There Are No Cheap Seats in Lauren Shapiro’s Arena
In 2013, after Lauren Shapiro’s first full-length collection Easy Math won the Kathryn A. Morton Poetry Prize and was published by Sarabande Books, I reviewed it for a now-defunct publication. I titled my review “‘If you remain stationary long enough, someone / will bump into you, OR—The Poetry Party is at Lauren Shapiro’s House.”
Reading Shapiro’s debut felt like a festive occasion to me, a rare kind of literary reverie where every poem was a parlor game and the reader always won. Words I’ve used while recommending Easy Math include “pithy,” “rollicking,” “boisterous,” and “enchanting.” I’ve taught poems from that collection for years. What can I say? I’m smitten. Easy Math asks you to dance, twirls you around, then dips you twelve times before the song is done. When you finish that book, breathless and giddy, you’re ready to read again.
Arena, Lauren Shapiro’s second collection, is not so much an extension of Easy Math as an elegiac departure from it. I hasten to add—I’m not complaining. I’m in awe of Shapiro’s progressive range and gravitas as a poet, and frankly, I’m stunned by what she’s accomplished here. Her idiosyncratic style persists in Arena, but the stakes feel different, higher than before—perhaps because the speaker seems so personal. In Arena, the reader believes they are following the same speaker across all forty-six poems. Instead of a chorus of voices, a medley or mash-up, this is a long song, intimate and operatic, a single voice and singular consciousness reckoning with the spectacles of trauma, death, and grief. It’s the kind of song fit to be performed in, well, an arena.
But here’s the thing: this poetry collection deconstructs spectacles; it doesn’t create them. Instead of a large, glossy, colorful book—flashy as an OPEN 24 HOURS sign—the volume is compact, black-and-white, with an unassuming matte finish and a sizeable swath of gray on the cover.
Gray areas = gray arenas.
That’s intentional, of course. Shapiro is a poet particularly attuned to the way words nest and even hide inside each other. You’re seeing a gray area on the cover, and a metaphor comes to mind. Ambiguity. Ambiguity is a big theme in this book, arena-sized: “It must have been a muddy time, said someone” and “Later, the doctor told us it was impossible to tell what anything meant, though he didn’t use those words.” In the metaphorical sense, every are(n)a here is gray.
Metaphor is also a big theme in this book, as a poet deconstructs her genre’s most familiar currency: “Someone used the metaphor of the iceberg. You know, what’s showing and what’s / not. Someone else mentioned black holes. None of it made sense but I guess they / were nice gestures?” So many occasions of other people speaking in just these few snippets I’ve shared. It’s as if our speaker means to convey by implication: I don’t want my poems just to be nice gestures. And later, much later, in lines attributed to no one else but herself, our speaker tells us outright: “To resist / metaphor you must have an iron / will.”
You know what’s sometimes just as potent metaphor when you want to make a lasting impression? Patterns. Sonic patterns—sure. Anaphora and epistrophe—you betcha. But let’s not forget about visual-spatial patterns—the cues we respond to before we even realize we’re responding. Shapiro doesn’t. (And have I mentioned this collection also contains black-and-white photographs, nine of them, some depicting scenes of literal arenas and others the smaller spectacles of intimate spaces—where individual fans return after the collective show.)
Arena’s table of contents is two pages, like two stages placed side by side in, well, an arena. Parataxis. The verso page has twenty-three poems, and the recto page has twenty-three poems. (Yes, I counted. It’s easy math. Such pleasing symmetry, too.) What does twenty-three make you think of? Chromosomes? (Me, too.)
At the top of each page, one poem is set apart, like an opening act performing before the headliner appears: “Presentation” on the verso page, “Lake Space” on the recto. So it’s actually one poem, then twenty-two poems, another lone poem, then twenty-two more poems. Does this make you think one pair of sex chromosomes and twenty-two pairs of autosomes? Does this make you think of family and heredity and what gets passed down to us from our mother’s side and from our father’s? (Me, too.)
Nota bene: This book is about family and heredity and what gets passed down to us. This book is also about what we choose to accept/reject and how we choose to carry on. In other words, this book reckons with the hardest human math.
You’ll notice a black box separates each first poem from the twenty-two that follow. The box resembles half an equals sign. In context of the staging metaphor, it also resembles an amp. Let’s look at the way one of these opening poems amplifies the sequence that follows.
