Shapiro - Momentary-C-300-X

When I recall the poet Harvey Shapiro, who died not long before his eighty-ninth birthday in January 2013, I remember having lunch with him on a sweltering August afternoon in 2001, New York City’s hottest day in twenty-five years, or so the radio said. Harvey, who before his career as poet and New York Times editor had been a radio gunner in the Army Air Forces during World War II, had recently agreed to edit an anthology about that war for the Library of America, where I work as an editor. On the brief walk to the restaurant the air heaved and shimmered in the relentless heat, but Harvey kept up a steady pace, with just a slight shortness of breath. By the time we sat down to eat he had recouped his energy and seemed to swell with vitality, regaling me and LOA editor-in-chief Geoffrey O’Brien with war stories (literally) and literary gossip.

Mostly the latter. How Elizabeth Hardwick once remarked that T. S. Eliot’s anti-semitism “didn’t mean all that much, we were all anti-semitic in those days,” prompting Harvey to shoot back, “I wasn’t.” How Perdita Schaffner, the daughter of modernist poet H.D., had described her only meeting with a man she would afterwards learn was her biological father. Or how at Yaddo in the late 1940s he had crossed paths with major and minor poets alike. The lesser figures made for more fun: He recalled Richard Eberhart, now scarcely remembered beyond the anthology piece “The Groundhog,” clumsily propositioning another writer during a garden walk: “My wife doesn’t care what I do as long as I’m discreet.” Harvey dismissed Eberhart in a phrase or two — “he was naive, like a Boy Scout” — and noted with a sly smile, “The woman was someone I happened to be sleeping with.”

Shapiro_Harvey by Robbins

Harvey Shapiro (photo by Ken Robbins)

I’m glad that something of that afternoon, and of others like it as he worked on the collection that became Poets of World War II (2003), comes through in Shapiro’s final book, A Momentary Glory: Last Poems, edited by poet and critic Norman Finkelstein, Harvey’s friend and literary executor. I can still see Harvey grinning as he sang the airman’s parody of “As Time Goes By” — “You must remember this, / the flak can’t always miss, / there’s someone’s going to die …” — and now, not long into the book, I find those same lyrics pieced into a poem about a snippet of song threading its way across a life, so that he feels himself “caught in a time warp that sings.” These final poems extend our sense of Shapiro from his later work as a man of high seriousness who liked to deflate his pretensions — a Yiddish comic in hieratic robes, a visionary urbane and witty enough to imagine himself making a comedic “pivot and turn” before the “vaudeville backdrop” of the Manhattan skyline.

Written in the last six years of his life, the poems in A Momentary Glory also grapple as best they can with aging, their primary subject. Many are stark and unadorned, recording, at times just barely, the inevitable diminishment that comes with growing old. Often Shapiro writes within his old age rather than simply about it, fighting and sometimes capitulating to his body’s exhaustion. “Like a boy again,” runs an untitled poem in its entirety, “daydreams are my accomplishment.” Fragmentary, elliptical, and enveloped in generous fields of white space, Shapiro’s final poems aren’t so different from the work of the latter portion of his career (early on he was more of a formalist), but now their spare forms suggest something of the means left to him as he copes, drifts, and battles through his old age: It’s not always evident whether the gaps and silences have been chosen or have simply been yielded to. The threat of imminent depletion hovers close, as if a sudden power outage is always to be expected: “I lost my luck and I lost my talent. / Now wherever I go, the sky is blank,” a sentiment echoed in the mock-bluesy plaint about an absent muse, “What happened to the lady with the gifts? / She doan come here no mo / said Henry or Harvey.”

The ailing body and mind expose the human condition in its final phase, but the imprint of Shapiro’s personality in A Momentary Glory pushes against this sense of universal experience (at least for those of us who make it deep into our eighties). Among the chief pleasures of these poems is to hear Shapiro, or rather the wry, take-no-bullshit persona he inhabits, talking to himself, pondering, joking, sifting his thoughts and perceptions, trying to grasp just who he has become in his closing act. Even at their most minimal, these are not “Everyman” poems about mortality, but rather the testimony of a single, singular life as it moves through its last precincts, and not without flare-ups of rage, bewilderment, or a “hungering / for war, pornography, and death.”

Some are fixed in a present moment so self-contained that by contrast the collection’s one overtly political statement, “Bush Poem,” seems jarringly topical, even though this satirical jibe takes the form of a dream. Yet just as often Shapiro revisits and extends the concerns of his earlier work — eros, war, New York City, Jewish themes — sustaining a ceaseless dialogue with the world that had begun long before, and can end only with his passing.

Always close at hand are Shapiro’s literary influences, above all the Objectivist poets: Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen — “a father figure,” he said more than once—Charles Reznikoff, and the poet to whom Objectivism is most indebted, William Carlos Williams. Along with Wallace Stevens, these writers are the subjects of several poems placed toward the beginning of A Momentary Glory, ranging from forthright praise (Williams: “You do not build tombs for posterity / but open spaces where we can breathe / intelligence and the pain of love”) to anecdotal reminiscence (Reznikoff: “Went out to a poetry conference / in the west for five days and never / shat. So he complained to me on his / return.”). Shapiro writes about these poets with an ease and an intimacy that show how deeply he absorbed their example, particularly in giving the things of this world “their own space and their own sanctity,” as he put it in a 2001 interview. “Sanctity” clues us in that, for Shapiro, the Objectivists’ approach was religious at its core, though its practitioners, mostly Jewish, were not observant; the emphasis on the distance between the poet and what is described suggests an ethics of perception, a restraint that does not always come easy to poets.

