The Sights
Along the Harbor

New and Collected Poems
Harvey Shapiro

    I was conceived on the night of my sister's funeral. As a replacement, I suspect. But she was very beautiful, my mother said, and when I was born I was quite ugly, with a large bump on my head, so large the attending doctor first advised surgery. My grandmother insisted she could do the job with the flat of a kitchen knife: using almost constant pressure. And so it turned out.

There are 400 poems included in this volume, drawn from ten previous books. Shapiro's writing career stretches over sixty years: his first book of poems was published in 1953.

What he writes is not poetry, at least in the poetic sense of John Clare, Baudelaire, Apollinaire (among others of his favorites). Shapiro's verse is more like fine prose, chopped and splayed into appropriate end-stops. One could think of it as American haiku, with specific Shapiro rules for size and structure and line-endings.

For instance, the paragraph that appears at the top of this page is part of one of his poems, published in National Cold Storage Company in 1988. I took out the end-stops and what you get is a terse but sometimes comic sometimes serious prose composition.

This non-dramatic, non-poetic poetic style may flow from Shapiro's daytime job. He did journalism, or rather he edited journalism at the center of a site of careful, carefully pruned, carefully turned, factually perfect prose: He spent eight years as editor of the New York Times Book Review, even more years as a senior editor at the New York Times Magazine. You can't get no more prosaic (nor word-perfect) than that.

It's no scandal to write prose and measure it out as poetry ... as long as it is of a piece, as long as we can see it as a Whitmanesque take on a specific geographical vision ... being for Shapiro (and Whitman) the unlikely setting of Brooklyn. There is a sweep to the prose poems of the two of them. Both grew to maturity in war: Whitman as a nurse in various military hospitals, Shapiro as a gunner in Italy near the end of WWII.

Shapiro can be, at times, strangely dispassionate, sometimes edgy with spare vulgarity:

    She thought he got his sexual energy from the Kabbalah,
    though it was more like a freight train running over her
    every night about twelve ... the freight cars rattling
    and the long despairing declining note at the end.
    He thought she had her orgasms in American...

Yet his quickies are pure New York:

    A black queen
    approaches my car
    at the corner of Atlantic and Henry.
    "I need $100,000
    to help me pick up
    the pieces of my life."


    Caught on a side street
    in heavy traffic, I said
    to the cabbie, I should
    have walked. He replied,
    I should have been a doctor.


    When can I get on the 11:33
    I ask the guy in the information booth
    at the Atlantic Avenue Station.
    When they open the doors, he says.

Shapiro is often facile, but he's our kind of facile ... one who speaks to those of us who came through on the other (or wrong) end of WWII:

    Our first car was a Nash.
    From our window on Riverside Drive
    I saw them building the George Washington Bridge.
    When you had ice-cream at home
    your mother had to make it.
    Cases of Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray Tonic and Cream Soda.
    I kissed my cousin Muriel under the piano.

He thinks often on the old rad days, when we were trying to build a just world out of some dank cellar in Greenwich Village, just below the junkshop, across from the deli, a basement room where the walls were painted blue, the pipes red, the couches weeping out stuffings from out under our spare bottoms, and the windows, of wire-enclosed glass, hadn't been cleaned since Pearl Harbor:

    Going to Croton-Hudson
    I don't look at "The Lordly Hudson"
    though I can hear Paul Goodman
    on the phone explaining why ---
    I had asked him why --- he had left
    the state of the Quaker Meeting House
    in tears, as the actors in the audience
    began to shout, "Paradise Now, Paradise Now..."

Paul Goodman! A meeting of old lefties, shouting one of their own down and off the stage. Those drunken meetings, too much noise, so much pissed-offedness, all the while we were sure the world was ending in a blaze of bombs and bad statesmanship.

There is a diffidence here, a pointed diffidence, "weighted down with family angst." The blessing is that there is none of that fancy-dan poetry heavy in the lead of the classics, bowing down under the weight of the Greeks and the Romans and the Romantics.