First is “Presentation.” This poem also forms a box on the page: justified lines, no enjambments. The first word of the book is “First.” (Meta!): “First I will say what I am going to say about loss and then I will say it. Later I will repeat what I said so you will remember the important points…” Why does this sound so familiar? Oh, right. Because this is the way we’re taught to organize a presentation in school, how we’re taught to write a five-paragraph essay. This poem serves as an abstract for the collection, but it is also written as a meta-abstract: “I will stick to the facts and will avoid any figurative language.” (Spoiler alert: She doesn’t. She couldn’t. She shouldn’t.)
And then, the startling conclusion: “Before their deaths, I will refer to the people as Mr. X and Ms. Y. After their deaths, I will refer to them as Body X and Body Y. This should clear up any confusion over the timeline of events of the physical or emotional presences of these people.” I’m suddenly reminded of the way we refer to “dead bodies.” Living people have bodies, too, but dead people cease being “people”? Remain only “bodies”? Nomenclature is never not problematic, is it? (Of course not.) Nobody ever says, “I’m going to have coffee with that body over there.” Why not? Because somehow we don’t see a person as a body until/unless they’re dead.
Shapiro’s speaker posits so many questions in the poems that follow—then interrogates those questions fiercely. But in the end, it’s all about reverb, isn’t it? I finished this book days ago, and I’m still vibrating from it. In other words, I left the concert, but the concert is still playing out in me.
- The first poem after “Presentation” is “Cenotaph.” What’s more ambiguous than that? An empty tomb or monument erected to acknowledge a loss, (as in death), even as the remains (as in body) remain elsewhere: “that was the winter my father tried to kill himself.”
- The next poem is called “The Bodies,” and the still-living father is referred to as a body, the way we never do: “I was six when the body forever / jumped from a bridge thirty when / the body tried again and again / to fly from the top of the parking / garage.”
- The third poem is called “Wound,” and it is comprised entirely of questions. Perhaps the father becomes a body only to become a wound, which might be, on closer consideration, a metonym for body. Switch to second person: “And it’s always your one and only wound, the one you keep coming back to?” How the story of the father’s attempted suicides spreads out across these poems—a ripple of sound, an echo.
- The first “Arena” poem: the poem-shape changes here, which is to say “the body of the poem” changes. It becomes porous, full of caesuras, like empty seats (cenotaphs) in an arena. The words spread out on the page, too, which means the sounds spread out. This arena is a coliseum, reminder of our timeless romance with violence: “When the crowd quiets it’s to / see the decapitation” [photograph]
- “Statue”: Switch to third person: a litany of shes. We read these shes as many versions of the speaker across time: “She was a cathedral,” and then “She was from the Roman Empire / before there were cathedrals.” How her (our) losses, her (our) wounds, connect us to everyone, everywhere.
- “Wedge”: Remember those family matters I mentioned before?: “when I offered lasagna Mom said I hate lasagna / when I offered a glass of wine you had to drive / I had to hold it together”—these small, personal spectacles juxtaposed against the large, collective ones.
- “Transition”: The central narrative resumes like a film that has been paused, then unpaused: “When my father went missing / a second time my brother / drove to the top of the vacant//parking garage […] The brother finds the father, but the father “didn’t want saving, // he began to unzip his coat.” The sister-speaker wasn’t there, so she imagines “where my father / clung, my brother grabbing // him in a bear hug.” Aside: I don’t think I breathed once while reading this poem.
- “Next to the Arena” (the next “Arena” poem): The caesuras return, reinforcing the spatial pattern Shapiro has already introduced. Next to the arena is a beach. A day at the beach is a metaphor, too. It means easy-breezy, a carefree time. Still, we’re always spectacle-adjacent, tragedy-adjacent, aren’t we? What isn’t happening to you is still happening to someone else nearby. If “the arena is open […] you might / smell something resembling charred meat.” In this poem, I suddenly recognize the caesuras as wounds. [photograph]
- “White Is the New White”: We recognize the sound and syntax of this phrase, akin to the borrowed language used in “Presentation.” The old thing (loss) is still the new thing (loss). Didn’t Robert Hass write a poem about this? (He did: “Meditation at Lagunitas.”): “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking.” Which is also to say: Loss = loss, white = white. (The reflexive property in math.)
- “Feast”: Watch how deftly Shapiro pulls this thread through. Loss, which is to say absence: “When I used to imagine your death / it was so cliché / I would picture your absence.” Yet if you’ve ever tried to picture an absence, to see what isn’t there, you know it’s the most difficult kind of calculation a mind can make: “you have to think hard / to see anything at all.”
- “This and That”: The way distinctions collapse between so-called opposites: black and white are always about to become gray (ambiguity, remember?); “this father about to become / that father about to become / just this other one.”
