- Paying Homage
Reading Daniel Shapiro's Woman at the Cusp of Twilight is similar to leafing through someone's family photo album. Most of the subjects are no longer living, and the chronology is mixed up, but the faces (and stories behind them) are inviting and real. This gives pleasure.
Shapiro introduces his poetic tribute to his maternal relations with a family tree, which for me, was both positive and negative. I began by scrupulously referring back to it as I read each poem, bookmark at the ready, wanting to orient myself to all the relationships and events in their lives. However, at about one-third of the way through, I decided this method was keeping me from appreciating each poem on its own merits. And there are many merits.
This book differs from Shapiro's previous book of poems, The Red Handkerchief (2014), which is lyrical and imagistic and strongly first-person. That book does contain several poetic odes to family members, but the poems dwell mostly on romantic and sexual themes. (One, "Your Name Means 'Forever'," is reminiscent of Cavafy in its elegiac, nostalgic quality.)
In this book, Shapiro, as curator of this family portrait, modestly conceals the "I" for the sake of leading the reader into the lives of the characters. The voice is more-or-less evenly divided between omniscient distant narrator and direct address to an individual. The work is nicely varied; there are ten concrete poems (a wine glass, Coney Island parachute, a potato, among others), several dramatic monologues, and one ekphrastic piece ("Abe, Cast in Sepia"). Most poems focus on Shapiro's parents, aunts and uncles; a few on his grandparents; and one (a sad tale of a dead child) invokes his great grandparents. Aging, dreams deferred and eventually renounced (his mother's dance career), sibling issues, marriage, and one unhappy divorce: these are some of his subjects.
In "So Much in Love" Shapiro directly addresses his mother about her lost career. He addressed this more successfully in the poem "Dance" in The Red Handkerchief, where his lineation and language fly; here the language and structure are flatter, filled with not-so-interesting details. I found this so in a minority of other poems where he seems to want to give information by "reminding" the recipient of the poem of past events. When this happens, it takes precedence over his usual concern with sight and sound, as in "Max and the Memory of Elke." But now on to all the good stuff.
Concrete poetry is so tricky. It can so easily turn to visual kitsch. Shapiro's concrete poems are delightful. "The Cemetery at Torrey Pines," which contains the line that is the title of the book, is a tree-trunk-shaped description of his mother at the grave of her mother. The last line makes subtle reference once again to his mother's aborted dance career:
It's the treethat appears to be dancing, rooted butswaying with abandon in the breeze. [End Page 20]
"Parachute Jump" attempts perhaps a bit too much, but the unpunctuated, free-floating (pun intended) lines relate perfectly to the subject matter. (Full disclosure: I grew up in Coney Island; partiality is possible here.)
Shapiro is excellent in matching his lineation and metrics to his subject matter. The abrupt short lines in "Hannah" appropriately signify the drama, tension and tragedy of the story. "The Peach Tree" is a memory piece which needs to be read out loud to get the benefit of the tempo:
That branch jutting over the fenceladen with fruit—
but when he looks back, no one's there,only the tangy scent of peacheshangs in the air.
"Rhapsody in the Sun (Esther's Dream)" is all about Grandma meeting up with George Gershwin, and appropriately, the language swings:
Scintillations. Above the water,pale-green willows hung their long hair down.
It's all lovely –until the turn:
Because the unbenign presence growing insidecrowded out...