Pure New York, a world of noisy desperation, a world in which you are the ugly one, born with a big lump on your cranium which you grandmother had to hammer down, and you wonder whether, since your were conceived on the night of your lovely sister's death, whether you father was "excited by my mother's grief," where you, the "ugly baby," made her turn away, "not to touch me / for the first few months of my life," which made it so he could carry her anxiety. "With me still."

--- A. W. Allworthy


Living It Up in
The World of Books

Wendy Werris
(Carroll & Graf)
We will never be able to understand why book people have so much trouble writing books. From our experience, professional bookies --- people in the trade --- don't seem to know how to get the words down without driving most reviewers to drink or worse.

This worse, I mean this Werris: her prose comes out as bright as pink Jello, and as shaky too. She can't stop sticking in these names, including some who may be Very Important somewhere, but are meaningless to those of us who grew up on the wrong side of the Summer of Love.

In her day-to-day, books are pieces of meat to be cut, packaged, dyed, and sold. She's what they call a publisher's representative, the one between publisher --- Dutton, say, or Grove, or Oxford University Press --- and buyers for the bookstores great and small.

In one of the earliest incarnations of this magazine, one of our critics did a review of a book by Alfred Manguel. It was funny because it showed Manguel as a habitual literary name-dropper and an elegant hack. It was unwise because it was originally destined for an unnamed large-circulation California daily, and its publication got our reviewer canned. On the other hand, we here at RALPH couldn't get enough of it.

We also published a tart dissection of another book about books, which, when you think about it, does seem sort of silly. Are we interested in hearing an opera about composing operas? How about seeing a painting of a painter painting paintings. OK, I just remembered Velasquez, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Latrec, Seurat, Cezanne and a dozen others. I retract my charge. Better: how about using a drawing of the nose to smell a rose?

We called So Many Books to Read, So Little Time a literary Tobacco Road.

    It's quick, and trashy, and has more than a hint of incest. It's obviously something that Nelson [the author] and her agent cooked up while having a power lunch at The Four Seasons. One can hear the gears clanking, the wheels turning, the pumps groaning: People who like to read books are going to be people who like to read books about people who read books, she opines. I love it! he purrs.

There are times when writers conjure a force to give readers a new perspective on bookish topics --- not unlike a bound version of the always useful, often funny "NB" columns in the TLS. One such was Carlos Maria's delightful House of Paper, which included (and which we reprinted) the very worthy question, "Why do we save books?" Why indeed? Will we be reading them again; or giving them to people we care for? Do we use them to reassure others that we do something with our lives rather than watch TV, call up the e-mail, play with the cat, and dig up the latest scandal on Drudge. I have five thousand or so books building up my dust collection --- in the study, in my bedroom, spilling over the bedtable onto the floor, under the bed cheek-by-jowl with the dog, poaching shelf-space in the kitchen and bathroom, taking up space next to the tools in the garage, and always, carrying thirty or so about with me in my car when I am on my daily rounds, those left unfortunately on the dashboard getting sunburnt, brownish pages, covers curling up with age.

§     §     §

What to do with Ms. Werris? She met Ronni Wood, had supper with George Harrison, spent time with someone named Buck Henry. She took Jonathan Franzen around Los Angeles for several days (she was on Xanax) and had sex with one of our favorite poets of all time, the tall, mustachioed and dry Richard Brautigan.

Werris' father, Snag Werris, was a joke writer, so she met at an early age the greats of radio and early television: Eddie Cantor, Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby. He would say things like "You're only young once in a while." Her mother belched at the table, and would say "Well! Pardawnay mwah!" No wonder she started having panic attacks at a very young age.

What to do with Werris? She is honest, startlingly so. She leaves out no details of her experiments with drugs and sex, and her stories of panic attacks ... sleeping with the bathroom lights on and a chair jammed up against the doorknob ... will be familiar to many of us who've lived the same terrors. But there's something missing. Her style is not at all fetching; more, woody. It leaves much to be desired: a duplex was spacious enough for the renters, "but it didn't have room for little ol' me.") Her sketches of her friends, famous and not, are more nail-clipping than thumb-nail.

