Jerusalem, For Example (Harvey Shapiro)

May 27, 2008

“Life passes away–
Poetry remains.”
This is what the students
of the Hebrew University Secondary School
wrote on their card to me,
handed to me
attached to a small bouquet
after my reading. I thought
they wrote it with my age in mind,
for solace. I would like to believe
that what they wrote is true.
But I know most poetry passes away,
and maybe all of my poetry will pass away
and it will be as if I had not been.
My sons may come to see my life’s work
as a foolish project. When they do,
I hope they remember the happiness it gave me,
the places it took me to–
Jerusalem, for example, and my meeting with Ester,
my passing through the Lions’ Gate
as if in my youth.

* * *
I met Harvey Shapiro several years ago on the eve of a reading he was to give at Xavier, at a party hosted by a professor friend of mine. He was old and small but spritely. He drank wine, entertained each conversation with intensity and interest. So much life, so much experience, so much worldliness in such a small body, I thought. Someone said he had just come, a few nights before, from a party hosted by Martin Scorsese. I stayed late–probably later than I should have–so that I might finally get a chance to talk to him. I sat next to him and told him I liked his poems, told him about the magazine I edit for, and would he consider sending us some work. He was kind, patient, and even accepted my request to read an older poem of his that I liked at the next night’s reading. Of course I had to bring the book, since he didn’t have the poem with him. I can’t remember the name of the poem now, but it ends with something like an answer to the poem I’ve quoted above. “Peace, goddess voice, / keep telling me a story,” or something like that. Shapiro’s later poems are filled with an acute awareness of aging and of his own mortality, of his life’s passing, and questions of what he will have passed on, if anything. The happiness he speaks of here comes to him, I believe, because of that prayer spoken to the goddess to keep telling him a story, and because he has continued to listen.

Shapiro knew cities with a strange and unexpected intimacy. He could see through them, into their soul. The poem “Jerusalem, For Example” comes from a collection called How Charlie Shavers Died, and I could have picked any of the poems in it as representative of this intimacy. For example, I could have picked “It Was April”:

It was April
and it had snowed
and we thought it was snow again
coming out of the restaurant
into the lit night
but it was wind-borne
white petals of the flowering
Bradford pear trees
that line this Brooklyn street.

His simplicity of statement, so close to the bone of experience, is felt immediately, and is recognizable. The poems are not just accessible, but familiar. They touch with their truth. I think I have read and returned to this collection more than any other in the last six years.

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