- “Cleanse”: This poem mirrors the structure and syntax of a PSA, another borrowed form: “There’s something in the water in the hand cream the over-the-counter vitamins the FDA has not required labeling […]” The title might be a noun or verb, a declarative or imperative—a variation on “absence,” “loss.” The final words of this litany: “if you are sure your hands are clean.” It’s a trick proposition, though, since no one’s hands are actually clean, free of dirt or blame.
- “10,000 Dads”: A superlative, be-careful-what-you-wish-for proposition: “You’re so lucky! say all our friends.” Upside: Now there isn’t just one dad to lose. “You’re so complicated! say all our therapists.” Downside: Now there isn’t just one dad to lose. A speculative wonder of a poem.
- “Projection”: “The rain turns to snow then back to rain.” Ambiguity again. (Or ambivalence?) The words are so close, like kinfolk. Another way of saying: “this father becomes that father becomes just this other one.” Of course the weather is a metaphor for the father. The words even sound alike: weather, father (consonance). Of course we project father onto weather and find him there.
- Another “Arena” poem: More caesuras, which is to say more wounds: “there is a lot of anger in the arena / the police stand idly by this seems like a violent / rerun.” Of course arenas are as multivalent as everything else, including fathers. Of course, one valence of the modern-day arena is television. Everything on television is a rerun, or will be—even human suffering, Shapiro reminds us. [photograph]
- “That Year”: This poem is full of strange dreams, evoking the book’s epigraph from Byron, also artfully gray: I had a dream, which was not all a dream. Remember those family matters I mentioned before?: “Do you have a family? a large silver bird asked me / from his cage of music and rust. I don’t know, / I said. I’m confused.”
- “I Am Your Mother”: “But you took yourself away from me” (family matters): “I was never not looking for you/ even before you left / I was looking for you” (always gray).
- “Since Everything Moves at the Atomic Level”: And yet, everything also moves toward the arena level (huge crowds, indistinguishable individuals): This poem is a marvel of juxtapositions, private v. public, micro v. macro: “since a loaded gun says something about the loader,” it begins (loader = individual); “since human error is unquantifiable” (unquantifiable = vast); final couplet: “at that time the police became involved/ at that time it ceased to be a family affair” ( = moved from the privacy of the home to the spectacle of the arena).
- “That One”: A whole character study is conducted in metaphor here. We don’t know if the speaker is describing her father or not. (Gray area.) But stylistically, the poem is not ambiguous at all. The speaker resolutely avoids facts and sticks to figurative language: “His eyes are two planes flying through thunder. / His breath a thousand miniature ponies stomping in the morning mist […] Abundant are the fruits of his disregard […]”
- “Don’t Go There”: The speaker goes there, confronting the father as if he is there: “You never walked into traffic, but you thought about it. / And jumping from the parking garage, etcetera. (These painful recursions, the way the mind plays loss on a loop, a violent rerun.) “You never stayed in one place. / An ocean couldn’t hold you. You disappeared every morning before you woke up.”
- “Would You Like to Learn More About Yourself or Others?”: It’s another borrowed form, that kind of too-good-to-be-true rhetorical design we find in surveys and advertisements that ultimately want to sell us something. The poem is deft in the way it suggests, by implication, that hoarding is a compulsive response to loss. This speaker keeps losing her father to the threat of death, but more, to his pervasive desire to be gone from the world/her life. Now: “your hoarding I mean has it become a problem in your marriage […] do you find it meaningful the old shampoo and toothpaste cartons […] there is a story behind the bag of plastic bags.” Yes: that is the story we have been reading all along. That is the mythic nature of this, and every, loss. [photograph] [photograph]
- “When”: This poem reports on the situational, a litany of whens. What happens after you’ve lived through something, are still living through something, will always be living through something? This is where we end up at the fulcrum of the book, which is also an intermission in the arena. Here the speaker’s voice seems to crack. She lets go of metaphor, falls back on the simplest truth she can name: “When I thought of my family / It made me sad”—then a literal echo: “It made me sad.”
Here, reader, concert-goer, take my ticket. Head back inside. (That’s the last word of the collection, by the way—“inside.” Inside the arena, the body, the absence.) The band’s just warming up to play “Lake Space” now, and these acoustics are unreal. I hope this program I’ve passed you will come in handy. But really, all you need to do is sit back and listen. Resonance is a given. You can’t help but hear. In Lauren Shapiro’s Arena, every seat is the best seat in the house.