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Microscopic Metaphors

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 3, March/April 2013
p. 23 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0031

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The title of Myra Shapiro’s collection is bookended by the front cover’s abstract drawing of a woman in mid-air and the back cover’s photo of the smiling, gray-haired author. This sets the mood for a four-part romp through the stages and challenges of life and poems that proudly talk about aging.

In part 1, “A Tree with Windy Branches,” Shapiro establishes her autobiographical tone for the collection. The poem “Longing and Wonder” juxtaposes two incidents more than twenty years apart—her mother telling her child self that she lives in her head and her young adult self answering a professor’s question about her first book of poems: “In longing you close your eyes, / but in wonder you open them.”

“Songs in the Bones” jumps between the poet recalling her mother’s blue eyes and full breasts and shopping in an outlet mall in Vermont: “I’m here / to hibernate and see the birches (in May / they’re “bones of light”).

Some hallmarks of this collection are the easy cadences bringing together past and present or two different “presents,” along with moments of almost breaking into song. One idea that resonates for me is the notion of living in one’s head—because we all do it differently. In this way, Shapiro brings together disparate stories as her poems unfold. Part 1 includes mapping observations on a trip to a new city, Bruges, following a dream, and closes with the “Windy Branches” poem about family, names, and home. This poem explores some hidden meanings of names, and how the first names in her family and those in her Pakistani son-in-law’s family resonate together. I believe the word “windy” refers to twists and turns, as in winding roads, rather than blowing air currents, but I guess it could refer to both. In this way, Shapiro’s poems bring together life, literature, family, friends, lovers, locations, and different time periods, but the language also contains ambiguity and double meanings, leaving out parts of the story or letting readers choose among competing meanings. Part 2, “The History of God in Our House,” generally touches on learning Jewish and Yiddish and Christian stories and traditions, but not trusting organized religion. It opens with “Columbus Circle,” an oblique poem that mentions the assonance of moon and noon, foreshadowing the assonance used throughout a poem which this time contrasts climbing boulders in Bronx Park as a child and 2001, World Trade. The poem doesn’t directly mention terrorism or 9/11; it just tells us,

there’s no going back
  to the place you started,
homeless in midair, brokenness, musical chairs
  where the chair’s not there

suggesting that her childhood was interrupted, possibly by divorce or death, but that she has decided to “hold to the soul / of a New York girlhood” as she has moved on. The title, “Columbus Circle,” also has several meanings, from an upper West hub in Manhattan to a historical reference to a round, colonized world; the poet urges us to “Get around round.”

The second poem in this section, “I Want You to Understand How It Was” opens, “In New York City our family / never entered a synagogue.” The poem suggests that workers organizing for better conditions and loyalty to working class values was more important. Shapiro addresses issues relating to finding a mate, keeping her kitchen according to Kosher guidelines, then deciding to stop this tradition from her husband’s family, and Jewish rituals like Passover. Part 2 closes with “L’dor V’dor” (Hebrew for from generation to generation), a poem about her husband’s struggle and final acceptance that his first child was marrying a Muslim.

Part 3, “The Business of Love,” opens with “Through and Through,” a poem about sex and a nearly intimate encounter on a train. The second poem, “A Brother,” is about incest between a sister and brother. The third poem is a beautiful description of a passion flower opening on a rooftop. Other poems in this section cover a host of topics including watching a sexually provocative movie that is interrupted by a call from a grandson, and the ways that making...

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