SANDY MCINTOSH Reviews
A Momentary Glory: Last Poems by Harvey Shapiro
(Middletown: Wesleyan, 2014)
Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems by David Ignatow
(Rochester: BOA Editions, 1999)
Tunneling Into the Next Life: Final Collections By Two Friends
Posthumous poetry collections by David Ignatow and Harvey Shapiro were published within a year following their deaths. Ignatow died in 1997 and Shapiro in 2014. In the case of Ignatow’s poetry, a collection of last poems was notably edited by three people who were close to him: his daughter, Yaedi, Virginia Terris, and Jeannette Hopkins, who long-ago shaped some of the seminal collections of his work originally published by Wesleyan University Press. Shapiro's poetry was gathered by his friend and literary executor, Norman Finkelstein. The book was published by Wesleyan.
Reading again this final collection of David Ignatow’s poetry many years after his death is a wonderful surprise. There he is, speaking again, not in the tired voice of an opera singer who has made one-too-many farewell appearances, but in his steadfast, forceful voice, with its inimitable preoccupations and ironies. At first the voice is quiet, abstract: “Fear is of the universe,/as is death,/ as is love, pleasure,/ intimacy and cruelty.” But then it picks up its familiar sonority: “Interesting that I have to live with my skeleton./ It stands, prepared to emerge, and I carry it/ with me—this other thing I will become at death.”
In the first section of poems in this book I visualize Ignatow coming to the screen door of his study, answering my tentative knock, his voice, thinner in his last years, and his movements slower, but his eyes demanding directness and honesty. I’ve told the story elsewhere about my early experience with him when, after I’d bragged of reading an unbelievably large number of books during a short period of time, Ignatow reacted as if truly hurt by my exaggeration. “You must use language responsibly,” he admonished me then. This directness is mirrored in the sobriety of these poems.
David could frustrate his friends by his obtrusive self-involvement. Harvey Shapiro told the story of how one day David telephoned to announce “I’ve got wonderful news for you, Harvey!” Since Harvey was then in contention for an important poetry prize that David might know about he was thrilled by David’s call. However, it proved to be disappointing when David revealed that the “wonderful news” was, of course, about David, not Harvey. It probably never occurred to David that Harvey would be expecting to hear something else.
After Ignatow's final book was published, Robert Bly wrote that he had done what very few writers have done: continue to advance their poetry, their eyes open and alert, to tell the rest of us of their journey through old age and death. In A Momentary Glory, I think Harvey has taken Ignatow's lead. The poems in this collection represent a sustained effort to report on the journey, now that the quotidian worries of earlier times--when we still suspected we might live forever--are no longer as pertinent as they once were. Poetry concerning one's end, recited in sobs, would be excruciating. Happily, this does not describe the last poems of Ignatow and Shapiro, who pick up the challenge with enthusiasm. Ignatow writes:
Am I complaining of the shortness of life?
I am, and that makes me much like everyone else.
Follow Adam, the leader, into the ground.
("Where I built my house")
And Harvey joins in:
In my final years
I have moved into a basement apartment
so I can get used to the steps
of the living above me
and to their sweet weight.
A certain amount of farting initiates the old age poems of Ignatow and Shapiro. Ignatow writes: "Old men spend their days farting/ in private to entertain themselves/ in the absence of friends/ long since gone." Shapiro, taking a public stance, writes: "Let's go out/ and fart in the sunlight." I don't have a theory about this; I only wish that Robert Bly, with his Sousaphone voice, were here to inform us of the governing mythos....
