Review by Kara L.C. Jones

song & dance
by Alan Shapiro
Published by Houghton Mifflin
Retail $22.00


A stunning collection.



Yes, it's a release from a major publisher. Yes, it won the Kingsley Tufts Award. No, I don't normally go for the mainstream poetic works. But Shapiro's "song & dance" is different.

While it baffles me how exactly Shapiro got Houghton Mifflin to publish a book of poems about grief, I'm thrilled they did it! This collection came after Shapiro lost both his brother and sister to cancer, and these works explore the process of watching death change the depths of familial relationships. He shows us how the reality of grief touches every generation, while at the same time uniquely showing the culture of this particular family.

He uses a free verse style where he isn't afraid to use the whole page, words stream apart, dancing, and singing, just as the title implies. The broadway background and love of music come through in the words, in the heartbreak, in the form of the very words printed on the page. It's a most interesting look at how form and content can paint a picture on the printed canvas.

More than that, he gives us haunting snap shots that stick with you long after you close the book. And I can tell you from real-life experience that those haunting images are part of every day life after the death of a loved one. Shapiro gives us some idea of what it is like to see your father curled in the midst of grief, having lost a daughter, now a son, coming to terms with the reality of outliving your children. Some excerpted lines from "The Old Man" just don't leave your heart ever after you read them:

Grief was the womb
his posture presupposed;
the absoluteness of it...

...his every feature
was being bathed
                          away until

his face was like a face
before the least
expression scathes it,
                          his eyes the eyes

before the eyelids form,
fish eyes that do not
need to close now
                           not to see.

And "Last Impression" is a piece where Shapiro shares what he witnessed in the last days of his brother's life, when he saw the effects of a life-long, family-love of music, song, dance, and film. The impressions and impersonations his brother uses, as coping mechanisms for dealing the cancer beast, all of this is vividly shared. Surgery and Groucho Marx. Jimmy Cagney and MRIs. This is an amazing and tender look at the relationship of brothers, the fight with death, the personality of grief and loss.

As a whole, this collection is a memoir, a memorial, a tribute -- yes, all that. But more than that, I think Shapiro is also sharing an intimate look at the long term effects of grief on the culture of a family. Even with "Three Questions" Shapiro is sharing a perspective that most people don't see or never really stop to consider in their everyday lives. Most of us lose someone at some point. Most of us then have well-meaning people approach us with questions like: "What was it like to see him die?" or "Was he ready to die?" or "Was he at peace?". But most of us don't realize before those questions leave our mouths, that the answers are impossible to express. Yes, Shapiro does it beautifully, with his haunting touch.

This whole collection has stayed with me, in much the way Shapiro writes the following excerpt from "Three Questions"

                        ...and moved me
to the refrigerator
where I made myself
stare too long
at the refrigerator light
so when I looked
the afterimage
      like a ghostly
pulse appeared
                        to hover
   a moment in the air...


That can only come from the heart and mind of a man who truly and sadly understands what it really means to live the rest of your life without your loved ones. Shapiro transforms the grief beast into everyday details to which anyone can relate. This beautiful collection might be the tool you are looking for when trying to bridge the grief gaps that often reveal themselves during the holiday seasons, too. I simply cannot recommend this collection highly enough. It's amazing that this kind of grief work has crossed into the main stream!


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