It took me awhile to figure out what we have going on here. It's ostensibly a book about the ins and outs of the American book-publishing business. It was, perhaps, the number of times we got to the "I" and "me" weedpatch. And the index. A lighthearted autobiography about the publishing business with an Index. There's "Sendak, Maurice" on page 19 and "Sebold, Alice" on 115 but no "Sex," only "Brautigan, Richard," bare, sexless: 52 - 54.

The Index is chockablock full of other important names, showing Ms. Werris to be no slouch in theImportant People collection department:
Davis, Eddie
Dawley, Jack
Day, Doris
The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills,
Dean, James.

And, there at the end, we find "List of Publishers repped by WW, 1976 - 2006." Ah so. Now we know what we have in hand. Not an autobiography. No, a large, a far too large resumé.

--- F. J. Gooding

In One

The Search for
Other Universes

Alex Vilenkin
(Hill and Wang)
Isaac Newton invented gravity when an apple strudel fell on his head while he was walking the streets of Pisa. Since then, scientists have invented several other gravities, including "replusive gravity" which makes you vomit, and plain-vanilla gravity which doesn't. Newton, it turns out, was named after a fig well beloved in its day.

When he mumbled "But it still turns," Galileo was talking about his stomach ache after an meal of Fig Newtons, which are to be consumed sparingly if at all. His revulsion saved him from being cooked up at a stake dinner being given in front of the Papal Palace by Pope Urban IV, the man who invented the suburb.

Fig Newtons are not to be confused with the "cosmic egg" which was laid by the Eternal Chicken, founder of the rubbery lunches you get when you attend a conference of physicists or microbiologists in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. Dark Energy is very dark, and is the result of laying out too long in the sun at Caesar's Palace after an extended morning conference on Dark Matter, which is also very dark.

Edwin Hubble was named after one of the witches in the play MacBeth --- the other two being Bubble and Trubble. The "exhaustive randomness" of the universe was so exhausting that physicists renamed it the Bubbling Universe, after Witch #2, and that is what it does to this day: just sits there, perking, like a pot of coffee on the back burner.

The String Theory was manufactured at the Tufts Institute of Physics --- where Vilenkin teaches --- to explain why you and I often keep a ball of used and varicolored string at the back of a lower desk drawer where no one can find it.

There is also a Weak Force in the universe which explains why we can never turn down the last piece of chocolate cake at someone's birthday party, but there is also a Strong Force that makes it possible for us to get home on our own after drinking a half a bottle of wine at the same party. "De Sitter's spacetime" is what you end up paying the babysitter after coming back too late from the party.

O-regions of the universe are so remote that when we try to conceive of them we go "Oh," or possibly "Oh shit!" "Eternal inflation" has nothing to do with the trickle-down theory of the Reagan administration or the fiscal policy of the Bush administration, but was, rather, invented by Fred Hoyle, a master bridge player who always played the game according to, well, the directions of his wife, Mrs. Hoyle. He also invented the Big Bang which was her reaction when he foolishly trumped one of his own aces.

There are, according to the author, island universes, parallel universes, and duplicate universes, though the thought that there might be other "density perturbations" on the order of Paris Hilton or Donald Trump on another earth exactly like our own does give one pause.

§     §     §

Speaking of gravity, according to Vilenkin, Roger Babson was friend to Thomas A. Edison, and he worked long and hard to invent an anti-gravity material to be used in shoes to "lighten weight when walking." Edison

    suggested to him that birds may have some antigravity stuff in their skin, and Babson promptly acquired a collection of some five thousand stuffed birds.

"It is not exactly clear what he did with them," Vilenkin reports, "but apparently this line of research did not result in any breakthrough."

The author may be silly, but he is not without a few facts to drive you sane. His Prologue begins, "The stunning success of the book took everybody by surprise. The author, a quiet, even demure physics professor named Alex Vilenkin, has become an instant celebrity. His talk show engagements have been booked a solid six months in advance."

    He has hired four bodyguards and has moved to an undisclosed location to avoid paparazzi. His sensational bestseller, titled Many Worlds in One, describes a new cosmological theory that says that every possible chain of events, no matter how bizarre or improbable, has actually happened somewhere in the universe --- and not only once, but an infinite number of times!

--- Eunice Lovejoy, PhD
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