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The Family, The City, The Wilderness:
A Essay on I'll See You Thursday
by Myra Shapiro
Blue Sofa Press, Ed. Robert Bly, c 1996, 62pp., $10 by Madeline Tiger

Sample Poems of Myra Shapiro with Biographical Data

Reading Myra Shapiro's work, you will hear her music, you will see how she works her lines, arranges detail, finds the exact entrance and movement in each piece. Listening, you will hear what she does with the voice of the Bronx Jewish child merged South; the inflections inside the slow bending of the phrase; the expressions grafted inside the obbligato of Tennessee. You'll move with her phrases while being moved by images and cameos and the amazing turns at the endings, the surprises that come rising out of ordinary life; I mean rising out of the poems, small explosions of thought or feeling made clear. You'll be amused finding assonances and slant rhyme schemes embedded in hidden couplets of a simple verse: "...I knew/ I'd choose a Frozen Twist, iced marshmallow/ inside the dark, curled chocolate," in a poem about two frightening childhood memories.

Similarly, the woman-as-prisoner theme emerges with gentle self mockery:"The night before our wedding day I took/ a fit." Near- "drowning" (real and figurative) is expressed with gusto. The ghost of a dead older sibling haunts the poems, as does the pain of parental hatreds, the boredom of provincial marriage, and the stress of financial struggles; yet family is the stable base of experience, and enduring love is at the center of these poems. Political and personal imprisonments, "no breath/ to build a bridge," are described with vivacity, hope even. There is a breaking out without breaking all apart. How apt that such a motif appears in tight, smart forms; opening and closing, even the "free" verse is subtly controlled. And always the humor. the manner of seeing, of holding up the ironic as if nabbing some human verity by the elbow; of mocking with love. Myra is funny. Lightly nailing the ironies, she takes life, not carelessly, but gratefully, as she has found it and as she has forged it. The work is surprising and careful and thoughtful; beautiful.

In teaching, I often talk about "the story behind a poem." In Myra Shapiro's succinct lyrics the story is up front as well as "under" the poem. It attracts the reader and, however fleetingly it moves, it satisfies. The story sustains each poem with wit, gossip, and innuendo. But the poems are also "made things," balanced and graceful, each fulfilling its artistic promise, living distinctly on its own, as confidential "speech," and as imagist reflection. But the story--the "golden string" on which the poems are threaded--seeps through, takes its journey.

At the center of a poem that comes early in this collection are lines that epitomize the work and define the first leg of the poems' travels, tracing the childhood family's relocations from North to South, NYC to Georgia then Tennessee .(In a much later stage, the poet and her husband will move back to New York.) On the occasion of her baby sister's arrival, "Stucco in Paradise" recalls:

... people come to see, bringing chocolates in a tin

my mother fills for the rest of her life

with threads and needles. My sister like my mother

sings "God Bless America," and soon

my father moves us

to the bedspread center of the world

where it is calm but far away.

With this itinerant "Americanized" family, the young Jewish girl is taken from the Bronx to Georgia, and the story goes on, in sharp bits. She has a firm family life, she learns "how to talk" Southern, adjusts to the cadences, but carries her strangeness: "...they don't know what a Jewish star is." In the liquid flow of the poems, the acute Bronx idiom breaks through, at the right moments, as reminder--"every kid/ shrank from me..." as breath, ("But huh?!"), as bold reality. In a piece about her father pushing her into the bay, to swim, when she was seven, she remembers that she "refused to rise..." Not to surface for the show-off father, "I held myself/ down, damned/ if I'd perform..." The accent on "held" and the powerful spondee make natural puns out of forceful speech. The prosodic gift twines with memory, as if the early incidents had actually formed and forced such articulation. "I took the time," (double entendre on this cliche) "to swear and plan and look/ at bubbles coming/ from my mouth." Memory of that "moment of being" (Virginia Woolf's term for such an epiphany), merges with a power to weave images, to "breathe" life on another level. Out of the dire moment, breath and will. Out of such pride and memory, the power of speech, poetry.

Each poem moves, as if inevitably, to the fulfillment of its own occasion, charming the reader by turns. They keep me guessing, as a short story I read fast; but they stop me, to admire slowly how they are wrought. Not recondite elitism, these are "home-made" and cultivated poems of the best old-fashioned ingredients. Words are chosen exactingly: a young aunt, sharing the speaker's childhood room, undoes her corset, releasing her pent flesh, and the child "...saw the miracle...the drench of it..." (from "The Corset"). The verb "drench" becomes a noun here, achieves new power, unforgettably, in a small crescendo of lines that record "Tante Annie's" tragic life story, gleaned when she was "sent south to help her uncle/ tend his store..." And in two lines much more! The girl only dimly understands, from family hints, that something awful had happened to this banished teenager. Sympathy graces the poem, with honest humor, as the child watches the young aunt undressing.

Each piece twirls slowly to a surprise, yet the poems are brief and move swiftly: paradox of time and timing. Economy of language, long trails of experience.

The lines move liquidly, like talking, so you feel you're following the story-- of family troubles and triumphs; and of the cut off feelings in marriage. But the poems also honor the long sustained relationship, the paradox of marriage, not what we'd been taught to expect, but the bittersweet and disappointing mixed with the flare of romance, the image of a face coming home, the vivid memory of a guy's laughter. At the same time that the woman, moving on her own after years and struggles, enjoys being apart, she is deeply a part of something bonded.

This is obviously not a feminist tract. In some ways it's braver; it isn't bitter or vengeful. There are, indeed, resentments, but there is also a sense of romance with history, with family traditions, with having a "home"; and with the rediscovered metropolis, made intimate by detail. Honesty and wit save these poems from preachment.

We are all ordinary. We have amazing stories that we barely know. I catch my breath lightly with Myra's lines, fall in love with her voice, that lilt, and rediscover something about myself and the possibilities of saying my own "story."

Copyright © 2000 by Madeline Tiger. All rights reserved.

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