Easy Math by Lauren Shapiro

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I was maybe six poems into Lauren Shapiro’s debut Easy Math before scribbling in the margin old Dean Young. It’s apt enough, in its way (Dean Young blurbs the thing, for one), but that was a month ago, and I’ve since come to believe that, in fact, Easy Math is a strange book of something like fugues. It reads like a book of someone trying to reach out and create a sort of order or system by or through which to apprehend the world, but the desire is thwarted, again and again. Here’s what I mean—here’s “The First Law of Thermodynamics,” which is from the book’s fourth and final quadrant/section:

All across America, men are inventing
the steam engine while women sew
the faces of presidents into quilts.
If a whistle is left alone in the forest
it may restore a measure of silence
to the world. Television
reminds me of a math problem
I got wrong on the SAT. Come on, Kathy says,
can’t you just enjoy it for once? By now we know
who patented the steam engine,
but think of all the men who tinkered around,
helping to invent it. Kathy is like one
of their wives, knitting a scarf
out of peach wool. Kathy, I say,
feeling a burst of goodwill,
I’ll give you all my collectibles.
Thanks, she says. I’ll take the John Lennon
dinnerware set for eight. As I walk home
to get it, the world looks like
a Brueghel painting and all the trees
are sending off beautiful
little equations into the air.

Let’s note at the start that the first law of thermodynamics is that energy is constant, just so we’re all on the same page. So: what’s going down here? I think a compelling argument could be made that ultimately Shapiro’s speaker’s exploding the idea of individual tasks (“think of all the men who tinkered around, / helping to invent it”), which is why the title’s significant: if energy’s not lost, then all the work done, in a big enough context, leads to every development. Maybe that’s a bullshitty metaphysical stretch, but it seems, at least according to this poem, sort of reasonable. Aside from that aspect, the poem’s fairly thick with what’d have to be called philosophical stuff: the half-joke about something in a forest and who’d hear it comes in for revision, this time as something to “restore a measure of silence / to the world,” and television—that greatest pleasure-giver, that narcotic of light and laughtrack—”reminds me of a math problem / I got wrong on the SAT.” Whatever you decide that those lines mean, they’re trying in their way to bend and tweak things —just look at the fact that the linebreak turns television from a math problem into a math problem the speaker got wrong.

And, of course, there’s math: math in the bit about TV, and math at the poem’s end, and it’s those equations I want to focus on for a second. Because, of course: regardless of the poem’s title or ideas, that’s just a beautiful image, the notion of trees “sending off beautiful / little equations into the air.” It’s just gorgeous, which is the other thing to note: Lauren Shapiro makes gorgeous poetry, and there are lines in this book that’ll stun—you’ll dogear every sixth page or so. But take a second to humor the possibility that there’s more going on: if the poem’s about energy being constant, and if the poem addresses notions of somthing’s invention coming not just from the Eureka-shouting discoverer but from everyone who tinkered up to the discovery, and if the poem ends with this gorgeous image or idea of trees offering/transmitting equations—literally things for other people to solve, or try to solve, anyway—that surely all adds up to something, yes? Maybe that’s an optimistic read, but I finished that poem sort of stunned at the potential Shapiro was seemingly offering: that the world is, as she says in the book’s title, Easy Math.

Here’s another—here’s “ESL Students” from early on in the book’s first quadrant of poems.

They ask, Why is it in the car but on the bus?
I turn up my hands and give them a pained expression.
There is a moment of quiet anger. Then they pop
open their blouses and the buttons fall
like foreign coins to the floor.
They stand on the desks. They kick the air.
We’re sick of this bullshit, they say.
I am very still. I look them in the eyes.
We’ve show you our tits! they shout.
Yes, I say quietly, and begin to unbotton my cardigan.
The class is silent. For some time we stand there naked,
they on their desks and me in front of the blackboard.
Then Maoki says, There is a difference scene
in every room in the world.
Our clothes are but the lint of a passing era, says Hana.
I will light a candle and watch the prayer moths
circle the room like used napkins, says Oui.
I don’t speak. A shadow passes over the left
side of my chest. Then the bell rings.

I won’t go through and nerdily take apart this one, but just look for a second at what Shapiro’s pulling off: these students don’t understand, or are frustrated by, the weird inconsistencies in language—they’re frustrated that the coding system of meaning is fucked or flawed. Fair enough, obviously. And in response, they get naked. Play along however you like, but it’s hard not to feel like they’re begging for language to reveal (at its best, shouldn’t language be perfectly transparent—shouldn’t I be able to say I feel good and have that be 100% clear to anyone I talk to? Isn’t one of the big crap deals of language the ambiguity, the way it fails?), and when they realize this new language (ESL students) won’t, they reveal themselves, like a dare: here’s what we’ll do, not language, do your part. Maybe that’s a drastic misread. But then it gets even weirder and cooler, with three students offering these strange lines toward the end, and what’s the teacher do? Doesn’t speak. Take the poem however you want: the drama enacted in it has to have something to do not just with communication, but with the ease of communication, with what we expect systems (math or language) to provide for us if we offer our dilligence.

I want to make clear, too: it’s possible the book is in fact doing none of this stuff, and it’s just a very good debut collection of poetry with sharply memorable lines (“When I reach out for you, there’s a tiny genie / in my right ear saying, Go! and an enormous / elephant in my left saying, What the fuck / are you thinking, you little shit?” from “First Man Gets the Oyster, Second Man Gets the Shell”; “I’ve always wanted to be the softest piece / in the chess set. I’ve always known / there never was a soft piece in the chess set.” in “A to Z”). Easy Math is, as far as I can tell, a really beautiful scattering, an attempt to find sense and sustenance (emotional, aesthetic, whatever). Such of course could be said about lots of books, but the big value in Easy Math that I can find is how it doesn’t quite solve, doesn’t quite offer anything as simple as closure. The last line in her poem “Dominoes” applies well to the experience of reading this book and being forced to reconsider the world around you, the one you’re trying to fix, or escape with books, or whatever: “Why couldn’t you see any beauty in that?”

Weston Cutter is from Minnesota and is the author of All Black Everything and You'd Be a Stranger, Too. He's an assistant professor at the University of St Francis and runs the book review website Corduroy Books. More from this author →