The ethical imperative, always fundamental to Shapiro’s poetry, surfaces in A Momentary Glory when he takes a backward glance and wishes “to do it all over again / but this time get it right.” But in the retrospective air that pervades much of the book, many of Shapiro’s recollections, especially a sequence of poems about his lovers, take shape as sealed events, beyond the reach of second-guessing or regret. A three-line surge of blissful memory, “Cynthia,” is too raw and instantaneous to be distorted by nostalgia or sentimentality: “Reach in, she said, / and get some juice. / That was happiness.” Glimpses of hurt from long-past relationships — the sadness of sex just before a breakup, an encounter when a lover tells him, “You hurt me. / Will you get off / my fucking bed” — emerge with a comparable frankness that can be startling.

The poems about his experience fighting during World War II — “the old war,” he calls it, as if a familiar friend, companion, or nemesis — show a more complex relation between past events and present recollection. “During the Second World War” is a poem of pure memory, compressed and made austere:

I stood at the door of a B-17

with one engine on fire.

I had been told to get ready

to bail out. Beneath me were

the snow-covered mountains

of Yugoslavia. Around me

was nothing but air.

I wanted to stand there forever.

Almost no attempt has been made to recreate what happened dramatically; instead of the incident’s heart-pounding turmoil, we are given imagery that in another context might seem serene: snowy mountains, an enveloping cushion of “nothing but air.” The near-death experience has itself become ghostly, spectral, abstracted to an eerie clarity.

Shapiro has written about the war throughout his career, notably in “Battle Report” (1966) and “War Stories” (2001), the two poems of his own included in his Poets of World War II anthology. The latter poem draws to its close with incredulity, a not uncommon sentiment among veterans: “How to believe all that happened, / as in a movie, a tv drama, or some other life.” In A Momentary Glory Shapiro continues to address that distant conflict, always present and always receding. The need to go back to the “flickering shadow of my war,” to work out a fresh consideration of a past now mostly unreal, might suggest a lingering trauma (he nearly died on two occasions), but Shapiro hardly seems to have been traumatized by his war service, and indeed took great pride in the Distinguished Flying Cross he was awarded.

If there is any irony in his twice calling himself, in poems not about the war, a “man who has seen war and the destruction of cities,” it doesn’t undermine his valor as a young man. But what’s more important to Shapiro is contingency, luck, the terrible wondrousness of the differing fates meted out decades before. “Now that I think of it,” he writes some sixty years on, as if his lifelong meditation on the war is still yielding new, unbidden perspectives, “I saw no damage. / I saw planes going down, / flames, / steel piercing steel, / but no dead bodies / piled up or strewn / across fields.” This poem, “The Old War,” comes immediately after “Foggia, Italy,” an account of a hiatus between missions that recalls how enchanted the world could seem when one’s next flight over enemy territory was a day or two away. Survival is haphazard and strange, and is deepened in complexity by Shapiro’s being a warrior Jew in Europe during the Holocaust, which lingers around these poems without being explicitly mentioned (it comes up only once in A Momentary Glory, in “Book Club,” a sardonic account of a reading group discussion).

In an author’s note to his collected poems, The Sights Along the Harbor (2006), Shapiro said he was a “lucky survivor,” which is one way to call yourself blessed. But his poetry repeatedly shows how blessedness is a temporary and precarious dispensation. Given the struggles of one’s last years it may not be a very happy condition. In his report of his old age (also, in its way, a battle report), the poems in A Momentary Glory proceed with a certain randomness — memories or journal-like observations are mixed with accounts of a unexpected hospitalization, or the sudden movements of a mind now unsure of itself. I appreciate the book’s candor about the uncertain paths of later life, but I’m even more grateful that the two poems placed at its end conclude Shapiro’s oeuvre on chords of resonant finality. There’s a trace of Whitman’s “look for me under your boot-soles” in the last line of “A Momentary Glory”: “This world is a momentary glory. / I never thought it would last forever / so I tried to get it down / in one notebook or another, / in one poem or another. / Somewhere you can find it.” And the beautiful valedictory “Psalm” asks with reverence and humility that God “remember that I always praised your world / and your splendor and that my tongue / tried to say your name on Court Street in Brooklyn.” In these lines breathe the dedication of a long life given over to poetry and to praise, and to Shapiro’s abiding sense that the local and the cosmic are forever intertwined. We join him as he crosses the bar: “Take me safely through the Narrows to the sea.”

Harvey Shapiro’s A Momentary Glory is available from Wesleyan University Press, which has also posted a companion website.

The Latest

James Gibbons

James Gibbons is an associate editor at the Library of America and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.