While David, having gained notoriety, left his job in the book binding business to teach for a living, Harvey, who began as a teacher, went into journalism. He was an editor at The New York Times from 1957 until his retirement in 1995. At The Times He edited the Times Magazine and The Times Book Review, a post he held from 1975 to 1983. In the early 1960s, as an editor at The Times Magazine, Harvey made what was almost certainly his most inspired journalistic assignment. Reading about one of Dr. King’s frequent jailings, he contacted the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Harvey suggested to them that the next time Dr. King was in jail for any significant period he should compose a letter for publication, the setting alone would demand wide attention. This came about: Dr. King was jailed in Birmingham and wrote what has come to be known as his Letter From Birmingham Jail, one of the canonical texts of the civil rights movement. King had it delivered to Harvey at The Times, but, after much effort, Harvey failed to get his editors to run it. It was famously published elsewhere--a sign of those times (and, then, of The New York Times).
I'm not sure I can pinpoint how Harvey's work affected his poetry--or how David's affected his. But I'm mindful of Tomas Tranströmer's insight, "With his work, as through a glove, a man feels the universe," and know that the relationship between our outer and inner lives is delineated there.
Norman Finkelstein has arranged these poems in an order that I think reflects Harvey's wishes, since he knew that this book would be summative. Harvey's method in these poems is to dip into his subjects as if into a well, and to taste just what the ladle brings up. He reaches for his poetic forebears: In Williams he discovers that "The bread of life is what we die to taste./ I taste it in your poems." He sees Reznikoff being after a Chinese clarity. "He said/ two things Oppen, Louis, Rakosi and he/ had in common: they couldn't get published/ and they admired the Do's and Don'ts/ Ezra Pound was publishing in Poetry." Oppen, rejecting a crucifix waived over his head on a battlefield by a concerned Catholic chaplain, was a man "who called things by their right names" when he protested that the cross was an instrument of torture.
As with others of Harvey books there's a good amount of sex here. Finkelstein suggests that Harvey is one of our great erotic poets. I would say Harvey had a lot of fun in this realm and I'd rather characterize him as just plain (or even elegantly) horny. He gives us some lovely recollections of past lovers, and also a hilarious consideration of King Kong:
You never actually see it in the movie.
When he's ... batting at planes.... [But] when
he's got Fay Wray in the palm
of his hand, you know it's reaching
but below the screen.
(King Kong's Wong)
As he has all his life, he writes of Brooklyn and Manhattan. He includes other places: Key West, and Europe, beginning in Paris and ending at Franz Kafka's grave in Prague. But his starting and ending point is Brooklyn. In "Psalm" he is alone on a Brooklyn rooftop considering Rabbi Nachman's description of the world as a narrow bridge "and that the important thing/ is not to be afraid." He blesses his mother and father, and asks that
before you close your Book of Life ...
remember that I always praised your word
and your splendor and that my tongue
tried to say your name on Court Street in Brooklyn.
Always, as a young soldier assembling a machine gun blindfolded, or an older man assembling a poem in the same way, Shapiro works, as he describes Mozart working: turning and returning, "that some basic law, like gravity,/ is constantly defied."
My last memory of David and Harvey together is them standing on David's back porch, raising a glass of something as Armand Schwerner makes his end-of-summer toast. "And now,” Armand pronounces in ominous tones, “for four months of shit.” We all look up into the grey sky, and that would be it till we'd meet again in spring.
Sandy McIntosh’s collections of poetry include Cemetery Chess: Selected and New Poems; Ernesta, In the Style of the Flamenco; Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways To Escape Death; The After-Death History of My Mother; Between Earth and Sky (Marsh Hawk Press); 237 More Reasons To Have Sex, (with Denise Duhamel); Endless Staircase (Street Press); Earth Works (Long Island University); Which Way to the Egress? (Garfield Publishers); and Monsters of the Antipodes (Survivors Manual Books). He has written a careers book, Firing Back (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.) and a bestselling computer software program, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing! (Electronic Arts), as well as a collection of Chinese recipes, From a Chinese Kitchen (American Cooking Guild). His contribution to the screenplay for the short film Ireland: The People and the Caring, won the Silver Medal in the Film Festival of the Americas. He is Managing Editor of Confrontation, the national literary magazine published by Long Island University.