From Publishers Weekly
Brief, tightly wrought and compelling, this eighth book of poems from Shapiro (The Last Happy Occasion) remembers his charismatic brother David, a Broadway actor who died recently from brain cancer. Shapiro's terse, moving sequence begins with poems about the two brothers as children, then moves swiftly into David's diagnosis, his last months of bodily decay and his family's uncomprehending grief. The poet's tools in portraying it all range from slow unrhymed couplets to prose poems and three-step, all-over-the-page lines, and from defiant show-business exuberance to a grave abstraction. One early, eloquent sentence considers "the still// inexorable autonomous/ machinery of obligations// that displace us even as/ they make us who we are"; the brothers' mix of admiration and struggle show "force/ requiring counterforce/ to feel how strong/ it is." Later poems set (in whole or in part) in the hospital set David's physical collapse against the bravery of his "beloved singers, tricksters/ of solace," "the dying brother/ playing the dying brother." Allusions range from Dickinson (in a poem called "Fly") to nursery rhymes; precedents include Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Donald Hall and Paul Monette, all of whom have published widely admired sequences about tending the dying though Shapiro's terse self-control in some ways excels them all. Shapiro (who won a Los Angeles Times Book Award for Mixed Company) has in the past seemed predictable, or perfunctory, as he took on the emotions of middle-class life; here, however, an awful subject has produced a volume to remember. (Mar.) Forecast: Shapiro edits the Phoenix poetry series at the University of Chicago Press, and is well known to the poetry community. This book should put him in a wholly new category among his peers, and will be a contender for major awards. It will also be a comfort to readers in his speaker's situation.
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Ranging through memories old and recent, factual and imagined, Shapiro celebrates his brother, David, a song-and-dance man diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer just three years after their sister's death from breast cancer. The opening poem, in W. C. Williams' stair-step-like variable foot, portrays the brothers as children, lip-synching and step-kicking to an Ethel Merman record for their parents; and the last, in prose, collects some of David's last, jesting responses to his illness, which are genuinely funny. Glimpses of him in agony confirm that he was a real trouper, most indelibly, perhaps, in the depiction of his last day, when his restlessness--"as if in search / of some way / out of the dying / body that just / would not die"--mirrors that of a fly in the room, trying to escape through a windowpane. This book of poems in which not a word seems mischosen is one of the finest examples of the new secular poetry of illness and death that would assuage grief when the consolations of religion ring hollow. Ray Olson
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