines to accommodate, even encourage, long sentences that channel the movement of thought (think of Ashbery or C. K. Williams), but Shapiro cuts against the grain of many of his sentences by rigging them to three-, even two-beat lines. I can think of no other poet who writes convincingly in iambic [End Page 170] dimeter. Yet Shapiro not only writes convincingly in this meter; he writes in the high style: "Is this it, love,/so long bereft,/we've had to teach/ourselves to make/oasis of/the in-between/where no place is,/not dwelling but/arriving ever,/thirsty, stumbling/near and nearer/till even the merest/opening/for touch becomes/a desert where/the dunes grow higher,/hotter, and/desire is distance/and distance water?" ("Desert Water").
The effect of the long sentence spread over short lines is one of increasingly pleasurable delay, as Shapiro carries the thought beyond so many potential stopping points (using very little punctuation), developing it, layering it, much in the manner of Proust, taking us further and further inside the moment described until we are hot with desire for the payoff. Many of the finest short lyrics in the book, such as "Takeoff," "The Haunting," "Ghost Watch," "Bounty" and "Desert Water," are composed of only one or two sentences. Because of this, even the shortest poems in this book never seem short; they seem, rather, expansive, hungering for a space just beyond their limits.
Interestingly, Shapiro's strength, as evidenced by the magnificent title poem as well as "Superbowl Party" and "The Conversation," is the long poem of restlessly probing consciousness, but his long poems work with the same lyric intensity as his short poems, take on the same kind of emblematic weight.
Shapiro's new book should...